Kirk Fudge on Gay Ordination

The Theological Commission appointed by the Church of Scotland in 2011to examine issues relating to the ordination of those living in openly homosexual relationships has now prepared its report, and one thing is sure: very few of those attending the forthcoming General Assembly are going to have the stamina to read it.  Ninety-four pages long, in double column, it takes almost as long to get to get to the point as it took the children of Israel to get to the Promised Land; and if it can’t quite be said that the commissioners spent all their time in the wilderness it can certainly be said that they spent most of it in unnecessary preliminaries and in irrelevant discussions of such matters as the Kirk’s place in the ‘holy, catholic church’.

Yet for all its length, the Report is indecisive.  While it rejects the idea of a polarized debate between those in favour of the ordination of people living in Civil Partnerships and those against, what it offers is precisely a choice between two polarised Deliverances: the Revisionist and the Traditionalist, leaving it to the Assembly to decide.

The first, the Revisionist, cunningly avoids endorsing same-sex relationships, contenting itself with saying that this is an open question which does not enter into the substance of the faith and can therefore safely be left to the individual conscience.  The practical effect, however, is the same as if it had trumpeted the legitimacy of gay ordination from the roof-tops: homosexuals living in Civil Partnership may be ordained.  The Commission has even prepared a draft Order for the Service.

The second, Traditionalist, Deliverance is almost equally eye-catching.  Its main clause condemns not homosexuality, but homophobia; and it secures for the anti-Revisionist position only the very minimalist protection that it is not homophobic to say that homosexual acts are contrary to God’s will.  We should be grateful, I suppose, for permission to speak.

The next thing that grabs the attention is the composition of the Commission itself.  It consists of three Revisionists and three Traditionalists, with a Chair to keep order.  No wonder the Commission couldn’t agree on a Deliverance!  But how fair is this ‘balance’?  Is it really true that fully half of the ministers of the Church of Scotland are Revisionists?  Quite possibly.  But is it also true that half of those who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday, come rain, come shine, are also Revisionists keen to welcome openly gay clergy?  Or is the Kirk’s tail of minimally committed, non-contributing members, wagging the dog?  If so, there is a real danger that the tail will stay, but the dog will go.

But what the Report highlights above all is that this is first and foremost a debate about the place of the Bible in the Church.  Is it, or is it not, the Kirk’s Rule of Faith, the final, unchallengeable authority as to what we are to believe and how we are to live?

The Commission’s initial reply is that the Bible is the ‘supreme’ standard.  At first glance, this looks eminently satisfactory.  Even so-called ‘fundamentalist’ bodies like the Free Church sometimes speak of ‘subordinate’ standards.

Not, however, when they’re wide awake!  Such language is a betrayal of the Protestant principle of ‘sola scriptura’: the Bible is not the supreme rule, but the only rule.

The Commission is ill at ease with this, however, and wants to speak additionally of tradition, reason, the myriad voices of the contemporary church, and the inner voice of the Holy Spirit.  And then, over and above all these, we have the unspoken canon:  the voice of contemporary culture, always ensuring that the church moves with the times.

This is all very convenient if you want to create a fudge, but ever since God gave Moses the Ten Commandments the church has had a fixed, written Canon, which it revered as the word of God and which it felt bound to honour and obey.

This has been particularly true of the Reformed church, of which, according to the Commission, the Church of Scotland sees itself as a part.  Augustine once famously remarked, “Rome has spoken, the case is closed.”  Protestantism has said, “Scripture has spoken, the case is closed.”

Not quite, says the Commission: Society is leading us in another direction, the church is hearing a thousand other voices, and the Holy Spirit is leading openly gay people to apply for ordination.

This is an invitation to rejoice that the Spirit is keeping up with the times, and of course there is nothing new in the world outside the church rejecting and even rubbishing the Bible.  But this is not the world, but a Theological Commission representing the Christian faith of the Scottish people and now drowning out the voice of scripture with the clamour of private revelations, ecclesiastical mumbo-jumbo and secular individualism.

The Commission does not leave it there, however.  Not only is scripture merely a supreme standard: it is extremely difficult to understand, and certainly far too difficult to allow anyone to claim, categorically, that the Bible condemns homosexual practices.  Each of us sees the Bible through our own personal lenses.

This is at best only a half-truth.  We also read the Bible through the lenses of the very best biblical scholarship and (even more important) through the lenses of the interpretative tradition of the ‘holy, catholic church’ to which, in its 2000-year long history, it has never previously occurred that by merely changing the lenses you could get the Bible to commend homosexuality.

But supposing we do read the Bible though our own personal lenses, how far do we wish to carry this?  Am I not to believe my own eyes?  I read in last week’s papers that Charles Green has resigned as Chief Executive of Rangers; and I read in this morning’s papers that Liverpool’s Luis Suarez bit an opposing player in a match last week-end.  Am I to dismiss these reports as non-authoritative because I read them through my own lenses?  Or is it only to the Bible that the limitation applies.

I read in Paul’s Letter to the Romans that lesbianism is “contrary to nature”.  I may read this with disbelief, with fury or with a stung conscience.  I may dismiss the Apostle as a homophobic bigot or as a man struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality.  What I cannot do is convince myself that what Paul meant was that lesbianism is OK.

The biggest crime perpetrated by Protestant theologians in the last fifty years has been to convey the impression that the Bible is a fiendishly difficult book to understand.  This is in marked contrast to the position of Martin Luther, who spoke of the Holy Spirit as the simplest of all writers.  It is one thing to reject what the Bible says; quite something else to pretend we don’t understand it.

Assuming the Revisionist view prevails, Traditionalists will be granted some little protection: they will not be required to attend the ordination of someone living in a Civil Partnership.  But even this is subject to an ominous qualification: “in the foreseeable future”.  This clearly envisages a day when there will be no such liberty, and behind it there lies another well-established argument: we will get used to the ordination of gays just as we got used to the ordination of women.

But this is disingenuous.  There are still many in the Kirk who have never accepted the ordination of women.  More important, there is a world of difference between the Bible’s attitude to women and its attitude to homosexuality.  There were no homosexuals in Jesus’ inner circle, nor was it homosexuals that he chose as the first heralds of his resurrection.  Besides, the Apostle Paul declares that in Christ there is neither male nor female; he nowhere declares that there is neither straight nor gay.  The ordination of women can claim good biblical justification; the ordination of homosexuals cannot.

All of us accept that simply being homosexual should be no bar to leadership in the church, and we acknowledge the strength and self-denial of those who have chosen life-long celibacy as part of the price they pay for such leadership.  We accept, too, that the church must minister to all her members, regardless of sexual orientation; and, equally, that she must never again be a partner to denying homosexuals their full civil rights.

But ordination to the Christian ministry is not a civil right.  It is entirely in the gift of the church, which must appoint office-bearers in accordance with the rules her Lord has laid down in scripture.  On this point she must never, come what may, surrender her spiritual independence.

What is tragic is that at a time of global spiritual crisis we are distracted from our core mission by individuals concerned only for their own personal rights; and even daring as they claim those rights to invoke the example of Jesus, the Great Outsider.

This is nothing short of perverse.  Christ did not ask others to deny themselves on his account.  He denied himself, and made himself nothing; and anyone, straight or gay, who makes himself somebody, and claims his rights whatever the cost to the church, is at the opposite end of the moral spectrum from the Man of Calvary.

At the moment, all the media interest is in “splits”.  I am not going to meddle in that.  Leaving a church is a solemn business, and every Evangelical in the Kirk must decide for herself what would best serve the interests of Christianity, locally and nationally.

This is a slightly expanded version of an article which first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday 26 April 2013.