Friday, May 08, 2009

Gay Clergy

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.


Anonymous said...

I think this is a really well thought out piece

Very enlightening..thank you!

BarbaraS said...

Well said and well supported by quotes too. It is the human cost that should be taken into consideration. Never an easy time for someone put in this position.

Sorlil said...

it's a difficult one. I agree that the usual cited nt verses are more ambiguous than some would like us to believe but the bible as a whole seems to me to be geared towards hetrosexuality - adam and eve, guidance on hetrosexual marriage, how leaders of the church and their wives ought to behave etc. I don't think the cultural argument is sufficient here either but neither would be an argument from omission which is what I'm suggesting.

Roddy said...

I'm interested to know, Rob - are the church 'beyond' normal employment law on this issue?

Rob said...

Marion, my post is obviously incomplete and to tackle all those theological questions one by one would take more space, time and energy than I currently have! Heterosexuality is far more common than homosexuality and could be seen as a ‘norm’ but because a group is a minority doesn’t mean that their practices are thereby evil.

Roddy, I don’t think the church is exempt from the normal laws on discrimination, but their stated policy is to give at least ‘equivalence of protection’ in any case. By church law, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of certain protected grounds:

‘protected grounds shall be one or more of the following: age, gender, marital status, colour, racial group, ethnic origin, national origin, nationality, sexual orientation or disability.’

Now, the key legal argument on this will be whether ‘sexual orientation’ can be seen as distinct from ‘sexual practice’. The fundamentalists will obviously argue that it can. But the opposing legal argument will be that such a distinction hardly gives at least ‘equivalence of protection’.

Sorlil said...

rob, I don't disagree with you in the least, I find it sad that many make such a big issue out of it.

Caron said...

It's good to see such a thoughtful post from one of Scott's fellow ministers. Thanks.

I hope that the Assembly is as wise when it debates the matter in 2 weeks' time.

Background Artist said...

Elderly gay-bashers bashers who wear frocks, claim a professional interest in what they call God and speak and treat our lovely, wonderful and supportive gay community in the way they do, deserve little except satirising.

In Scottish Galeic culture that dissapeared a few hundred years back, a satirist was greatly feared because they were professionally trained to lampoon in the most devastating way imaginable, and which today would find its equivalent cultural gravity, not in the Poet, but the News of the Screws and Private Eye before it went rubbish.

If i had it in my power to do so, i would like to arraign these elderley chaps and thrash it out with them. nd the firts thing i would do, is ask them what God is, a bloke or a woman, and if they tries to give out God = Man and not Wo/man, not s/he, a Creator of equals, i would shake my head and start the slide show. the PowerPoint prejection of the talk i had prepared which proves that they are wrong and then, feeling sheepish, shabby and knowing they had erred against our gay vicar, issue an apology in which my name was spoken of as the agent whoi made them see they were prjeudced and wrong, basically making out that there was a poet on the block as powerful as Polly Toynbee and the Page Three stunna combined with Littlejohn and a whole building of commentators blathering and pretending to care and to know everything in the world ever, that they are really, really clever and warm and nice and lovely, lovely civilised people only after world peace - by harnessing and engineering into our work, the sincerity of spirit we all have as sentient luvvies Boberto mon amis.

Wylie said...

I presume you will have come across this book as you developed your view on the issue

Gagnon is a Professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a mainline, PCUSA seminary in the US. If you haven't engaged with it then you really haven't done your homework.

The question is if you were presuaded that Scripture taught that sex outside of marriage(which is between a man and woman) was sinful would that change your mind?

Rob said...

Ah yes, if I haven't engaged with a particular book published in the USA, written by a highly conservative scholar, there's no way I can have anything worth saying, is there?

Of course, we could all play that game - 'if you haven't read such-and-such a book that agrees with my viewpoint, then you haven't done your homework' - I could play the same game if I thought it was worthwhile...

And, of course, if I were persuaded of something contrary to my beliefs up until that point, then I would change my mind. That's what's called a tautology.

Wylie said...

A "highly conservative author" at a PCUSA seminary? Methinks not. Did you notice the blurbs? Hardly a list of hardline evangelicals!

If you want to be narrow-minded and dismiss the book as "highly conservative" or from the "US" and therefore not worth considering then fine. But I'd have thought if you wanted to change a position that the CofS has held for centuries you would want to understand the teaching you are so keen to change as well as you could.

"And, of course, if I were persuaded of something contrary to my beliefs up until that point, then I would change my mind. That's what's called a tautology."

Perhaps what might happen is that you could be persuaded that *Scripture* considered sex outside of a male/female marriage sinful but it wouldn't really change *your own* position on what is sinful at all.

Rob said...

I'm not dismissing the book, only your implication that not having read this particular book was remotely significant.

Your comment on the Bible and my personal belief is nonsense, although I tend to be amused by people who believe the Bible and their opinions to be one and the same thing.

Wylie said...

Well, you have a couple of weeks before the General Assembly. That should be enough time to read the book. Come to it with an open mind and who knows, perhaps your almost dogmatic certainty that Scripture is so ambiguous on the matter might be undermined!

Rob said...

You'll be glad to know, Wylie, that I won't be at the assembly this year. It's not my turn.

You suggest I come to the book with an 'open mind.' How open is your mind on the matter?

As a serious point - I wonder how many people read a book like that on such an emotive subject (or a book advocating the opposing view) and actually change their minds. I suspect almost none. It may, of course, lead a person to think more deeply on the subject, which would be no bad thing.

Pat said...

I applaud you for this, Rob. Thank you from those of us not so conservative in the US.

David Floyd said...

"I'm interested to know, Rob - are the church 'beyond' normal employment law on this issue?"

Under the Employment Equality Law 2003, churches have an exemption in terms of appointments to 'clerical posts'.

At least, that's the situation in England and Wales, I assume it's the same in Scotland.