The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has voted to continue dialogue on same-sex relationships and the ministry following a Special Commission report to the Assembly.

After several hours of debate, commissioners voted by 351 to 294 to adopt deliverance 7B, which means a move towards the acceptance for training, induction and ordination of those in same-sex relationships for the ministry.

The Assembly also voted to allow ministers and deacons in same-sex relationships ordained before 2009 to be inducted into pastoral charges by 393 to 252.

A theological commission will be set up to bring recommendations to the 2013 General Assembly, as well as considering whether ministers should have freedom of conscience to bless civil partnerships and possible liturgy for such occasions.

As nothing has been formally enacted, the proposals do not need to consult the Kirk’s 46 presbyteries under the Barrier Act, but it does mark a significant departure from the church’s traditional teaching, as acknowledged by the Commission's report.

Speaking after the debate, the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rev. David Arnott, said: “This direction is one that explores inclusion but the new theological commission will report in two years’ time on that matter and no decisions have yet been made.

“We as the National Church will continue to provide guidance and spiritual leadership for the people of Scotland.

“Yesterday I had the privilege and pleasure of attending an event called Roll Away the Stone in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh. This was a wonderful and happy occasion attended by thousands of people who celebrated and worshipped together in glorious sunshine.

“That is the true face of the Church of Scotland.”

And the moderator made an impassioned plea for unity in the Kirk despite the contentious issue: “I am aware that many people will be hurting today and the Church of Scotland has a pastoral duty to look after these people and show them our love and compassion.

“We very much hope that people who disagree with what has been decided will nevertheless remain in the Church and work with us as we seek to find a way forward.

“Today has been a challenging day for the Church of Scotland but our history shows that we are able to take on board many challenges and continue to be a clear voice in 21st century Scotland.”

Names for the seven-strong Theological Commission will be announced later this week.

PC(USA) delegate’s report

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was represented at the May 21-27 Assembly by the Rev. Lindsay Biddle, a minister member of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area who lives in Glasgow and serves as pastor of Anderston Kelvingrove Parish Church there.

The full text of Biddle’s report:

For one week every month of May, hundreds of dog-collars attract the attention of tourists in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh. Tour guides explain to visitors that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is meeting.          

“What’s the difference between the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland?” one tourist was overheard asking their guide.

“The Free Church believes every word of the Bible is to be taken literally. The Church of Scotland is hard core, but the Free Church is more hard core.”

As the PC(USA) delegate to this year’s General Assembly, I experienced hospitality, warmth, and a softening of hearts during the hard core gathering of the Church of Scotland. Especially toward the inclusion of gay ordained people in same-sex relationships, which was the hot topic this year.             

Meeting in a dedicated assembly hall atop “The Mound” of an extinct volcano, the national church of Scotland may appear similar to this natural setting: stunning to look at but cold and uninviting. However, the Holy Spirit continues to blow fresh winds of reform in and through this mother-church of the Protestant Reformation.

I confess I did not expect to be so moved. I grew up in the Southern Presbyterian church where General Assemblies were like family reunions: the sooner busy-ness was dealt with, the sooner we could play. As an adult I have visited more General Assemblies than is healthy, all held in conventional convention centers across the USA: I can’t recall which place had ducks in the hotel, but I do remember riding the elevator with them once.

My week in Edinburgh as an “overseas delegate”― all the way from Glasgow, where I have lived for the past 7 years and serve interim positions for the Presbytery of Glasgow with permission of my home presbytery, Twin Cities Area – began by finding my name on a chair situated between the Rev. Alison Nicholson from the United Church of Canada, and the other “American,” the Rev. Ludgero Bonilha Morias from the Presbyterian Church of Brazil. I politely laughed at their jokes about hockey and football, respectively.

There were overseas delegates from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, and Australia, and there were ecumenical delegates from what is officially known as The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as from Ireland. We each were introduced and welcomed by our hosts on the World Mission and Ecumenical Relations Councils. Then we all were strongly encouraged to speak during the assembly – although we had no vote. And we were advised not to waste time by saying, “I bring greetings from my homeland,” but to realize that our very presence included such greetings.

I took to heart the invitation to physically represent my denomination by wearing a flax-linen jacket – a traditional and practical piece of clothing in cool, windy Scotland – printed with the names of ordained transgender, bisexual, gay, and lesbian deacons, elders, and ministers in the Presbyterian Church (USA). If they had a partner, their two names were written in the shape of an X like the cross of Scotland’s patron saint Andrew.

Across the back of the jacket were the words that the Rev. David Bailey Sindt prophetically held up on a sign at the 1973 General Assembly meeting of the (northern USA) Presbyterian Church: Is anyone else out there gay?

I wondered, as I displayed David’s question, if he had felt scared? vulnerable? out on a limb?

As I responded to people’s questions about who all these names were, as folks stopped me in the hall to thank me for the sentiment expressed on the back, and whenever a woman in the restroom commented on the handiwork, my own fear dissolved. Perfect strangers told me their names, places, and stories. Like Paul might’ve put it, If one of us is included, all are included.

I wore The Coat of Many Names to lunch, where my colleague from Canada reminded me that the United Church of Canada has been ordaining gay people since 1988: “We bought the t-shirt and have worn it out and now use it as a duster.” I wore The Coat to the reception with former moderators, some of whom thanked me for saying what they are unable to say. I wore it for the official group photograph, where my fellow overseas and ecumenical delegates made sure it was visible. And I wore it when I stood up during the debate on “ordained ministry and same-sex relationships” and told the assembly of the decisive vote cast by the Presbytery of the Twin Cities area to remove one paragraph from our PC(USA) church law, thus freeing presbyteries and sessions to ordain all people based on their faith and abilities.

The Church of Scotland, like the Presbyterian Church (USA), is divided on the practice of ordaining openly-gay people. Nevertheless, the Church of Scotland, like us, decided to affirm their gay clergy and deacons and elders, including those in same-sex relationships. We are both proceeding prayerfully – with many people offering God thanks and other people offering God their lamentations. But once a person comes out about their sexuality, once a congregation declares itself affirming, once a denomination opens the doors of the church so that all may freely serve, there’s no going back into the tomb.

God has rolled the stone away. Forever.