Human Wrongs

As I sat at my desk yesterday afternoon another spectacle unfolded before my very eyes.  The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland webstream was on my desk top and the Council of Mission And Discipleship were presenting their excellent report on Singleness, asking that it be disseminated for study.

What followed was simply remarkable.  Speaker after speaker condemned the report and one went as far as to move that the report should be received but not sent out.  Why? What could the controversy be?  Well,  the report says that some people have sex outside marriage.  I know.  I was shocked by this revelation.  Who knew???

This is the body that only the day before had said that it wants to have an open and frank discussion about sexuality and was now chastising Peter MacDonald for having the nerve to a) admit to pre-marital sex with his wife of 26 years and b) be funnier than them.

There is a serious underlying issue at play in all of this though, and the proposal to supress this report is just a symptom of it.  Over the course of the past week the Church of Scotland has, in my opinion, trampled all over the human rights of all of its office bearers.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19 states that

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

On Monday the General Assembly banned anyone subject to its courts (all ministers and office bearers) from making public statements about the ordination of gay ministers. (UPDATE: the final wording of the motion was: Instruct all Courts, Councils and Committees of the Church not to issue press statements or otherwise talk to the media or to make decisions in relation to the contentious matter of himan sexuality, with respect to the Ordination and Induction to the Ministry of the Church of Scotland, until 31 May 2001.)

Article 30 states that

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

So, congratulations to the Church of Scotland.  You must be very proud.  Contravening at least two articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in one day and that’s before we even get started on the employment rights of gay ministers which were curtailed by the moratorium on them moving charge for 2 years.

What on earth do you think you are doing?

Do you think that avoiding the debate, the fight, the argument, the falling out is the best way?  At any cost?

Or is their another way?  Is it not possible just to agree to disagree?  To give congregations the right to call who they want to be their minister?  If they want to call a minister who is gay, let them.  If you don’t want that then don’t call a gay minister.

Would that be so hard?  To agree to disagree?  To be grown up about it?  To recognise a genuine difference of opinion which will NEVER be resolved no matter how may Special Commissions and gagging orders you issue.

17 thoughts on “Human Wrongs”

  1. Stewart,
    The minutes from Monday’s session are online. My reading of the amended section 2 (and I’m by no means a church law expert) is that it is aimed at courts, councils and committees rather than individuals. So ‘personal opinion’ seems to be allowed, it’s just ‘official line’ that is gagged.

  2. Not just your denomination – sadly it seems universal. We have fallen far far below the acceptable standard of human rights – claiming our bigotry (and I writ as a life long Christian) is a noble thing above secular standards.

  3. Stewart, fair enough to appeal to human rights. But if you do you will have to recognise that there can be no standards of ministerial conduct apart from the normal standards that are applied to any civil employment. Your penultimate paragraph does not make sense if human rights and employment law is applied… congregations will not be free to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality or sexual behaviour.

    What do you now think the standards of ministerial conduct in relation to sexuality should be? And would argue against polygamy? If so on what ground?

  4. David, I’m not sure that basing church law on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights means an appeal to the lowest level of behaviour, rather a basis for what should be the highest level of behaviour.

    I would assume that given that we are still talking about people who are not employed but who answer and sustain a call it would seem odd that God would call someone to where they are unwanted… but then that might be exactly what God is up to…

    As for my thoughts on standards… I think that gay and straight ministers should be held to the same standard that sex should be confined to committed, monogamous, lawful relationships.

  5. Hi Stewart,

    I still think it strange for a Reformed church to have different conduct rules for ministers as for any regular member. It is getting close to a ‘superior’ priesthood. What do you think?

    I know we disagree on some matters but whatever conduct is set should apply for ministers and laity surely?

    Take care,

  6. Hi Davy!

    Don’t get me started on that! I could write for days about the way we have ignored the priesthood of all believers!

    But that was only half of your question.

    Yes, I agree totally. We should all strive to uphold the same standards. As I said, for me that would be committed , monogamous and obvously lawful relationships, but we also need to treat people as the flawed human beings we are when we fall short of those standards. We end up talking about ministers because they are the ones the Assembly can discipline and I think I’m glad the good old days of the Stool Of Repentence are gone but I think we need to help each other to have good relationships rather than just criticise each other when those relationships go wrong.

  7. There is actually a fairly sound scriptural argument for having a higher standard of behaviour for ministers. Those who would teach others are themselves judged by a higher standard. James 3:1
    As for the priesthood of all believers – this is a phrase which is much misunderstood and misused. It does not mean that all are called to be ministers, even in kind. The context for it is found in 1Peter 2:5. Most folk read it as far as being a member of the priesthood of believers and then skim over the bit that describes what that entails. As a member of the church of Jesus Christ we are all to offer ourselves as sacrifices, so in that respect we perform the same function as the Levitical priesthood. It does not carry any implications of teaching, guiding or discipling. There are those beyond the formal ‘ministry’ who are called to such a ministry, but it is not an implied part of being a Christian. That does not get round the responsibilities of proclaiming the gospel, but that can be done simply through showing love – no words required.

  8. Glad to see that someone else is angry at the Peter McDonald speech. As brilliantly put together as it was, it doesn’t make it right. He looked rather shame faced when the proposer dared to suggest that it might not have worked out for him.
    This has been an Assembly where the revisionists have won. And by revisionist, I mean liberal, and you can believe anything you like in that camp as far as I can see.
    I would have thought that we were supposed to set examples to society in the clergy and not conform to what society believes is acceptable. How else can we be prophetic ?

  9. David, I think your assertion that you can ‘believe anything you like in that camp’ is as great a misrepresentation of the ‘liberal’ position as saying that all conservatives are bigots and homophobes. Neither is true and both are unhelpful.

    I had a conversation recently with someone I respect greatly who would identify himself as a liberal. We were talking about this very accusation, that liberals just believe whatever they want. His answer was that he has just as strong values as any conservative. He spoke of justice, equality, fairness and openness. Those sounded to me like sound (I detest that phrase but I can’t think of another) Biblical principles to base your decision making on.

    I hesitate to speak for Peter but I know that he wasn’t for a minute saying that anything goes, and he wasn’t making light of what is a very serious subject for the sake of cheap laughs. He was saying out loud what is true. People have sex. Ministers have sex. Many of them have had, or do have, sex outside marriage. Many of them are gay. Many of them are straight. Many of them struggle with their relationships because they all have one thing in common. They are human. I think to hold any human being to a higher standard than their brothers and sisters is wrong. I think if we set standards for people then they should be for all and if we fail to meet them our first response should be love and concern, not blame and scorn.

    I thought of all the contributions to that discusion Peter’s and the man who spoke about wanting to know what he, as a father, should tell his children about sex were the most helpful contributions. They came from completely different places on the theological spectrum but both arrived at the same destination; how can we work out a sexual ethic for now, not 2,000 years ago? How should we grapple with the writings of a missionary to a place and culture of long ago? How should we treat our brothers and sisters who are gay? How should we treat our brothers and sisters who are divorced? How should we treat our brothers and sisters who struggle in their relationships? How do we understand marriage now as it has evolved and changed and been affected by culture and fashion?

    The sad truth is that for most people, even those in the church, the minister would be the last person they would go to about sexual questions because the church has presented a closed, harsh and dismissive tone whenever it says anything about the subject. No matter what you think of what Peter said he couldn’t be accused of that.

    I don’t think that anyone has suggested that the church should conform to what society dictates. I think that the church is called to be prophetic. So, I’ll ask you this:

    Who is calling for good, honest, faithful, healthy, fulfilling relationships?
    Who is telling people that when they fall short of those kinds of relationships that shame and guilt are not the only future for them?
    Who is telling our children that sex is more than a bit of drunken fun with no consequences?

    The sad answer to that question is ‘certainly not the church’. The sadder thing is that I’m guessing there wasn’t a single person at the General Assembly this week who wouldn’t agree that all of those things are a good place to start.

    We agree on much more than we disagree on. We might arrive at those viewpoints from different routes but please don’t dismiss people because you disagree.

    No-one won anything at this General Assembly and everyone lost because we are all the church.

  10. JohnO – I agree mostly. Ministers should on the whole have better conduct record but that those should be based on the same rules.

    Stewart – Again for the most part I agree. Whilst some call me a ‘hard-liner’ (or worse) I completely respect someone’s (God given) liberty to believe and live differently. Sure we debate it (quite rightly) but after that it is between them and God. If someone asks I give an answer as scripture demands this. We may even split earthly Churches but that is not reason for any unpleasantness.

    Repentance Stool? Hmm I think a wretched sinner like me should be a permanent resident of that 🙂 !!


  11. Thanks for your comment Stewart.
    I am not dismissing people I disagree with (at leat that’s not my intention0. I simply find it a hard place to be when I am trying to hold to Biblical principles and what I hear and see are others who say that they are either outdated or simply wrong. I do see the ‘anything goes’ side of liberalism and that hurts me deeply. I maybe need one of those cups of coffee that were being offered at the Assembly !
    The debate has been put back two years with informed chat to continue in house. I can’t find myself as a minister of word and sacrament to be bound like that. I have to preach honestly, and I will certainly try to go the extra mile with those I disagree with, recognising that I may be wrong.

  12. JohnO is now the official theologian of Thanks again for your helpful input! I’m almost convinced that a theological education is a good thing for ministers. 😉

    David and Davy,

    I hear you both and I think that’s a great step forward in this process. We (the church) have been far too good at talking and nearly good enough at listening to each other.

    One of my concerns about the ‘gagging order’ is that it makes this kind of conversation more difficult. That’s the opposite of what we need. We need to be having this conversation out loud. We need to be meeting for coffee, talking, and listening. We need to realise that our positions aren’t held with disrespect for other’s but often with misunderstanding.

    David, preach what you feel God calls you to preach. That’s your job and I’d be the first to defend your right to do that. After all, the Assembly did resist inserting ‘lawful’ into a deliverence about protesting because sometimes laws are bad. I think this could be one of them. We’re not even sure the gag covers anything more that the courts of the church making statements.

    Your final sentence must be the starting point for all of us. We might be wrong. If we hold our discusions with that before us then we’ll make much better progress. The suggestion I made to allow congregations to decide comes from that same place.

    Please keep talking. Keep trying to understand each other without suspicion. Look at websites and book which give the theological positions of those who differ from you. Disagree with it if you do, but disagree constructively. I’d be more than happy to have coffee with either of you.

  13. David,

    As the wife of a ‘liberal’ minister (and someone who was raised very much in the conservative evangelical/fundamentalist tradition), can I just address something that I think it is a common misapprehension of conservatives.

    You state that it’s difficult when you are trying to follow ‘Biblical principles’, yet it feels to you as if others are saying they are ‘outdated’ or ‘wrong’.

    The thing is – as someone who has moved from the conservative to the liberal position on homosexuality – I have not made that move because I want to reject Biblical principles or because I think Biblical principles are outdated or wrong. Far from it.

    When I affirm God’s support and acceptance of committed gay relationships, I do so because I believe this is faithful to the most fundamental Biblical principle there is – Jesus’ statement that all of the law and prophets can be summed up as ‘Love God’ and ‘Love one another’.

    This statement is reaffirmed for us in Romans 13, when Paul elaborates on what love is by telling us that ‘Love does no harm to another’.

    I see these statements, and then I listen to the stories of gay and lesbian Christians – not just in the church, but in society as a whole. I see and hear the pain experienced by these individuals – a pain we would all experience if we were told that we must always remain on the outside, that we could never form our own families, that in order to be acceptable to God we must always remain alone (despite the fact that we know from the Bible that we are all created to be in relationship).

    And I wonder – how can I reconcile the primacy of love with Romans 1 (which is really the only NT Biblical passage which clearly condemns homosexual acts)? Then I look at Paul’s cultural context and I realise – with Paul’s recognition of the primacy of love, there was no way he could condone homosexuality as he knew it. First century homosexuality occurred within the contexts of power abuse (pederasty, sex with slaves) and selfishness and unfaithfulness (while Romans found homosexual sex acceptable, it was generally not acceptable to only have sex with other men – so there was unvariably a wronged wife in the background, and the homosexual sex was promiscuous, rather than monogamous).

    So, using Scripture to interpret Scripture – it seems clear to me that the Biblical principle is love. And we clearly see the love that exists within many same-sex committed relationships. We see the good fruits in their lives, the way they can support and be there for each other – all the good fruits we see in heterosexual committed relationships.

    And I believe, based on the teachings of both Jesus and Paul that God smiles on the good – on the love – that is inherent in these relationships. And I believe that is heart is grieved when his Church continues to marginalise and stigmatise homosexual individuals.

    I realise that you disagree with my interpretation of Scripture – but I come to it after much prayer and study. I would never want to ‘throw Scripture out’ – it is through Scripture that we come to know Jesus, after all.

    The ‘liberals’ want to love and follow Jesus’ teachings just as faithfully as you do. This is an extremely important point and one that needs to be recognised and accepted by conservative evangelicals before we can productively and respectfully dialogue with one another about our differences.

  14. Carolyn,
    Thank you for the thoughtful and well-presented comment. May I ask you, if you will, to elaborate on one of your thoughts?

    When I affirm God’s support and acceptance of committed gay relationships, I do so because I believe this is faithful to the most fundamental Biblical principle there is – Jesus’ statement that all of the law and prophets can be summed up as ‘Love God’ and ‘Love one another’.

    (Just before I get going, let me make it clear that my question is not about homosexuality, but on the broader context of relationships.)
    I’m assuming you’d make a distinction between ’emotional’ and ‘physical/sexual’ love (sorry – I’m struggling to come up with better terms at the moment). After all, Jesus’ commandment is not about entering into sexual relationships with everyone. I do appreciate though that, where appropriate, a sexual relationship can be a very powerful and intimate expression of love. But, would there be boundaries as to what would be acceptable behaviour? I’m thinking of, say, a serial monogamist.
    And to bring it back to the issue of homosexual relationships (but not exclusively), what would be your argument that extends the ‘agape’ love of Jesus’ commandment to sexual relationships?
    As a final comment, I would point out that not all homosexual relationships of that time took place within the contexts you mention. Other writers do make mention of committed homosexual partnerships. I’ll try and dig out the references when I get a chance. I would add though, that the phrase Paul coins in Romans 1 for male homosexual acts is a reflection of the Septuagint words from Leviticus which condemn the same. So Paul is pretty much drawing from the thought-world of the ‘holiness code’ here. Or at least it seems to be what he has in mind. Which does make it more difficult to use his condemnation it we’ve chosen to throw away much of the rest of that code.

    ps – Thanks Stewart… I think.

  15. Ooops…. that last sentence should read:
    “Which does make it more difficult to use his condemnation of it when we’ve chosen to throw away much of the rest of that code.”

  16. Wanted to leave a quick comment, although I’ve only skim-read the previous comments so apologies if I overlap.

    While I’m not sure that I 100% agree with the decision on Monday, I can understand why a moratorium has been entered into. To make a decision there and then would have been to inextricably tie the decision to the case of a particularly individual, in this case Scott Rennie, whereas the 2 things should be completely separate. By allowing time for a consultation, and enforcing a moratorium on discussion, I believe that their hope is to let the media storm over this individual case die down, and allow the church to make a decision in an objective manner (as far as this is possible). In cases like this it is, I believe, important that it doesn’t come down to a reflection on individuals, but rather a full and frank discussion about the overarching matter.

    In the case of Scott Rennie, the issue of his sexuality is, regardless of his own whipping up of the press, a secondary matter when placed against his conduct. It would not surprise me if he finds himself up against the press again in a short while, as I suspect that there will be objections to his induction on basis of “life and doctrine” for causing a scandal.

    Ultimately the question is not about homosexuality – it goes much deeper and much wider than that, but the media and some sections of the church would have us focus on that issue because it is much easier to gain public support when you personalise it.

  17. Carolyn,
    Thanks for a very thought provoking message. I keep stressing the need for context when trying to interpret Scripture and like JohnO I think there are other references to what was going on in Roman society of the time. As with women teachers/ministers, something people love to have a go at Paul for his stance, he only arrives at that position because he wants to defend Christianity against what he saw as wrong in Roman society. (The only women teachers of the time were the cultic prostitutes for example)
    I clearly need to give this more thought and prayer. It’s dificult for me to shift from something I genuinely feel goes counter to the general message of Scripture.
    The ‘love’ principle is a great one from the whole of Scripture and I was very moved by the inclusive nature of Archbishop Tutu’s message to the Assembly. But how do you reconcile the God of love with the God of holiness and the God of justice ? There is a real tension between these language limited views of God, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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