The same sex saga
For over twenty years the issue of same sex relationships has vexed the Church of Scotland, as it has other churches in the West. As one country after another in the Western World decides to redefine marriage to include same sex couples so that pressure rises. The debate in our own denomination has reached something of a climax over these past months as local Presbyteries, who have a key decision-making role in a Presbyterian Church, have debated the most recent proposals to come from the General Assembly. More of that below.
The key issue is one of sexual ethics and what is an appropriate lifestyle for a follower of Christ to adopt under His Lordship. The presenting issue is not a person’s sexual orientation but the lifestyle they choose to adopt in the light of that orientation. The context within which this is framed varies from culture to culture around the world, where we find a variety of sexual lifestyles predominate. In some places (Mostly North Africa, the Middle East and some parts of South East Asia) polygamy is common, in whatever form it is expressed, but which essentially involves multiple spouses at the same time. Elsewhere, polyamorous communities exist (increasingly in the West Coast of America) where men and women live in community and freely exchange sexual partners, whilst taking shared responsibility for children.
In our own culture a form of ‘serial monogamy’ is often practiced whereby people move from one sexual partner to the next, but feel it is right to remain loyal to their current partner.
So we might continue, listing many other habits and lifestyles. In different parts of the world what is ‘legally permitted’ varies hugely. In our own country polygamy is outlawed but in many Middle Eastern countries it is not.
In the face of these varying practices and accepted lifestyles, how is the Christian Church to respond? How should we live under the Lordship of Christ? The framing of the question is important because Christian discipleship means just that - living under the Lordship of Christ. We are to live to please Him rather than ourselves, always recognising that the lifestyle to which He calls us is the best for us, and will bring us the greatest happiness.
The Christian Church has, down the ages, looked to the Genesis Creation narrative where we find marriage to be between one man and one woman, and for sexuality to be expressed exclusively in that relationship. That is the pattern against which we assess other behaviours. It is the pattern that is the best for us, however loud may be its critics and detractors. In an interview with the Financial Times, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, after affirming the traditional Christian position that sex outside marriage is wrong, and responding to those who insist this to be an impossible and unrealistic ideal, made the perceptive comment ‘To abandon the ideal simply because it’s difficult to achieve is ridiculous’. Point made.
Now to the legislation being proposed in the Church of Scotland: the General Assembly of 2014 suggested a position whereby we continue to affirm the ‘traditional’ position, articulated in the above paragraph. This remains the official teaching of the Church. However, at the same time, individual Kirk Sessions may ask permission to opt out of this in order to call a minister who is in a civil partnership. Confused? Well you might be! It is an attempt to keep some form of peace within a divided denomination, but fails to say anything with any moral or doctrinal clarity.
All Presbyteries have now debated and voted on this issue and a majority have voted in favour. This means that the legislation will go to this year’s General Assembly, and, having been approved by a majority of Presbyteries, it will almost certainly be adopted and come into force.
Meanwhile, what are we to do? It has the view of the Dalry Trinity Kirk Session (a more detailed statement on these matters is still available in the vestibule) that the Church of Scotland is OUR church and we stand within the orthodox doctrinal and confessional tradition of the Church. We have not changed. Technically, neither has the denomination, although in practice a significant change is about to take place as congregations are effectively free to call a minister in a civil partnership.
It is not our current view that we should leave the denomination. Many of us have been nurtured in the Church of Scotland and owe a huge debt of gratitude under God for the blessing we know, and the freedom we enjoy to serve. Whilst, as a congregation, we are free to conduct the ministry we conduct, we plan to continue to do so.
Of course we must stand apart from what we know to be wrong. But, at the moment, for us, that does not necessarily mean leaving. There is a parallel here with our relationship with the world. The Bible forbids not association, but complicity. Association is necessary, for we are called to be like leaven, making contact with the world in order that a transforming work may be done. That is a deeply uncomfortable calling, and it is impossible not to feel ill at ease in such circumstances where we are in contact with those who have no share in our deepest convictions and emotions.
Two points to add, or repeat, for they have been made before:
First, the issue to hand is one of lifestyle, not orientation. There are homosexuals within the Christian church who face a difficult calling as they struggle with their sexuality. They should never be discriminated against. Homophobia is wrong. The issue here is not what you are, but what you do with what you are.
At our own Presbytery debate, some of those arguing for the new legislation made a great deal about the contribution homosexuals have and continue to make in the life of the church. I wholeheartedly agree, but that is beside the point. The issue is one of lifestyle. Every one of us, regardless of orientation, is challenged to apply Biblical principles to our own lifestyle. The point is that those principles suggest, very simply, that marriage is between one man and one woman and sexual activity belongs within such an exclusive relationship.
Secondly, there are many of us who have friends and relatives who have left the Church of Scotland over this issue. Whilst we are not inclined to follow them, we understand why they have done so and continue to consider them our brothers and sisters, and pray for them and the Lord’s work they represent to us.
There are two serious errors that can be made as we disagree with others about staying or leaving. There is the tendency towards judgemental Pharisaism (‘Aren’t they awful Christians…. probably not Christian at all. They’ve let the side down and lack courage to do the right thing. We know best’.) Equally there is the temptation to compromise (‘It isn’t really so bad to go that way after all,…..’)
We all have to struggle with these temptations, but I suppose those who leave are more likely to face the first and those who stay more likely to struggle with the second. Since we are planning to stay, let me add a final word of caution about the very real danger of being sucked into compromise, and how we should be on our guard. C.S. Lewis once wrote:
Many people have a strong desire to meet celebrated or ‘important’ people, including those of whom they disapprove …. But I am inclined to think a Christian would be wise to avoid, where he decently can, any meeting with people who are bullies, lascivious, cruel dishonest, spiteful and so forth. Not because we are ‘too good’ for them. In a sense because we are not good enough. We are not good enough to cope with all the temptations, nor clever enough to cope with all the problems, which an evening spent in such society produces.
We must never imagine ourselves stronger than we are. We desperately need the Lord’s help in all this.
Yours, weary of the issue,