Sheena McDonald reports from Edinburgh on the first day of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The programme explains the different viewpoints on same-sex marriage.
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Welcome to Edinburgh, where the Church of Scotland is
holding its Annual General Assembly, bringing together representatives,
commissioners, from right across the country and,
indeed, around the world to debate and vote on issues of the day.
The Assembly has been meeting here for almost 90 years.
Today, despite appearances, the Church of Scotland is very
much open for business.
Since this is the national church for Scotland,
the British sovereign is always represented.
This year, Her Majesty's High Commissioner is Princess Anne.
I have been reminded by obviously a very good brief,
and somebody who's been digging around in the archives,
that my very first visit to the General Assembly
of the Church of Scotland was probably long before most of you...
I was only 18 and I accompanied Her Majesty and the Duke
of Edinburgh in 1969.
So I feel I have some perspective.
Longevity, if nothing else.
But I also understand in that time that there has been a huge
increase in expectation, an expectation of the role
of the Church in the community, of what you do, but I also feel that
expectations should not exceed the ability to provide.
Care and commitment to care, more than bricks and mortar or online
computer programmes and apps.
That is what you provide, that personal knowledge,
understanding and commitment of your time.
And there needs to be space for that.
And the importance of the General Assembly, above all,
it's been reasoned debate.
And that reasoned debate is in quite short supply at the moment,
and more and more will look to you to continue
to do exactly that.
Your Grace has a wonderful record of public service and,
if I may say so, particularly here in Scotland, where your
presence and support in a slightly larger stadium to the west
of this building...
Brings much hope to our country.
The retiring moderator, Russell Barr, spoke
about what he had learned during his year in office.
Standing here today, I could not be more proud to be
a minister, to be a member, to belong to the Church of Scotland.
One council Chief Executive thanked me for the support local
congregations in his area had given to the refugees from Syria.
Your churches - as though they were mine -
your churches are remarkable, he told me.
"If there is a problem, it takes me 20 e-mails,
"30 telephone calls and 20 weeks to resolve it.
"When I contact one of your ministers, the latest it was fixed
"was six o'clock that evening."
And although, for obvious reasons, there was no publicity around it
when we met with Syrian families, families who had come to Scotland
from Lebanese refugee camps, they spoke with amazement
on the ways in which they had been welcomed.
"You Christian people have not just opened your country",
one man told me, "You have opened your homes.
"You've opened your hearts.
"How can we ever thank you?
He then turned to his theme of the year, homelessness.
As of September last, 5,751 preschool and school-age
children were registered in our country as homeless -
an increase of 17% from the previous year.
You will not see these children sleeping rough,
although we all see the numbers of people sleeping rough on our
streets is steadily increasing, these children and their families
are in temporary accommodation, and the length of time
they are spending in temporary accommodation increases
24 weeks in 2016, 23 weeks and 18 weeks in the previous two years.
5,751 preschool and school-age children, and at what cost?
At what cost to their education?
At what cost to their health?
At what cost to their sense of well-being?
At what cost to our nation?
The Church of Scotland has been with us since the 16th century and,
from the Reformation on, reform itself has been
a constant theme.
The 21st century is continuing that tradition.
Sometimes it seems as though the only thing we ever report
on from the General Assembly is same-sex relationships.
First of all, it was the specifics - the rights and wrongs
of Aberdeen Presbytery inducting a minister in a same-sex
Then it moved to the general - how should the Church deal
with ministers in civil partnerships and accommodate those who felt
that this was fundamentally wrong?
And then, just as they'd resolved that, the Scottish Government
introduced same-sex marriage.
How should the Church deal with ministers
in a same-sex marriage?
And then, the big one - what should the Church do
about marrying people in a same-sex relationship?
The Theological Forum, a small team of expert theologians,
has been looking into the question of what marriage is,
and the debate about its report on Thursday will once again
hit the headlines.
It's been being chaired by a former moderator,
Professor Iain Torrance.
We caught up with him in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery,
looking at a painting of the marriage
of the old pretender.
What you'll see is that it is very much the bishop marrying them.
And that's different from the Protestant tradition.
In the Protestant tradition, the couple marry each other
by dint of their exchange of vows, willingly given.
Marriage as a human relationship has changed constantly over the years,
and what matters is the support which each partner brings
to the other and receives in return, the faithfulness between them,
and how they can make an impact on the society through that love
which they have for each other, and that love then reaches out
and they can then bestow that love, that energy
on the people around them.
Professor Torrance argues that marriage has been based
on an Old Testament idea, that our role in life
is to bring about God's kingdom by having children.
When one reads the accounts in Genesis, you have an account
of Adam created in the image of God and being in the image of God
was to procreate, procreate.
And, in that sense, that stage of our Christian journey,
you propagated the kingdom of God by having children.
The promise that your descendants will be as many
as the sands of the seashore.
That is the promise of how the kingdom comes in.
But today, he argues, there's more to marriage
than just having children.
In the New Testament, we see that our main purpose
is to bring in God's kingdom by the strength of our
human relationships, which are based on having
a relationship with Christ.
As we think about it now, and we think of who Jesus is,
Christians now increase through being joined to Jesus,
not through having children and increasing the kingdom
in that way.
And so what we are seeing actually, what this report suggests,
is that there is a shift.
It shouldn't be seen as an argument between homosexual and heterosexual
but as being procreative and non-procreative,
that there is nothing wrong with a non-procreative union.
But not all former moderators agree.
One previous Free Church moderator is Dundee-based David Robertson.
I think the most disturbing part of the report is where it
seems to imply that, in the New Testament,
there is a difference to the Old Testament,
the Old Testament on procreation and marriage, and in
the New Testament that's not the case.
One, that's a completely novel interpretation which has never been
known up until today, so I suspect it's not right.
And the other is, it doesn't make any sense.
What it does is it takes the Church of Scotland away
from the Bible and also away from the Catholic Church,
the Orthodox Church, the vast majority of the Protestant
Church throughout the ages.
I think it's at best disingenuous and it will end up
being incredibly harmful.
We have had this argument now for 25, 30 years,
and this argument is not confined to the Church of Scotland.
It's in all of the major churches, different forms of this argument.
Now, we recognise that these are deeply rooted ways,
different ways in reading scripture, and that goes back to the time
of the Reformation.
And those patterns of reading scripture are not going
to vanish overnight.
They will continue.
And we have come to the view now that, rather than try to look
for a knockout blow on either side, a single victory for one side
or the other in this long argument, we actually have to find a way
in which we have space for both sides, and we can respect both sides
and allow each side to develop in a non-adversarial way.
Over the past ten years, we keep hearing this
stuff about a middle way.
Well, I'm a bit mischievous sometimes, because I think
of the proverb, man who walks in middle of road gets hit by bus.
I'm not sure if that is a proverb, but it'll do.
I think the problem is that there isn't a middle way.
The middle way doesn't exist.
If the Church of Scotland chooses to go for same-sex marriage,
they can't then say there is a middle way whereby we don't go
for same-sex marriage, so there is no middle way.
And that's the problem.
Try as it might, the Church of Scotland has not yet managed
to find a way to reconcile strongly-held conflicting opinions.
The conservatives accuse the liberals are shifting
their views to suit the spirit of the age.
Have people shifted their views and, if so, why?
Sarah Lane Ritchie is a student at Edinburgh University, studying
for a PHD in science and religion.
She's a member of the Theological Forum, which produced the report.
I actually come from a very conservative background in Michigan
in the United States.
I grew up in what I would call a fundamentalist church,
and in that congregation, and basically within my whole social
group there were no options for examining or understanding gay
marriage outside of what was portrayed as being the biblical
deal, which is one man, one woman, married for life.
In my university days, I pursued philosophy, religion,
theology and also biology and psychology, and I started
learning a lot more about understanding and interpreting
the Scripture, understanding and interpreting tradition
and the role that tradition plays in the way that we understand
marriage, learning about what marriage has meant throughout
the ages, and I started gradually coming to a much more expansive
position of what marriage could be.
I was also very, very close with some gay and lesbian couples
here, and they were actually in full-time ministry,
and for me it was very impactful to see the way that their marriages
and their lives in ministry unfolded, and that they experienced
all the same ups and downs that any marriage would experience.
In the Bible, we find relationships between people of the same sex
celebrated as great friendships, as almost covenants or partnerships
in some ways, but not with any indication that sex is involved and,
in our sex-obsessed society, we are saying that we can't
have deep, meaningful, admitted friendships
and partnerships without sex.
I would be really sorry if the Church wasn't able to say
that there are ways of celebrating partnership, friendship,
commitment without it having to be a sexual relationship.
The way that I've always thought to teach and preach on the Bible
is to take it into its context and then, from its context,
into our own context today, to discover what it is that God
said, then why it was said then, in the context of the peoples
to whom it was said and in the context of the whole
of the word of God and how that then applies to us today.
But there's a lot in the report I have a concern about.
I'm concerned about the way that conservatives are portrayed
in a very simplistic manner -
as if we just kind of open the book, see what it reads and that's it.
With all due respect, I would say that that's not the case.
I understand that sentiment because the report is moving
in a more progressive direction, but if you look over the reports
that have come out of various committees in the Church of Scotland
over the past decades, really, you'll see that the various
conservative positions have been examined in detail,
different components of them, mostly focused on issues
of biblical interpretation.
And the first bit of our report actually does outline the different
ways that the Bible has been interpreted on the
issue of marriage.
And the goal of this report is to shift the conversation
into a slightly different direction, and to get beyond the old
terms of the debate.
Meanwhile, there's a feeling in the Church that far too much time
and energy is being spent on discussing same-sex relationships
and what's really needed is some thinking about how the Church should
reform itself to plan for the future.
I think there is an urgent need for reform at various levels
within the Church of Scotland.
These are very challenging times, and we have an ageing
and a declining church.
That's not news to anyone.
But there are some particular triggers for reform at the moment,
which include a very worrying decline in the number
of ministers coming forward, and we are going to need to work out
ways to respond to that and to cope with that.
This is Grantown-on-Spey.
It's in the Presbytery of Abernethy, which runs all the way down the A9
to Aviemore and Newtonmore and up the hill over there to Tomintoul.
There are 11 parishes here, grouped into six charges,
and there's just four ministers.
Two years ago, Gordon Strang came with his family to be
a minister in Grantown.
He's got three churches to look after and he is also managing
the vacancy in Tomintoul.
We have this enormous area to cover with not that many people,
but we are aware that the problem of ministers and the number
of people that we can have in these roles is going to decrease,
but at the same time we want to keep lots of individual
village churches open, because we are aware that each
of these buildings are important for the places that they serve.
They may be the last public buildings left,
so they have an important place.
But how do we do that at the same time with a sense
that we want to reach out to the people of the area,
we want to grow and tell a story to folks that haven't
heard it before?
In the parish of Cromdale, the pub, the school and the post
office have all gone.
But an active group of Christian Aid supporters, faced with the challenge
of not enough people to do the annual door-to-door collection,
came up with a new way of using the church.
We had the envelopes we'd been doing for years to collect
the Christian Aid all around the area in the parish,
but we have a very rural, dispersed parish and it was becoming
harder and harder to go and do the door-to-door,
so the idea came first of all to do afternoon teas but then to take it
on and do lunches as well and open the place up.
And now we get lots of folk coming in from the wider area,
folks coming past on holiday, people walking past the front door
on the Speyside Way, so we have a whole range of folk
that come in and we are able now to tell Christian Aid's story
to a much bigger group of people than we might ever have
done before and raise lots of money in the process.
There's this space here that nobody sits in.
Having the place used again is going to be better,
because we can't afford to have this great big building not being used.
Back in Grantown, Gordon and his elders are contemplating what to do
with a much bigger building.
It's 130 years old and it seats 450 people.
It costs ?7,000 a year to heat, just for Sundays and funerals.
We have this building that we've inherited from the past
that is a wonderful witness to the town.
It's been a place of worship for 130 years.
But our vision is that we open it up and make it alive and active
and vibrant once more.
We can't afford to have a building like that for just an hour a week,
effectively, so we hope that we can use some of the best
of it, the acoustics, a great concert venue,
one of the biggest venues for that sort of thing in the Strath and,
at the same time, open it up so that we can use it for so much
more and have a place that people really feel that they can belong
and come to and something that's alive every day of the week.
If we keep doing what we've always done, which is create bigger
and bigger units for a single minister to minister to, eventually,
we will probably be only looking at perhaps two ministers
for the whole of this presbytery.
If the rate in decline of ministry, full-time ordained ministry,
if that continues, then there won't be enough of us.
But that's a very negative way of looking at it.
The advantage of team ministry is that you can pool different
skills together so that, rather than having one
person who is meant to be an expert in everything,
you can have different skills available, people who are gifted
in youth and family ministry, others that have a pastoral heart,
others where preaching is their main thing,
so different skills and they can come together and we can serve
this sort of an area, I hope, in a better way, a way
that we can reach out and do more, rather than forcing people in single
minister charges that get forever bigger and are
Well, there is a present shortage of ministers
and a fairly small congregation.
It's not always easy to find a minister at all.
We have one or two lengthy vacancies, although not nearly
as lengthy as some further north.
Caithness, for example, has some lasting for several years.
But it's not easy.
And we are trying to grapple with this with the new presbytery
plan, which reduces the expected number of ministers and tries
to involve far more people.
But what about the top end of the Church's administration,
or the committees taking people from all over for
meetings in Edinburgh?
And then there is the Assembly itself.
Do you think we are overwedded to the democracy that we have
I think the democratic character of Presbyterianism is something
which may still be an asset for the future.
At its best, it invites a wide range of people to come in and to be
involved in making decisions about the future of the Church,
and it helps them to gain skills, hopefully skills of compromise,
of decision-making, so historically Presbyterianism, I think,
empowered lots of people, whereas today one of the problems
is I think that we are now top-heavy, and people
are experiencing maintaining the system as too burdensome.
There are only so many meetings I can share.
There are only so many miles I can drive.
And I was called to be a parish minister to be alongside people
and perhaps not be doing those sorts of administrative things
that the structure makes me do.
We need new structures if we're going to minister to Scotland
in the 21st century.
And the urgent need for practical changes to how the Church continues
to be able to serve the community, in the manner we saw praised
by the Princess Royal, was addressed by the Council
of Assembly, whose report or deliverance was presented
to Assembly by its convener.
The Council of Assembly is mandated to deal with the Kirk
staffing and finances.
Sally Bonnar's report's statistics were sobering.
For instance, a 30% drop in Kirk membership over
a recent 10-year period, during which time over 75%
of ministers were aged over 50.
Sally Bonnar could have been a Jeremiah, but she wasn't.
We also see congregational statistics which show
a steeply falling pattern, and early indications are that this
is now having an effect on income.
For the first time, we see a fall in congregational giving.
This is not unexpected.
In fact, we have often said that we are surprised that giving
has held up so well.
However, it seems that we have now reached a tipping point and,
if current membership trends continue, then the decrease
in income is likely to become a repeated feature of these reports.
This emphasises the need for the strategic planning process
that we are currently undertaking.
The Church has a very complex budget and we spend our money across a wide
range of activities.
We cannot continue taking on new work without stopping some of
the things we are currently doing.
Hence we need to decide, what new things will we do?
What needs to be kept?
And what do we stop?
Looking to the future as a national church,
we will be doing less with fewer resources.
I was very struck by the message from Archbishop Justin Welby
at his presentation last year, when he spoke about the need
for Christian unity.
As Christ has said, a house divided against itself will not stand.
So let us set aside our differences and go forward together
in the building of Christ's kingdom.
So, can the Kirk do more with less, do less better?
We will be hearing a lot about change throughout this week
and we'll report on that next Sunday.
Before we go, let me give you a taste of a series of lectures
given earlier this year by the Reverend Doug Gay,
who we saw a few minutes ago, which previewed events here.
Doug Gay does not pull his punches.
I believe that a true spiritual renewal involves a holistic renewal
of our Christian witness.
Which is why we need to test the spirit.
When people want to talk of revival or renewal,
it is not true revival if people are anguished about micro-ethics
but shed no tears over macro-ethics.
If they care about temperance but not about Trident.
It's not true revival if men lament their lust for women
but not their sexism.
It's not true revival if people speak in strange tongues but do not
speak out against injustice and speak up for the poor.
It's not true revival if people throw their fiddles on the fire,
if they create an unbridgeable cultural gap between
ceilidh and congregation.
It is not a true spiritual renewal if it makes us less human,
less alive, less loving, less merciful, less open to art
and beauty and sensuality and life.
I can already hear some people out there reaching for the green ink.
Everything does depend upon the prayer, come Holy Spirit.
I will say even less about liturgical renewal, just this,
that, in a broad Church, I believe it will and must
take different forms.
For some, it will come through classical music
and finely crafted liturgy.
For some, it will come through Messy Church and Matt Redman.
For some, it will come through a renewal of intense
and passionate expository preaching.
For some, it will come through exploring gifts of the spirit.
For some, it will come through Rend Collective,
through others it will come through the Iona Community.
We are a diverse church.
God's tastes are wider than mine.
As a reformed Church, what all of you should share
is a deep attentiveness to scripture, to hearing God's word.
And what I dare to hope you also share is a more frequent celebration
of the Lord's suffering.
And, when that renewal comes, it will move us on from the dull
mediocrity of middle of the road traditionalism, from joyless
formalism, from trite pietism, from funereal communions,
from boring sermons, from musical snobbery,
from liturgical correctness and from liturgical sloppiness,
from evangelical privatisation of the gospel and from liberal
progressivist reduction of the Gospel to social ethics.
I could go on.
But I won't.
That's another lecture, another book and another rant.
Did you hear that?
He said, when that renewal comes.
The Kirk may be bloodied.
It is not bowed.
We'll see you next Sunday.
# Oh come, and let us worship him
A case unprecedented in British criminal history.
The killings have stunned this family-orientated community.
Everybody wanted to see somebody go to prison for it.
One has to have faith that the jury came to the right view.
You're looking at a case with 2016 eyes.
Sheena McDonald reports from Edinburgh on the first day of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. With a major debate on same-sex marriage due later in the week, the programme explains the different viewpoints. But there's a growing wish to move on and deal with other challenges facing the Kirk, such as finding better ways to manage smaller size.