Simon Barrow

The Kirk: ecclesiastical coalition politics?

By Simon Barrow
May 25, 2013

Each year the annual Church of Scotland General Assembly ends with an act of religious and civic celebration.

This time there was an almost audible sigh of relief underneath the pageantry. The issue of allowing civil partnered ministers had not produced the ugly confrontations some feared.

On the contrary, the debate was polite.

A compromise was agreed that apparently enables the Kirk to maintain a status quo precluding further ordinations of gay and lesbian clergy, while permitting local congregations to do exactly the opposite – if a suitably crafted church law can be agreed next year.

That’s a big ‘if’. As a statement of theological principle, this settlement risks looking a mess. In worldly terms it is classic coalition government. But it raises the key question as to whether the coalition can hold.

There was a genuine spirit of accommodation (if not quite reconciliation) at this Assembly. On the other hand, political sabres could also be heard rattling beneath otherwise pious speeches, inevitably.

This shows that deeper agreement is far from achieved. Likewise, the real issue is not what happened this week, but what will transpire next week, next year and beyond.

All broad organisations are inevitably alliances. In the Kirk, instinctive conservatives and liberals make strange companions. So success requires getting dissenters to fall in behind a purposeful programme.

But what is the Church of Scotland’s mission today? Its Christian message has less and less automatic cultural traction, challenging the Kirk to improve its everyday communication.

On social engagement, this Assembly heralded action on welfare, environment, human rights, AIDS and many other concerns. It also launched a series of civic discussions about Scotland’s post-referendum future, which should offer a far more positive prospectus than Yes/No mudslinging.

The problem is that the Kirk’s best work attracts much less passion than rows about sex. It also lacks public profile, being most evident in the very local congregations where the struggle for numbers and resources is greatest.

In a tellingly short constitutional debate, the Kirk confidently asserted that it sees itself as central to the nation’s life. From the street, the pragmatic response is likely to be, “if you have something to offer, don’t tell us – show us.”


Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from one that appears in The Scotsman newspaper, 25 May 2013, entitled 'In ecclesiastical colaition, agreement must be demonstrated by action rather than words'. It is is reproduced with acknowledgment:

* Ekklesia reports and commentary from the 2013 Kirk General Assembly, plus those from 2012 and 2011:

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