Over the past week now I’ve had some interesting conversations with Evangelicals in the Church of Scotland. Some have seen last Monday’s vote as a disaster, others are genuinely perplexed and frustrated, and some are telling me that the press and other outside observers have it all wrong – that Monday’s vote wasn’t a disaster for Evangelicals, that really nothing’s changed, and in two years time we’re going to see the Presbyteries fix this mess instead of the General Assembly. What I’m asking now is simple: What is going on in the Kirk with regards the ordination of people living in homosexual relationships? And where is Scripture in this mess?
The first step in understanding what’s going on in the Kirk is the voting numbers over the last few years. The Kirk’s General Assembly has some 750 commissioners, which may or may not be representative of the opinion of the whole church. About 650 have voting rights. In the votes in 2009, 2011 and now in 2013, there were not many abstentions. Three times in five years now the Kirk has voted on ordaining gays:
In 2009 Scott Rennie’s induction (as an openly gay man, in a same-sex relationship) was effectively put to the vote on the floor of the General Assembly. The vote was 326 to 267 (55% to 45%) in favour of ordaining gays, although I’m sure there are those who’d argue that wasn’t what this vote was about at all. Some might say it was about church procedure, and not the ordination of gays.
If 2009 may not have been about gay ordination the 2011 vote definitely was. Then (across two votes) the Assembly first rejected a compromise (53% to 47%) and then voted overwhelmingly for gay ordination (61% to 39%).
What happened on Monday last week was in keeping with this trend. Last week’s vote was the first time a three way vote was allowed, with three motions (pro-, anti- and compromise) being allowed to go head to head. The key figure is the percentage voting for the Kirk’s traditional position to be retained, with no exceptions. This was only 26% (pro- 43%, anti- 26%, comp. 31%).
That’s a really clear trend – in 2009, 45% were opposed to ordaining gays to the ministry, in 2011 that had dropped to 39%, and this year, the figure was 26%. The trend in the numbers favourable to a blanket ban on all gay ordinations shows collapse – I was going to use the word “softening” but a drop of 20% in 5 years is collapse.
The other trend that we see over the 2011 / 2013 votes is that the number willing to come to a compromise is increasing. In a straight choice between full acceptance of gay ordination and some sort of compromise deal, the figures climbed from 47% in 2011, to 55% in 2013. There has been a slight swing from pro- to comp. But the real swing here has been from the collapsing anti- vote, to the compromise position. So when we talk about a change in the Kirk, one thing we can demonstrate is a massive change in opinion. Gay ordination is becoming acceptable… not just with Liberals, but increasingly on the Evangelical wing of the Kirk.
The Tolerating Compromise Itself
Still, this weekend some of the Evangelicals I was speaking were attempting to paint last weeks development as not so bad. According to the men I spoke with, this buys the Evangelicals two years to firm up opposition at the Presbyteries. But I don’t entirely buy this. The architect of the compromise motion, former moderator Albert Bogle, is generally recognised as an Evangelical. So I’m struggling to understand the strategy here. Whatever his motion’s goals, what it does is open the door for a Kirk Session to opt out of the traditional position of the Kirk, while still being part of the Kirk.
Leaving aside the logical fallacy of such a provision, does the fact than an Evangelical proposed this tell us anything? I suspect you can link this Evangelical motion to the voting trends which show Evangelical feelings towards gay ordination switch from anti- to compromise. Bogel’s plan is just the outworking of the trend – Evangelicals are willing to accept the ordination of gays, in exactly the same way they were willing to accept the ordination of women 30 years (44 years, it was that long ago! – Ed.) ago. This is simply Evangelical NIMBY-ism – they’re happy to tolerate it (for the sake of a united Kirk?), just not in their congregations or Presbyteries.
What it also suggests is that Scripture plays almost no part in the decision for the Evangelicals who support compromise. I can see Andy McGowan’s frustration here: he – and the Theological Commission – spent nearly two years carefully outlining the arguments. A compromise, sketched on the back of a fag packet over lunch, gained the support of more commissioners. No Biblical basis for the compromise has been laid down – in fact the theologians on both sides conceded in the Commission’s report that this was an issue on which no Biblical compromise could be reached. Whatever shaped commissioners opinions, we can be sure it wasn’t Scripture.
Looking Ahead to Barrier Action
Still, we’re supposed to believe that change is now at worst two years away. Are the Evangelicals really saying that the compromise is going to be opposed by the Presbyteries? Let’s look at the numbers again. On Monday, in the three-way vote 43% were pro-, 26% anti- and 31% comp. I appreciate that the Composition of General Assemblies probably doesn’t match the opinion of all the Presbyteries combined on this issue. But still, the 43% pros are going to be a loud voice graciously willing to accept the compromise, and 31% have already shown their support for compromise over against the anti- option. That suggests something like three quarters of the Assembly’s commissioners are going to be arguing for the compromise Bogle has proposed. And as I’ve shown above, a good number of those already committed to the compromise are Evangelicals.
The reality is that opposition to gay ordination in the Church of Scotland is declining. It seems there are a growing number of Evangelicals willing to compromise (probably for the unity of the Church). And it looks like some care very little for the Biblical arguments around the issues. As society has grown more “tolerant” so has the Kirk. The evidence is that this is an area of the Church’s life where, overwhelmingly, the drift within the church is with culture. That means, simply, the Kirk is not counter cultural. The big question for Bible-loving believers is, What is God saying to the Church now? Revelation 2:18-29 seems apposite. There are still about 25% of the Assembly’s Commissioners to whom the Lord is saying, “I lay no other burden upon you.” Your burdens are enough – I know we in the Free Church will do what we can to support you. I know many will be tempted – for the sake of peace – to give in to the temptation to tolerate the sinfulness in your midst. Jesus is calling you to stand fast for the crown, and the morning star!