Saturday, October 15, 2011

My take on the potential split of the Church of Scotland

I thought I would make some observations on the current state of the Church of Scotland. As an outsider with a bit of an insiders view, what seems to be going on does not make much sense.

The current crisis centres around the issue of “gay ministers”. Traditionalists (a secret church code word for “evangelicals”) are portraying their complaint against the church as a protest against the ordination of gay clergy. However, in the Queens Cross case the minister was already ordained, and he had the support of the majority of the congregation calling him to his new charge. This means that the evangelicals look like they are trying to prevent a congregation calling their own choice of minister, even though the right to choose their own minister was something people suffered great hardship to achieve in times gone past. Whilst you can argue that the Church of Scotland has presbyterian government, and ministerial approval is somewhat centralised, other than the central administration and a limited number of joint decisions made by the general assembly, the church behaves as a congregational union. If it had been truly presybeterian then the rise of either faction, liberal or evangelical would not have been possible as the majority middle ground would have dominated.

The real situation is that Gay ministers are not the real issue at all. The church has probably always ordained gay ministers. I have known several personally over the years. All were greatly loved by their congregations and played an active role in the local community and the wider church. Nobody complained then, so why now? I think the reason is that evangelicalism in the UK has become narrower over the past 20 years with every splinter faction of Christianity retreating further into its own separate idea of truth. At the same time they have become more authoritarian and quite keen on telling other people what to believe or how to behave. What we see in the Church of Scotland is just a symptom of this. The churches and ministers leaving may get some temporary self satisfaction, but any pretence that they are making a stand or protecting their congregations is patent nonsense.

The real mystery, though, is why evangelicals are leaving the Church of Scotland at all. After decades of wanting to be in control, the evangelical wing of the church has never been numerically stronger and is producing more of the people who do the donkey work than ever before - including ministers. All they have to do is keep on this trajectory and dwindling church memberships will mean that only the hard core of the very keen will be left, and most of those will be evangelicals.  I can’t help thinking that if the evangelicals leave and form gathered churches rather than parish churches their ability to influence Scottish society will be considerably less in the future. They are undoubtedly throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Maybe its time for traditionalists to accept that each congregation has a right to call the minister of their choosing and leave it at that. It may mean losing a battle now, but all they have to do is wait and they will win the war. If they do decide to leave en masse then the church will need a new motto and logo.

Sed tamen ex parte consumptus (“and yet it was partially consumed”)