June 09 - General Assembly Consideration

June 2009

I have just returned from this year’s General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. I know many of you are confused and dismayed at reports of what was decided at this Assembly. Let me take this opportunity to explain.

            On Saturday evening of 23rd May the Assembly dealt with a case against Aberdeen Presbytery, who, earlier this year, agreed to allow a congregation in Aberdeen to call a minister, who, in turn, had declared his intention to live in the Manse with his same sex partner. After a very long debate, the Assembly opted for what was described, at the time, even by those who proposed it, as a ‘fudge’. The complaint was dismissed, on the basis that the Presbytery had correctly followed vacancy procedure. That is to say, the Assembly refused to pronounce on the moral issue underlying the case. Instead, it decided to allow the Presbytery to proceed to induct the minister on the basis of procedural regularity, and refused to rule on the ethics of his declared lifestyle. It also stated that this did not set a precedent, and subsequently announced a moratorium on any further such inductions for two years, to allow the wider church to be consulted on the moral issues raised, and how to cope with the divisions in the church.

            The vote was between upholding the complaint, and so preventing Aberdeen Presbytery from inducting the minister to a Charge where the congregation had clearly voted in favour of him, and a fudge which refused to deal with the moral issue, but allow the induction to take place and thereafter allow the wider church to discuss the issues. Whilst the vote was clear, it was also close (326 to 267). Over 45% of those who voted, voted against the decision. I believe many who voted for Aberdeen Presbytery were genuinely looking for a way to maintain the peace and unity of the church, rather than declaring their support for one minister’s lifestyle. In fact, a large number of Commissioners abstained, which in turn indicates a large body of people who were unhappy with the dilemma they faced, and probably keen not to cause division by changing things.

            I am sure many of you will consider this unsatisfactory, but it is a good deal less unsatisfactory than it might have been. There will be an opportunity over the coming two years to contribute to the debate, since Kirk Sessions and Presbyteries are to be consulted. The Kirk Session in Trinity will be a part of that.

            It is worth remembering that when I was last at the Assembly, in 2006, legislation was passed to permit ministers to bless civil partnerships. However, when that legislation was sent to the wider church it was defeated. The General Assembly does not always have the last word.

            It is important that over the coming two years we contribute prayerfully and graciously and constructively to the consultation that is to take place. This is surely the task to which we are called.

            Prior to the Assembly, there was an online petition, inviting people to express their opposition to the intention of Aberdeen Presbytery and urging the Assembly to uphold the complaint. Some of you signed this and I fully understand why you did so. You have wondered why I did not sign it. Again, let me explain:

            First of all, I was entirely in sympathy with the viewpoint expressed in this petition. I, too, believe that marriage between a man and a woman is the proper context for sexual intimacy.

            However, when the General Assembly hears such a complaint, it becomes a court, and those of us who are Commissioners become the ‘jury’. We are charged with the task of reaching a decision on the sole basis of the evidence presented. I believed that for me to sign the petition was inconsistent with the responsibility laid upon me as a Commissioner. However strong are my own convictions in respect of these issues, I felt that I must wait and hear the evidence presented before I expressed my view by voting.

            I was nurtured in the Church of Scotland. However dismayed I am at the way the Kirk has handled this issue, I must register my gratitude to a denomination the Lord used to draw me to Himself; a denomination that supported and trained me for ministry and has enabled me to conduct the ministry I have pursued these past twenty-one years.

            There have been times during those years when I have been concerned at things going on in the Kirk. For example, there have been occasions when colleagues in the ministry have seemingly denied the divinity of Christ, without fear of action by the church. In some respects, since that touched on our Lord Himself and the very things of salvation, it was more serious than what faces us now. I say that to bring a sense of perspective to the current issue, not in any way to deny its seriousness.

I entered the ministry to preach the Word of God and encourage prayer. This is precisely and exactly what I must continue to do, more especially as the church decides how to deal with these divisive issues. If ever the Kirk was in need of our prayers it is now. It is not right to criticise the church if we do not pray for her; we cannot detach ourselves from our call to be at prayer.

Have you ever thought of joining us at the midweek prayer meeting? We are called to be at prayer and the midweek is an opportunity for us to be together in prayer. No one is forced to pray out loud if they feel inhibited. The meeting starts at 7.15pm with a brief exposition of part of the Bible. News is shared and we then have some periods of prayer, praying for missionaries and mission work abroad and ministries at home. It is vital that we now pray for the situation in our own denomination.

Your minister and friend

Martin Thomson

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