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Having given time for thought and prayer, Covenant Fellowship Scotland has prepared a detailed response to the Report from the Theological Forum to the 2017 General Assembly, with particular reference to the Appendix to the report: "An Approach to the Theology of Same-Sex Marriage (2017)"

Two versions of the response are available as PDF files - a short (six-page) version and a longer (sixteen-page) version for those wishing to engage in greater detail with the theological sources and arguments presented.

We hope and pray that this work will be helpful to Ministers, Elders and members who find themselves engaged in discussion and debate in Presbytery, in their local congregations or with others who may wish to consider this topic thoughtfully.

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Download this file (CFS Brief response to TF Report post Assembly.pdf)CFS response to TF ReportBrief421 kB
Download this file (CFS Full Response to TF Report post Assembly.pdf)CFS response to TF ReportFull1001 kB

Following the conclusion of the 2017 General Assembly, there has been considerable comment in the media about the supposed decisions reached by the Church of Scotland on the issue of same-sex marriage.

It is important that people are not misled by this coverage and, consequently, we outline below the key facts and information:

Contrary to misleading reports, the Church of Scotland's doctrine of marriage did not change on 25th May. The Church of Scotland did not approve of same-sex 'marriage' and did not authorise any Minister or Deacon to conduct a ceremony for such a 'marriage'.

However, we regret deeply the worrying 'direction of travel' indicated by the report of the Theological Forum and we fully intend to resist this at every opportunity but, for the present, here is the situation as we understand it:

The deliverance passed relating to the work of the Theological Forum was as follows:

The General Assembly:

  1. Receive the Report.
  2. Note the Forum's range of activities and support given to the Church.
  3. Recognising the Church’s doctrine and practice in matters of human sexuality and marriage:
    1. Receive the report "An Approach to the Theology of Same-Sex Marriage" as a resource to the Church and commend it as a basis for study and discussion and instruct the Ecumenical Relations Committee to invite comment and feedback from our ecumenical partners and report to the General Assembly of 2018.
    2. Invite the Church to take stock of its history of discrimination at different levels and in different ways against gay people and to apologise individually and corporately and seek to do better.
    3. Instruct the Legal Questions Committee to undertake a study of the matters which would require to be addressed in any new legislation permitting Ministers and Deacons to officiate at same-sex marriage ceremonies, with a view to presenting a Report to the 2018 General Assembly.
  4. Urge the Forum, in consultation with other Councils, to investigate theologically the theme of reconciliation, with particular reference to the divisions within the Church of Scotland, Scottish churches and Scottish society concerning same-sex marriage.

To help understand what actually changes as a result of this deliverance, you need to know that the deliverances are the really important items. It is only these, and not the reports themselves, which contain the decisions of the Assembly. The following points may be helpful as you engage with what some others are saying about the Assembly debate.

  1. To the man in the street the words ‘receive’ and ‘accept’ are two ways of saying the same thing. In Church of Scotland legal terms, which is what we find in the ‘deliverances’ that come before the Assembly for consideration, ‘receive’ is a legal term with a specific, legal meaning. We ‘receive’ a report in order that it can then be discussed. If the Assembly does not ‘receive’ a report, that report cannot even be discussed and debated.
  2. Receiving a report in order that it can then be debated does not mean that the Church accepts everything – or, indeed, even anything - in that report! That is a fundamental fact that those who are not already aware of how the law courts of the Church of Scotland function need to be made aware of if they are to speak with understanding about the Church. Only what ends up finding expression in the ‘deliverances’ is actually what the Church has decided and accepted at any one Assembly. So, the Church of Scotland’s definition of marriage has not changed. Yes, we readily admit, that there are worrying signs that perhaps even within a few years it may change, but for now it has not changed because none of the deliverances relating to the Theological Forum Report say that it has changed. In this case, so far, the Church of Scotland’s definition of marriage has NOT changed. This appears to have been confirmed in the preface of the main deliverance which states: ‘recognising the Church’s doctrine and practice …’ All the parts of the deliverance that follow are to be read in the context of that qualifying statement.
  3. Yes, the Assembly, according to one of these further deliverances, ‘invite[s] the Church to take stock of its history of discrimination at different levels and in different ways against gay people and to apologise individually and corporately and to seek to do better.’ This, as we have indicated, is in the context in which the present doctrine of the Church has just been ‘recognised’ afresh, so, the Church of Scotland has not been invited to apologise for preaching what the Bible has to say on this issue. Also, you will note that this deliverance is worded as an ‘invitation’, not a command, instruction or requirement which are some of the other words that are sometimes used with deliverances. In other words, it’s up to each individual presbytery, congregation and member of the Church to respond to that invitation as their understanding of Scripture, conscience, circumstances, etc inform them. No doubt, there were commissioners at the Assembly who wanted to go further than that, but that’s as far as the Church went at this time. And, of course, it is highly appropriate, that where we have been guilty of homophobia, we do repent and apologise and seek to do better, as ought to be the case with anything that the Bible identifies as sin.

It is worth saying that the evangelical commissioners at Assembly had spent much time, effort and prayer in preparation for the debate and spoke strongly, graciously and clearly in support of the traditional position and the necessity for Scripture to be the supreme rule of faith and law for the Church.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the debate on the report of the Theological Forum was the complete disrespect shown towards evangelicals. Speaker after speaker told the convener that the report’s description of the evangelical position (the report called it the ‘traditionalist position’) was a complete caricature and totally misrepresented our views. Despite this, the convener refused to accept any changes, even when given an opportunity to do so by a countermotion in the name of Hector Morrison. Effectively, the convener was saying, ‘we know what you evangelicals believe, even if you say that you do not believe it’. This sent out a clear message that our views were neither understood nor respected and could be ignored.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the direction of travel taken by those in the Theological Forum and the liberal wing of the Church offers no real prospect of balanced study and debate. Several times in public and in private the convener has been urged to work with the Nomination Committee to seek a Forum which is more representative. These appeals have been rejected. It is with regret, therefore, that Covenant Fellowship Scotland believes the only way to ensure that evangelical voices are heard in Kirk debates is to create our own version of the Theological Forum. If we are not included in the membership of the Theological Forum and if our views are caricatured by the Theological Forum, this seems to be the only way to ensure that our views are presented honestly and fairly, not just on same-sex issues but on other issues facing the church.

With respect to the wider Assembly proceedings, Covenant Fellowship Scotland wholeheartedly supports the Call to Prayer by the Council of Assembly and urges all in the Church of Scotland to respond sincerely and to commit to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself”. As well as the call to prayer there was a call to mission and an explicit highlighting of the importance of preaching in the work of Ministry which we believe to be vital – the Word of God expounded faithfully is vital if the Church is to halt its drift away from the doctrines and practices established at the time of the Reformation.

As is our practice, we intend to place daily summaries of key points from the Assembly proceedings on the General Assembly 2017 page of the website in a timely manner. The links below will give direct access to these:

Saturday 20th May
Monday 22nd May
Tuesday 23rd May
Wednesday 24th May
Thursday 25th May

Thursday begins with the report of the Armed Forces Chaplains Committee so there was a smart display of uniforms as the Assembly opened. It was clear that the work of Forces Chaplains is greatly valued by the forces themselves, but there is now a serious shortage of Church of Scotland Chaplains in the services, with only two (soon to be one) left serving the RAF. With the rising number of ministerial vacancies in parishes, recruitment in this area is facing an uphill battle.

There was some discussion on the Armed Forces Covenant, which has been tweaked to fit in with Presbyterian polity. The Committee merely wanted this approved, but the Assembly agreed that it should be implemented.

As the report concluded, a minute’s silence was held at 11 am as we joined the nation in mourning the loss of life and remembering those who suffered or were bereaved in the suicide attack in Manchester.

The Mission & Discipleship Council report began with the observation by Rev Norman Smith, the Convener, that while the overall picture of the Church of Scotland was one of decline, there were still people discovering faith and growing in faith all over the Church. This tied in with the announcement of a new Sharing Faith resource, part of some excellent work continuing to be done through the work of the Council.

Rev Louis Kinsey offered a rather complex motion on a full examination of the theory and practice of children taking communion, and this was accepted by the Convener and by the Assembly. Following this, there was a debate on exploring the future of the National Youth Assembly, where the Convener successfully resisted an attempt to guarantee the future of the Assembly beyond the life of a major review of its work. As the Convener came to the end of the report, he highlighted the Stories E.T.C. (Encounter, Transformation, Celebration) resource, suggesting that this was much more significant than the ongoing things that continue to divide us.

The report of the National Youth Assembly had some interesting issues to debate, and there was some discussion of Gender Justice and Mental Health issues, but the report brings no deliverance and by this time the Assembly was preparing for the next report.

The Rev Prof Iain Torrance presented the report of the Theological Forum late in the afternoon, and as the heat in the Assembly Hall rose Commissioners began to wilt. His quietly spoken, lengthy introduction would have been difficult for many Commissioners (particularly those without theological training) to follow.

The Moderator initially indicated that all decisions would be taken by electronic vote, and this led to a lengthy process of examining every proposal brought to the Assembly. Even the opening ‘Receive the Report’ deliverance was challenged, although this challenge fell fairly easily. A full motion from Rev Dr Alan Hamilton attempting to frame the Forum’s report in the context of recent decisions of the Assembly was defeated narrowly by a briefer deliverance ‘recognising the Church’s doctrine and practice in matters of human sexuality and marriage’. It should be noted that, in spite of being moved by Rev Peter Johnston in fairly revisionist terms, this achieves almost the same as Dr Hamilton’s motion.

Another amendment seeking not to commend the Report for study at all was withdrawn in favour of Rev Hector Morrison’s proposal to remove the few paragraphs that were particularly concerning and seen as a caricature of conservative understanding of Scripture. This was also defeated, but this was an opportunity missed by Professor Torrance to bring two sides together. The objective of getting away from a binary approach to the wider debate, which he had mentioned several times in his speech and during questions, was clearly lost in an attempt to gain a victory for the Forum's report.

An amendment to instruct the Ecumenical Relations Committee to invite comment and feedback from ecumenical partners was agreed, and this should give some helpful input on the debate from other denominations.

The apology that the media made a great deal of was passed fairly easily in spite of attempts to provide a broader nuance to the subject.

So the Legal Questions Committee have received their instruction, again in spite of an attempt at blocking it. But this instruction is to consider what might need to be addressed in any new legislation – not an instruction to begin framing that legislation, in spite of the spin from the revisionist side.

A final additional deliverance urged the Forum and others to do more work on reconciliation on this issue in the Church of Scotland and beyond.

It was a heavy day, with difficult results for those committed to a Biblical view in the Church of Scotland; and it illustrated the continuing wide division within the Kirk. We should take courage, however, from the knowledge that we have not been whittled down to a small minority and be thankful for many new faces speaking out in support of the conservative view. Meanwhile, the battles on this issue continue, even while the Kirk herself faces huge challenges on her buildings, finances and ministries.

The day began with a lovely John Rutter setting of For the Beauty of the Earth from Morningside Primary School and then the glorious sounds of Orlington echoed through the Assembly Hall. The closing hymn was a difficult George Matheson one, which left some struggling with the tune and others with the words.

Prior to the Report from Ecumenical Relations, the Assembly was asked to invite Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, a member of the Jordanian royal family, to address the Assembly, and he gave an interesting apocalyptic vision of the next twenty-five years. While some parts had echoes of the kind of things other futurists have suggested, there was a clear Islamic worldview undergirding it, and the length of talk – without any opportunity for questions – made it a struggle to catch up with the thread. It is not clear as to the purpose of such an address, other than to give a subtext that ‘Ecumenical’ is to include other faiths, not simply other branches of the Christian faith.

The Committee’s report itself began with marking the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, reminding us of the motto: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, a reformed Church always being reformed. Rev Louis Kinsey asked the Assembly to include ‘in accordance with the Holy Scriptures’ to this phrase, and this was accepted without challenge.

The Safeguarding Committee reported next; it was rather incongruous to hear a former Moderator speaking of finding it difficult to complete a PVG form in order to work as a Locum, given that this has been a matter of Assembly instruction for some time.

A brief talk on Dementia care and a highlighting of a new Domestic Abuse policy reminded the Assembly of the need for proper care and support in these areas.

The Ministries Council Report was introduced before lunch but would continue long into the afternoon. It remains clear that many are still struggling with the concept of  ‘Hub-style’ Ministry and where that will lead in the future, however, relevant legislation was promised in the coming years. The Convener also launched the new Ascend support and continuing education programme and website for Ministries.

There were several heartfelt pleas from Commissioners for the Church to grapple with the crisis of the shortage of Ministers with further planning or greater seriousness. The centrality of preaching in the Church was affirmed, as was the need for greater resilience among ministers and congregations.

Near the end of a long afternoon, Rev Peter Johnstone attempted to firm up the idea of tinkering with the Ministers in Same-Sex Relationships Act, but Rev Alan Hamilton spoke against this and it was successfully resisted.

Overall, we were left with the impression that the issues covered regarding ministerial deployment and Presbytery Planning, though not gaining the attention of the media, were likely to be among the most critical issues from this year’s Assembly. Tomorrow, some of us will be meeting early on for prayer.

Following the terrible events in Manchester Arena the previous evening, the Moderator opened the day with prayer and silent reflection for all those affected, and during the presentation of the Church and Society Council Report, an additional deliverance was agreed concluding with a further call to prayer. The Convener of the Church & Society Council suggested that the two ways of making contact with others are through a clenched fist or an open hand and that the latter was the way of choice for us as Christ’s people.

Pamela Gordon spoke up on the need for respectful dialogue on all sides, indicating that the suggestion of naming and shaming made the previous day was not an appropriate response for the Church, and highlighted the way that Musalahah sought reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis through bringing them together to learn with each other.

The new Deliverance on Manchester was supported with contributions from delegates from the Church of England and the URC in England, and from Churches Together in England. Rev Iain Greenshields asked us to reflect on how our Muslim friends will be feeling at this time and encouraged us to extend the hand of friendship to them.

A somewhat subdued Assembly approved the Speak Out initiative for congregations to be involved in the public square with little further discussion, along with the sections on Surveillance. To the section on the plight of EU nationals under Brexit was added further support for UK nationals currently living and working in the EU.

Under the topic of Refugees and Asylum Seekers there were notable contributions from Rev Nathan McConnell, Rev Hector Morrison, and Rev Jane Howitt, telling of the involvement of their families and their congregations in providing support to those seeking refuge in or facing deportation from our land.

The Assembly broke slightly early for lunch, and afterwards, the Guild report was well received by the Assembly. Celebrating 130 years since its foundation, we heard much about the excellent work being done by and through the service and fund-raising of members. A Joint Report with the National Youth Assembly spoke of good intergenerational work being done and gave a clear challenge to the wider Church, including reflecting on the missing generations between Youth and Senior members.

The Iona Community Board made a call for support for refurbishment work at Iona Abbey, asking for support from congregations. Further comments revealed that substantial work will soon be required on the Macleod Centre, which will stretch the Community’s resources, so they are seeking support from the University of the Highlands and Islands, the National Trust for Scotland and others.

Rev Peter Macdonald finishes his Leadership of the Community and is seeking a return to Parish Ministry; the new Leader will be Dr Michael Marten.

During the day, private conversations in various places continued as folk discussed the best strategy and approach to the Theological Forum’s report and Deliverance to be taken on Thursday, and prayers for this part of the Assembly, in particular, are sought from all.

Monday began with Communion, with both liturgy and sermon clearly aimed at promoting “inclusiveness”. That aim, paradoxically, may have resulted in some in the Assembly feeling uncomfortable.

Following the Business Committee report, the World Mission Council gave its report, leaning heavily on the central theme of women in Ministry. This led one Commissioner to speak stridently about Ministers with all male Kirk Sessions, or who, with spurious excuses, deny their pulpit to women. He was gently reminded that this was Ministries Council business not World Mission, but we were left with the impression that he – and others – would be happy to see the departure of those ministers. Despite the theme of Communion, it is clear that inclusion and a broad Church only go so far.

Interest in the lack of visas for two Delegates was again highlighted, and the Very Rev Angus Morrison persuaded the Assembly to issue a Call to Prayer for the Coptic Church, after welcoming the visit of their Pope.

In the late morning and into the afternoon we took up consideration of a Joint Report on the Balfour Declaration Centenary, following last year’s instruction to consider how best to mark the centenary of the promise by HM Government to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This took a great deal of time as Commissioners wanted to give lengthy contributions in support of the various deliverances. Throughout the debate the Convener sought to follow a balanced position, condemning injustice on both sides.

An attempt from the floor to call for boycott or divestment was defeated due to the hazards for our work in Israel if we made such a call – but we did agree a Strategic Review of the Church’s presence in the Holy Land. The Kairos Palestine document was commended for study but moves to endorse it were resisted.

The Social Care Council was next to report after a brief interlude. Financial pressures continue to be a concern, and there was some debate about the changes being made regarding the genuine occupational requirement for all staff to have a Christian faith, with reassurances being sought and clarity about the way this is being applied being given.

The Panel on Review & Reform gave its report with some highlights from the Path of Renewal Programme. The Convener reminded us that even if we could recruit an extra 200 ministers to plug the current shortage, we would not be able to pay for them as the Council of Assembly had already indicated that total congregational giving was declining. He emphasised that this was not, solely, a financial matter and supported the Call to Prayer from Saturday’s Council of Assembly report.

The deliverance itself focussed on a number of different initiatives and ideas being pursued as the Panel sought to find ways to bring essential change to the Church of Scotland. The Principal Clerk moved that the work to be undertaken on Sacramental Ministries, given its importance and complexity, should be taken up by a new Joint Group and there was significant debate on this as the Assembly wrestled with who should be on this group.

The Assembly then returned to a section of the Council of Assembly’s report on the future of the central administration buildings of the Church of Scotland. By this time, Commissioners were weary and following a few questions the Moderator wrapped things up without time for comments.

As HRH the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, is Lord High Commissioner, there were greater security precautions. Warmly welcomed to the Assembly, Princess Anne gave an intelligent and well-informed speech to the Commissioners and invited guests. She was followed by the retiring Moderator, Very Rev Russell Barr, who rightly excoriated the tragedy of continuing homelessness in our country.

With no Saturday evening session, the ‘prologue’ continued after the break with the welcome to overseas delegates. This was a good way to ensure they were welcomed before a full Assembly, rather than at the tail end of a long day when many delegates had already gone home. Two notable absences were highlighted with ‘empty chairs’ – Rev Rola Sleiman from Lebanon had been denied a visa, granted a reprieve at almost the last minute, then turned back from Beirut airport on Friday. The delegate from South Sudan was also denied a visa, and the Assembly was clearly frustrated by the immigration restrictions being imposed on delegates from other churches.

As the Assembly settled down to the debates, the Assembly Arrangements Committee report noted the increasing use of electronic media for the dissemination of reports, and of the intention to improve the promotion of the Assembly Hall as a conference venue – something that had not taken off as well as expected. They confirmed that, following consultation and consideration, the date of Assembly is not to be moved from its present May time slot. It was also noted that a trial was taking place this year to allow the full proceedings of Assembly to be viewed online after the event.

The report concluded with Elaine Duncan’s excellent report on the work of the Scottish Bible Society, highlighting the launch of a series of BibleWorld books designed to be used in schools in place of the mobile exhibition which had now been withdrawn after many years on the road. She reminded the Assembly of the centrality of the Word of God which leads us to Jesus and spoke most movingly of distributing children’s Bibles to grateful children in Peru. Louis Kinsey spoke to the winding up of the BibleWorld trailer by noting how it had been welcomed six times to the eight primary schools in his area, staff, pupils and parents always glad of the resource and Assembly accepted his additional deliverance, thanking the Scottish Bible Society for all their work over the years with this resource.

Following some returns and minutes we turned to the Registration of Ministries Overture which had come back to the Assembly after having been substantially approved by Presbyteries. Some words of explanation may have helped to quell lingering concerns among some Commissioners, but the Overture was converted to an Act without any contributions or opposition from the floor.

The Legal Questions Committee report was relatively non-controversial, though Presbyteries will now have to do more work to make choices between buildings rather than going to a Panel of Arbiters, as this form of Arbitration was ended from Saturday. Following a question from Rev Peter Johnstone from Aberdeen, the Convener noted that advice is frequently being sought about the processes around the Act on Same Sex Relationships, and we might expect some guidelines in the near future. This will need to be watched carefully.

The Council of Assembly was the first major Council to report, as usual, since this sets the budget at the start of Assembly Week. The Convener noted in her speech that a call to prayer had come up consistently in feedback from all sixteen roadshows last Autumn, and the first main deliverance was a Call to Prayer to the whole Church. Rev Gordon Kennedy spoke well in support of the deliverance, challenging the Assembly with the need to pursue sustained, corporate prayer (‘Why would we not pray?’).

In other comments, the Convener reported on the fall in congregational income being reported for the first time this year, something she said we can expect to continue over future years. Though little was made of this in debate, it is clear that serious financial challenges will need to be faced by the Kirk as a whole.

With a brief joint report on resourcing Local Church Review quickly approved, the Assembly rose at 3.30 pm with some surprise and relief at being let out early.

As we approach the start of the General Assembly, we have placed a range of material up on the website. It can all be found under the General Assembly 2017 page. Links to the individual resources are below: