Wisdom from the Scots: The CofE and Same-sex Unions

by Andrew Goddard and Giles Goddard

This article appeared in Church Times, 20th May 2011.

part of the ongoing conversation in the Goddard 2 Goddard series

Photo of Giles GoddardThe Anglican Communion is not, of course, the only denomination in which this subject is bitterly divisive. Next week, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland will debate the subject. There are lessons to be learned from the way they have proceeded.

After a divisive debate two years ago about the induction of a minister in a same-sex relationship, the General Assembly, “for the sake of the peace and unity of the Church”, appointed a special commission, representing a breadth of opinion, to consult and prepare a study.

Its report, to be debated next Monday, is illuminating reading. Nine people have met roughly each month since June 2009. Although they report “many discussions in which we have not reached unanimity of view”, they note that this “has not prevented us from working together closely and with mutual confidence”.

The church-wide consultation which they undertook, probably unprecedented, reveals the scale of the disagreements in the Church. About three-quarters of the nearly 25,000 people involved in the consultation have a clear position on same-sex relationships. Asked whether a person in a civil partnership should be permitted to be an ordained minister, 46.2 per cent of elders said yes; 47 per cent said no.

The perception of this issue’s importance is also illuminating. Ten per cent of elders would regard a decision to ordain people in a committed same-sex relationship as “heretical”, and 28 per cent as unjustified by scripture. On the other hand, refusing to ordain was seen as heretical by four per cent, and unjustified by scripture by 24 per cent. Twenty per cent viewed the decision either way as “not particularly significant”.

Asked whether certain situations would make them “consider it obligatory to leave the Church of Scotland”, 19 per cent of elders said that this would be the case “if the General Assembly were to allow people in committed same-sex relationships to be ordained as ministers”; eight per cent would consider leaving if the General Assembly forbade such ordinations.

Nor is sitting on the fence comfortable: 12 per cent of elders said that they would leave if “the General Assembly were to decide not to make a clear statement on this issue”.

We suspect that similar findings would result if the Church of England were brave enough to undertake such a consultation. That is, of course, one reason why it has shied away from an orderly, constructive, nationally-led conversation. The question now is whether such an avoidance strategy remains wise, or the best way to discern the mind of Christ.

In addition to its survey, the Church of Scotland commission consulted widely with other Churches. It also explored the science, something often ignored (although it was thoroughly explored in the guide, sadly under-used, edited by Phil Groves in 2008: The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality).

The commission concludes that the Church should not determine the ordination issue “unless and until it has reached a view on the status of such relationships and the appropriateness or otherwise of allowing a minister to recognise and celebrate a life-long committed same-sex relationship in a form of a blessing or other liturgy”. This is because the dispute “is essentially a theological dispute about whether same-sex activity in a committed relationship is contrary to the will of God”.

Despite its differences, the commission reports that, “through discussion and patience, there was a great deal on which we agreed”. It is unanimous that “it is contrary to God’s will that Christians should be hostile in any way to a person because he or she is homosexual by orientation and in his or her practice” and that traditional teaching should not be classed as homophobic.

The commission calls for preserving the current moratorium on ordaining those in same-sex relationships but wishes to establish a theological commission to enable “a sustained theological addressing of the matters before the Church”. It also asks the General Assembly to signal the trajectory it wishes the Church to take. Should it consider an indefinite moratorium or consider lifting it and ask for a theological report to include advice on a form of service for blessing same-sex relationships?

As two people who hold opposing views on this issue, and want the Church of England to follow different trajectories, we believe we can learn from our Scottish Presbyterian brothers and sisters. We need to move beyond the current stand-off and instead engage in serious and substantive conversations, not just talks about talks.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury said, part of the problem is that the subject “has become a cardinal example of how we avoid theological debate”. We urgently need an “opportunity of clarifying” how different perspectives “see the focal theological issues”.

Some formal structure therefore needs to be established to enable “robust but respectful debate” in the context of deepening relationships. This needs to resource and listen to the wider church. As in Scotland, this is unlikely to resolve disagreements but it may enable greater respect between opponents and help us move beyond the current options of either staying silent (as have most bishops) or joining a political campaign on one side or the other.

We believe that the Church of Scotland report helps to identify key areas that we need to explore. It also highlights the urgency of addressing these and our divisions over them. We need to find new and better ways of doing this if, as we hope and pray, we are to find a faithful way forward together.

The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is a member of the leadership team of Fulcrum; the Revd Canon Giles Goddard chairs Inclusive Church. They are not related.

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