5 May 2009

Schismatic brouhaha, prayerful dialogue...

Schismatic brouhaha, prayerful dialogue, pastoral duties – all of the epithets of honest piety tend to hit my guts like a dead weight, as welcome as indigestible brassica.

I refer, of course, to the bout of conflict which is heralding the approach of the 2009 convocation of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and the doctrinal terror of sodomites which is its life blood. Ron Ferguson of the Herald outlines the context with his typically lyrical pith here, for those whose eyes are not wont naturally to stray to the theological section of the popular press. Caron also makes her views on the subject abundantly clear here. Amidst this flourish of merciful scarification, I wonder if “the Reverend” Scott Rennie – the object of the imminent inquisition - is still smiling. It must be pretty rough stuff for him, all in all.
But what to make of it, as someone resolutely out of the fold? Obviously, the significance of much of the discourse is wasted on anyone unwilling to submit to theological terms of debate. To those of us without such commitments, who entertain a lazy lassitude about other people’s sexual choices, the whole punch up is doomed to appear inexplicable and ugly, irrelevant and unattractive. If we were feeling even more hostile, one might even analyse it as a (perhaps welcome) symptom of the Church of Scotland’s enervation. Just a last, immaterial spasm at the last station of the cross before a civic centurion intervenes finally to drive home the nails and put the poor creature out of its misery.
But, alas, I ought to confess to a certain, offhand and harmless curiosity about theology. Applying one’s mind to the number of wasted hours exegetes have dribbled away, pawing through the gloomy texts of the testaments is enough to half plunge me into a dark gloom. What a waste of one’s intellectual powers, and an unwarrantable squandering of the days of spry minded men and women on poorly-conceived, imagined poetics! However, one matter which has frequently vexed me – if we assume, for the lark, that sin is a real category with internal homogeneity – why “man lying with man” seems to upset lovers of the Nazarene more than other acts which imperil one’s immortal soul?
After all, it is partly this logical rigour which gives Christians anything even vaguely interesting to say when challenged with the idea that given God’s authorship, if a half determined soul entertains amorous thoughts towards his or her own gender, by consequence of nature, it is God’s fault. Similarly, in the breast of some men he places fiery spirits, given to rage or vengefulness. In another skull, pride knocks about. He also made kleptomaniacs the way they are, the proposition runs. Guiltiness is an inherent predisposition. “Homosexual” inclinations are just one among many. Thus, just as the angry man must overcome his fury, if he is to live gracefully, so too, those with other inward proclivities must conquer those base dispositions if they are to prosper in this spiritual, economic calculation.
The flawed pastor is a familiar character. Whether he be the whisky (or whiskey) priest, or the prideful minister to the presbytery. Ordination does not seem predicated on sinlessness. So why the particular horror of those who do not heed the admonition from the unknown author of Leviticus 18:22? Why is this sin, suddenly, a matter for exclusion as opposed to inclusion and caution about the dread consequences for one's spiritual ghostly stuff represented by persistent rebellion against divine injunction? After all, if this God of theirs is just, he’ll sort it all out, like a tidy and unerring divine bureaucrat and give the recidivistic homosexuals their due. Just as he’ll settle up with the jealous and the vengeful and the furious, by their turns. So why, pray, do some of the footsoldiers of Christ feel the need to act on this sin, right away? I don’t understand. Perhaps a more theologically serious reader might assist me. At any rate, here is what the gaggle of dissenting souls have to say about the affair, which I anticipate the religious press will hasten to christen “Renniegate”. Its onion-squeezing stuff.
Statement about the coming General Assembly of 2009

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland meeting in May 2009 will hear an appeal against the decision of the Presbytery of Aberdeen to induct into a charge a minister who has openly declared himself to be living in a homosexual relationship.

If the Assembly votes to support the Presbytery of Aberdeen, it will publicly declare such behaviour as acceptable and honourable for a leader in Christ’s church. This would mark a historic departure for our church from the teaching of the catholic Christian faith, and a radical deviation from the clear Scriptural pattern that recognises the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman as the only proper place for sexual intimacy—a pattern which our church has hitherto always publicly affirmed.

To now declare explicitly an active homosexual lifestyle as holy, something the Bible unambiguously calls sin, denies in the most public fashion the authority of the church’s only Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. Our church would thus position itself outwith the fellowship of orthodox, credal Christianity worldwide.

Such a decision, if made by the General Assembly, would be immensely damaging for the cause of Christ in Scotland and disastrous for the national church. As an unprecedented departure from both the Kirk’s supreme standard, the Scriptures, and its subordinate standard, the Westminster Confession of Faith, by its highest court, this would inevitably force a crisis of communion. The majority of congregations of the Church of Scotland have no wish so to depart from orthodox Christian faith and practice, nor to be in fellowship with those who would so abandon the true Church of Jesus Christ.

We urgently alert all commissioners to the 2009 General Assembly to the extreme gravity of the situation. We urge the Assembly to support the position of those who stood to defend Christian orthodoxy in Aberdeen Presbytery, and ensure instead that the Church will apply and assert in practice its clear doctrinal position on all matters of marriage and human sexuality, by refusing to condone homosexual practice in general, and among its leaders in particular. We further urge all commissioners to support the Overture from the Presbytery of Lochcarron and Skye, that our General Assembly may make its will known clearly and decisively on this issue for the future.

We stand thus to publicly affirm our love, honour and deep respect for all our Christian brothers and sisters who wrestle painfully with homosexual temptation but fight faithfully to live lives of purity, following Christ Jesus as his true disciples. We assure them of all pastoral support, care and mutual encouragement as they, along with us, ‘strive…for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.’ (Hebrews 12:14)

We further wish to affirm our continuing solidarity in fellowship with Christian churches worldwide who hold and maintain the historic faith, doctrine, and discipline of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church, once for all delivered to the saints in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

I don’t know which is more odious. Clerics imitating a silly lambkin Christ, crushed by the imperatives of their own will to mercy and self-abnegation – or the flatly fiery bearded loons attempting to pass themselves off as possessing half the thunder-crashing verve of the old smoky Yahweh of Moses et al. I have some sympathy for Scott Rennie, as I said and very little for choking Presbyterian sensibilities. Many of my excitable remarks about Keith O’Brien’s comments apply equally well to his less-well-dressed protestant equivalents. However, lacking Rennie’s apparent faithful commitment to the reality of the Father, and the Son he so callously strung up, I can only fall back on a social and moral analysis, which presumes the falsity of the Christian cosmology, and as I mentioned at the beginning, robs the scriptural debates of the pious of their vitality and significance.

In this sense, one might expect “liberal” folks would hope for Rennie to overcome the disagreeable section of the Kirk. In some sense I do. On the level of the personal, because I have no problem with homosexuality, but for reasons wholly unrelated to the sorts of debates the Generally Assembly are going to have. If Rennie's appointment is not spiked, the reasons for doing so will have no identity with my own reasons for being relaxed. Crucially, although we might will the same end, conceptualisation is as important here as consequence. For that reason, institutionally, I’m not too bothered either way, schism or unity - appointed or prevented. The Church of Scotland is not an institution which I want to bend in a modernising wind. I’d far rather see it stiffen and crack right through.


  1. Interesting article and agree with your last para. Christianity, the biggest lie next to New Labour.


  2. Like CrazyDaisy, I agree with your last para in a very interesting and thought provoking blog and I think anyone with a chink of human decency must sympathise with Scott Rennie for his treatment at the hands of the bigots.

    In passing, I wonder why homosexuality is particularly singled out by these unco guid moralists. After all the Bible has many abominations from the wearing of mixed cloths through eating pork and shellfish to woman speaking in the Kirk. In this connection, adultery and rudeness to the parents would presumably be worse sins than those condmend almost obiter dicta in Leviticus and Deuteronomy since they are breaches of the Commandments and yet offenders are not condemned by the Ministers in the same way. However, if the morality of the Bible is to be the yardstick then presumably these good folk will be approving incest, human sacrifice, genocide and slavery since these are all given divine approval in their book of words. Cavilling, canting hypocrites and humbugs all of them; if I believed in a hell I'd have them roasted there. As it is they can have the contempt of most folk and that will have to do.

    PS This applies equally to Cardinal O'Brien, a spiritual fellow traveller if ever there was one.