There’s a Presbyterian streak in many Scots, including those without denominational affiliation or even religion, but that serious concern about ethical issues is insufficient to explain the interest in the Scott Rennie case at the General Assembly. It is almost unbelievable, as we approach the second decade of the 21st century, that sexual orientation should be the centre of national debate.
The fundamentalist view however, is clear and unambiguous. The Bible is the literal word of God. ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is an abomination.’ (Leviticus 18). A homosexual lifestyle is incompatible with biblical teaching. The Bible says it is an abomination: end of debate, despite the fact that the Bible contains serious contradictions (examine the contradictory promises to the poor in the two versions of the sermon on the mount) and injunctions which few contemporary Christians would uphold – husbands separating from their menstruating wives or the incestuous seduction of their father by Lot’s daughters.
Nonetheless the strength of the fundamentalist position should never be doubted. I’m reminded of the daughter of a Free Presbyterian manse who gave her parents a Scotsman calendar, one of the illustrations of which noted mountains which were several millions of years old. When next she visited her parents the calendar was on the wall but ‘several million’ had been deleted and replaced by ‘6,000’ because the literal interpretation of Genesis is inconsistent with scientific views of the earth’s evolutionary timescale.
The opponents of homosexual practice frequently revert to the argument of its being unnatural. The now common placard, ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’, sums up a view of the issue otherwise expressed as, ‘It’s just not right, it’s not natural,’ a highly dangerous argument in the context of sexuality. The common acts of homosexual sex are all practised in heterosexual sex. A few of the puritanical brethren and elders might seek to proscribe explicitly and exactly which sexual behaviours are acceptable and which unacceptable but Iranian style moral control is unimaginable.
A more telling argument is that if Scott Rennie were heterosexual he would not be permitted by the Church to live in an active sexual relationship with a partner to whom he is not married and maintain his ministry. There can’t be a more lax rule for the homosexual ministry than for the heterosexual ministry. The impact of accepting Scott Rennie as a minister is that the Kirk must now consider same sex marriage. At one level that should offer few intellectual problems since marriage in Scotland has been viewed since the Reformation, by the Kirk, as well as the law, as a civil contract but such a sea-change will not occur quickly.
Perhaps most worrying for the Kirk’s liberals is that to legitimise same sex unions undermines the very institution of the family. Marriage may not in reformed tradition be a sacrament, and for the irreligious marriage may merely be a social construct, but many agree that it is the best vehicle to raise children. To state that marriage is the best place within which to raise children does not assume that the procreation of children is its primary purpose. No Protestant church starts today from the expectation that all who marry will wish to have children, nor would any such church refuse, say, to marry a couple one or both of whom were infertile. The family is evolving from what it was and same sex marriage is not what threatens the family as an institution.
Scott Rennie’s call to Queen’s Cross has whipped up a storm in the Presbyterian tea-cup. The narrowness of the victory of the liberals is indicative of the strength of social conservatism in the Church of Scotland. Perhaps it has grabbed attention because it exposes the narrowness of the liberal consensus; perhaps because it signals another step towards the gradual demise of the Kirk; perhaps because it plays to Scotland’s prurient side; perhaps because it facilitated cheap headlines.
The issue will likely be forgotten in a few months but for this writer it had a personal significance. Rennie is presently minister at Brechin Cathedral, where I was baptised and my parents married. Brechin was the birthplace of Thomas Guthrie, founder of the Ragged Schools movement, campaigner for temperance, a prime mover in the Disruption of 1843, leader of a stern, unbending and fundamentalist evangelism. Brechin was, and I thought is, a quiet backwater of social conservatism which I still visit regularly, whose football team I support but which I had never considered as an exemplar of tolerance. Yet Scott Rennie asserts that Brechin has lived amicably with its divorced, gay minister and his partner for several years. If Brechin can rise to that, perhaps this atheist can believe there’s some hope for a more tolerant and humane Scotland in the years ahead.
The above article was first published in The Scottish Review on28 May 2009: http://www.scottishreview.net/AWood106.html It also appeared in The Scottish Review anthology of 2009.