There’s a fair bit of concern over the latest controversy to hit the Church of Scotland – the issue whether Scott Rennie, an openly gay minister, should be allowed to take up his new post at Queens Cross Parish Church in Aberdeen. Will it split the church? The Scottish Kirk, while it has made mistakes in the past (who hasn’t?), has generally been fairly liberal and inclusive. The identity of that church is up for grabs. Those who want the church to operate on a narrow theological basis and exclude those who commit specific sins they particularly disapprove of are making their push. On Saturday 23rd May, the Church’s General Assembly (top decision-making body) will debate the matter.
But more than that, this controversy is about a person. Scott Rennie was minister of Brechin Cathedral for nine years. For several of these years, he has been in an openly gay relationship, and no one thought to protest. By all accounts, he was good at his job and well liked by everyone. He applied for the post at Queen’s Cross and was accepted in a vote by a healthy 86% of the congregation there. The Presbytery of Aberdeen sustained the appointment by 60 votes to 24. The petition to the General Assembly seeks to overturn these decisions. If carried, it will, in effect, exclude gay clergy from applying for church-minister posts. They will either have to conceal their relationships and live a lie, remain celibate for their entire lives, or give up their vocation.
The stress Scott already has gone through must have been considerable. If the petition to the General Assembly is passed, it will leave him not only without a job but with the sense that he, as an individual, has been rejected by the very organisation he has given so much of his life to. The human cost of all this appears irrelevant to those opposing him. Truth, they say, is more important than any sense of compassion for a human being. They mean their sense of truth, of course, their prejudices and fears, their opinions. They claim the Bible is ‘clear on these matters’ but it is clear only to them. The Bible suggests that menstruating women should be placed outside the camp for a number of days. It also says that people should not eat meat with blood in it. I presume that people who profess to take the Bible literally take those commands to heart as well!
The passages that are often cited from the New Testament concerning sexual practice are deeply ambiguous. Their exact meaning is unclear and the context even less clear. In some cases, it’s unlikely that they refer to homosexuality at all. In other cases, they certainly don’t refer to committed, loving relationships. Rather than living with ambiguity, fundamentalists always want to nail things down, which always means (somewhat ironically) nailing down anyone who gets in their way.
It’s intriguing, to say the least, that Jesus himself had nothing to say on the matter. Clearly, he didn’t consider the issue important enough to pronounce on, which simply begs the question why the matter has become of such central importance for the conservative wing of the church. Why this ’sin’ as opposed to all the others? The fundamentalist wing of the church seems strangely obsessed with it. Why? And why get so hot and bothered over what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms and, simultaneously, remain virtually silent on the fact that two-thirds of the world’s population live in poverty, that millions of children die every year of easily cured diseases like diarrhoea? Aren’t these sins more worth getting obsessed about?
The truth is that, while fundamentalists claim their liberal colleagues are ‘selective’ over which verses of the Bible they choose to take account of, the fundamentalists are every bit as selective, if not more so. The difference is that they are blind to their own prejudices. They don’t even realise it. That’s what makes them impossible to argue with. I only hope the General Assembly sees sense on 23rd May and allows Scott Rennie to take up his post and – in doing that – stands up for an inclusive church and an inclusive Scotland. I have a degree of confidence that they will indeed do that and I hope my confidence is not misplaced.
There is a Facebook Cause Group which you can join in support of Scott Rennie.
And this is an interesting and personal reflection by Stephen Glenn on the subject of church and sexuality.