GENERAL ASSEMBLY ROUND TWO
This year I had the pleasure of attending the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly for the second time, and it didn’t disappoint. Last year I went as the Youth Representative for the International Presbytery, but this year I went representing the entire National Youth Assembly which felt really great. Since I had already been through the experience once before, I felt more confident this time around and it made a huge difference in how I experienced the debates and events that the Youth Reps participated in.
Knowing the format of the debates in the assembly hall meant that I didn’t get tripped up in all the rules and decorum that takes place. Instead, I was able to really focus on the topics being discussed and all the symbolic politics that was prevalent in the hall.
Major topics were discussed this year, including a plan for how best to approach the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a proposal to explore the possibility of ministers performing same-sex marriages, the importance of women in ministry, and a new “hub” model for sharing human resources in a ministry capacity.
Here are some of the highlights from the debates:
Iain Cunningham, Convener of the World Mission Council, said in his joint speech on the Centenary of the Balfour Declaration that, “It is never real justice unless it is justice for all who are involved; and it is not real peace until it is peace for all involved. Replacing one injustice with a different one does not establish justice. We’ve seen that happen all too often in history. [In fact, it might be argued by some that this is precisely what the Balfour Declaration did.] Justice has to be justice for all. Similarly, any semblance of peace or security that is a privilege enjoyed by one side at the expense of the other is not real peace and certainly not real security. So identifying clearly the things that make for peace and justice is not always easy. If we want to get beyond simply choosing sides and begin to find ways of building a truly just peace then all those involved need to begin to understand the perspective of others who are also involved yet who see things very differently.”
The Balfour Declaration was a single paragraph included in a letter from 1917 written by the UK’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, to be distributed to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. it reads, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” The letter was written during a period of upheaval in the Middle East and at a time when colonial powers sought to shape and influence the region. It is particularly of interest to the Church of Scotland as Lord Balfour was a member of the CofS.
In his speech to the assembly regarding same-sex marriage, the Very Rev Professor Iain R Torrance told commissioners that, “Rather than the old fraught polarization of heterosexual versus homosexual, where the notion of homosexuality is demonized as disobedient to a creation expectation to pro-create, that entire polarization needs to be reframed. This is much the same way that our thinking about the ordination of women was reframed and placed on a different basis. the re-framing now is to understand that there are procreational unions and there are non-procreational ones. And nonprocreational unions are not deficient. Both are valid, in so far as they are rooted in Christ, and each in its own different way witnesses to the faithfulness of God.” Not all the commissioners were convinced by his speech, and a long debate continued until the body at last voted to pass the report and its deliverances.
The World Mission Council, in it’s report on women in ministry around the world, spoke about gender discrimination and gender injustice, saying that these things are, “still endemic and engrained within human society as a whole and, sadly, also still within the global Christian community. This is not a small issue for the church: it is not a trivial issue: it is not a side issue… it is a scandal to the gospel that we profess and which declares that ‘In Christ there is no difference between Jew and Greek, slave and free person, male and female.’ There can be no justification, certainly not within Christian theology, for gender injustice. So in the deliverance that we present we’re calling on the whole church, including councils, presbyteries, kirk sessions and congregations, to continue to challenge any theology that is used to persecute or simply to discriminate against women.”
On the topic of “hub” ministry, the Panel on Review and Reform told commissioners that, “This is not about finding ways to maintain the status quo so that we can all settle back into a comfortable way of doing things. Instead it’s about recognizing the importance of having someone in each charge who takes on leadership responsibility for helping God’s people move on in new ways into the plans and purposes God has for us as his people.”
The topics discussed this year were quite intense at some points, but what continues to amaze me about the General Assembly is how commissioners still come together when a debate ends. They have civil, though often spirited, debates on heated topics, but never forget that they are part of the same church, together working for the wider vision of God in the world. There’s something so inspirational in that for me.
I won’t lie, the Theological Forum’s report on performing same-sex marriages really got under my skin at some points. The convener of the forum was well-spoken, mild-mannered, and educated on the topic and did not back down despite some personal slights against him thrown by other commissioners. Even when heterosexual cisgendered white men got up and said that they felt “hurt” and “misunderstood” based on the tone of the report, he stood his ground. They argued that the report was one-sided and not representative of the whole church and he did not care. Very Rev Torrance did not make any apologies for the results of his team’s theological work and he did not try to make the material more palatable for those on the fringes of the assembly, and for that I was thankful.
In the end, after around two hours (maybe more) of debate, the Assembly did pass the report in it’s entirety, including a provision instructing the forum, “In consultation with other councils, to investigate theologically the theme of reconciliation, with particular reference to the divisions within the Church of Scotland, Scottish churches and Scottish society concerning same-sex marriage.” The deliverances also instruct the legal questions committee to conduct new research into the legal protection for those ministers who refuge to officiate ceremonies as a matter of conscience – so there’s still some work to be done, clearly not everyone is on board yet.
Throughout all the speeches on this issue, most of them coming from more traditional and close-minded folks, I was able to stay positive mostly I think because I come from such an open and affirming church in the US (the United Church of Christ) and I know that one day I will return to that. The knowledge that this Church of Scotland reality will not always be my reality made the insults about “alternative lifestyles” being detrimental to “traditional family values” much easier to bear. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for those queer youth in attendance at the Assembly for whom this is their constant reality.
In addition to all of these intense conversations in the Assembly Hall, there were also plenty of social and networking events as well. Various church ministries held fringe events during the lunch break to give those in attendance time to explore other avenues of the church’s work (while getting a free lunch!), the Heart and Soul festival took place on Sunday in Princes Street Gardens, and I was invited to a ceremony at Holyrood Palace at the end of the week to mark the closing of the Assembly’s business.
It was another spectacular trip to Scotland, as usual – one that will continue to resonate within me for weeks, months, and years to come I’m sure.