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:
- Receive the Report.
- Note the Forum’s range of activities and support given to the Church.
- Recognising the Church’s doctrine and practice in matters of human sexuality and marriage:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.