The Kirk should not opt for a 'unity' that enshrines injustice

By Alexander O'Hare
19 May 2014

At this year's General Assembly the Church of Scotland (17-22 May) is - yet again - debating the question of LGBT clergy.

This is part of an ongoing process, that (most recently) in Church legal terms began a few years ago when an Aberdeen congregation called an openly-gay man to serve as their minister: the resulting protests from conservative elements in the wider Church have resulted in a long-winded review that seeks to bring unity between on the one hand, the liberal and open-minded congregations and individuals who have no issue with lgbt clergy or individuals, and on the other, those who resist such inclusive understandings of the gospel.

All of this is happening in the light of a tiny number of clergy and congregations leaving the Church of Scotland in protest over the intention of the Church to welcome (even in a limited form) LGBT clergy to its ranks. A small number of these people have moved to the Free Church of Scotland, others have gone off to be little self-sustaining communities of their own. Others say they will leave in the near future if the Church seeks to include LGBT clergy.

There is much wringing of hands and furrowing of brows among many of the open members of the Church, who by nature will tend to be inclusive and open to divergent viewpoints. There is no desire to further deepen perceived rifts, and there is an understandable reluctance for the Church to be seen to divide.

Yet I believe this to be a mistake. The issue here is not church unity, but justice. My Bible is clear that Jesus did not proclaim a gospel of exclusion: it records, for example, that Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12), rather than, "I am the light of the world. Only non-LGBT people who follow me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

Equally, Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, when discussing the different roles he sees for the Church of his time fails to make any mention of sexuality, outlining instead the tasks that individuals might perform.

Of course, as the Church of Scotland's Theological Forum argues in this year's report (2.2.3-10), interpretations of the Bible have constantly evolved and changed, and therefore texts that previously might have been used to permit slavery, marginalise women, and discriminate against LGBT people need to be revisited.

I believe it is time for open and inclusive Christians to take stock of what is happening in their Church and in their name. While the Church's Theological Forum discusses Calvin's ideal that only fundamental differences over doctrine should cause division, and that "The unity of the Church often needs to withstand deep disagreement" (2.7.4), we, those who aim for an inclusive Church, need to be clear about the consequences of elevating unity above justice.

If we allow those who would close off routes of serving the Church to our lgbt sisters and brothers for no reason other than their self-defined sexuality, then we are failing as a Church. While Jesus prays for unity amongst his followers in John 17, his prayer is not about unity for its own sake, but for the sake of service: "I have sent them into the world" (John 17:18). The Church is not about unity as an end in itself, but about unity in order to serve.

If the present attempts at unity hinder service – and that, for sure, is happening in preventing all of God's people to serve if they are called to do so – then that unity is flawed and counter to the purpose of the Church. After all, who is breaking the unity of the Church? Those who seek to include everyone who perceives themselves called to serve the Church, or those who would exclude some on the basis of an arbitrarily chosen category of sexuality?

Therefore, when faced with threats to leave (for be clear, much of this is about threats), those of us who see ourselves on the open and inclusive wing of the Church should respond with "Go! Go with our blessing! Our understanding of the purpose of the Church is different, and if you believe you can serve the whole people of God by excluding some of those people, then we cannot be united."

This is hard for many of us to do, precisely because we want to be inclusive – but we need to ask ourselves what the purpose of that inclusivity is about. Is it about keeping everyone in the one Church, or is about living the Kingdom? If the latter, and some within the Church are unwilling or unable to do so with us, then we need to bid farewell. There is no point in unity at all costs, and certainly not at the cost of seeking to live justly.

Being the Church is about being first, and we need to be a people committed to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Excluding those members of the Church who would serve but happen to identify as LGBT is not being the Church, and those who think it is, should be welcome to leave, with our blessing for their own way.

* More from Ekklesia on the Church of Scotland General Assembly 2014, and previous years: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/kirkgeneralassembly

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© Alexander O'Hare. The author of this piece is married to a Church of Scotland minister, and is using a pseudonym so that this minister's position is not impacted upon, whether in the parish context or beyond.

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