Tories in denial while Kirk comes to terms with sexuality

Holy writ: the Scottish church is moving faster on gay issues than the established Church of England. Glasgow Amateur via Creative Commons

Sexuality and faith has been deeply divisive in both England and Scotland exposing deep rifts in David Cameron’s Conservatives in the House of Commons and among Scottish clergy in the General Assembly.

It has divided both church and state - but in the end both bodies voted, in one way or another, in favour of moving towards equality for the gay and lesbian community. But not without a great deal of agonising.

In the Commons, the prime minister relied on the support of the Labour Party to get his bill allowing same-sex marriage though parliament, splitting his party in the process.

Meanwhile the General Assembly voted for a compromise which affirmed the conservative view that ministers ought to be married - and that marriage is between a man and a woman - but which will allow liberal congregations to opt out in order to ordain or appoint a gay cleric.

It is perhaps worth noting that the Scottish Episcopal Church has said that the ordination of gay clergy is not a problem and has not been for many years. This suggests that Scottish religious culture is moving, if not in a different direction, certainly at a different speed.

The Church of England, on the other hand, is much less likely to accept the ordination of clergy in gay relationships not least because of its perceived role of leadership in the wider Anglican Communion, whose powerful conservative power-bases have threatened schism over the issue.

The political situation is equally divergent. This week saw a concerted attempt by opponents of marriage equality on the Tory backbenches to wreck the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill and, embarrassingly for the prime minister it was only Labour’s decision to vote with the government that saved the day.

Scottish legislation would allow denominations to refuse to perform same-sex marriages, but would also allow them to perform civil partnerships (which is currently illegal – civil partnerships must currently be wholly “secular”). The English legislation would, in fact, allow for similar denominational choice over same-sex marriage but would forbid the Church of England from performing them.

This highlights the problematic situation in England where the Church of England is established and under state control as opposed to Scotland where the Kirk is the national church (it has a recognised historic position in civic society) but was disestablished in the 1920s.

Times are a-changing

In both England and Scotland it is clear that political and religious bodies are struggling to come to terms with the shift in public opinion about homosexuality. The vast majority of the population no longer sees homosexuality as a disorder in the psychological sense or a sin (and, thus, a “choice”).

Rather, most now consider homosexuality something intrinsic to a person’s character and therefore as deserving of equality and protection under the law as gender, race and belief.

The churches are also facing the same change in attitude and it is fairly safe to say that the pews have moved on the issue, the question is where will the pulpits go? Any quick survey of historic debates will see similarities with those surrounding the role of women in society and the church, the acceptance of divorce and remarriage and the availability and use of contraception (and, with it, debates about what sex is “for”: procreation or companionship and love).

Although women gained the right to vote between the wars equality only became a live political issue in the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, churches (particularly the Church of England and the Kirk of Scotland) grappled with gender equality in the call to ministry and ordination.

The Kirk, freed from the state and no doubt aware that even Calvin said there was no eternal scriptural ban on women in the pulpit ministry, was able to ordain its first female minister in 1969. The Church of England did not see its first female priest until 1994 and still does not allow women bishops – while the Kirk has just installed its third female moderator.

Similar change in both churches and legal regimes were evident in divorce. In the 1920s, divorce became a live political issue with calls to treat both husbands and wives the same where adultery remained the sole justification for divorce. Equality was attained in 1923 with cruelty and desertion added as grounds in 1937. It was not until 1969 that divorce, in effect, became “cause-free”.

In 2002, the Church of England allowed the remarriage of divorced people while the Kirk has long allowed it – in effect, from the Reformation as long as a legal divorce was obtained.

Both Anglicans and the Kirk accepted society’s changing views on contraception even earlier. Despite the strong opposition expressed by Protestant reformers such as Luther and Calvin - and still held by the Vatican, the Church of England accepted the limited use of contraception during 1929/30 for once well ahead of the Kirk, whose position changed in 1944.

Public opinion drives progress

What we see is a consistent pattern. Social attitudes to issues which have both legal and religious ramifications are debated in wider civic society. The body politic, the population at large, comes to believe that legal and religious positions are inadequate or obsolete. Pressure grows on both political and religious leaders.

Responding to these pressures, the state institutes legal changes resulting, for example, in the legalisation of contraceptives, the liberalisation of divorce, equality for women and, now, equality regarding sexuality.

Churches then face growing pressure on the same range of issues and, almost inevitably, adjust their positions. The net result is that within a decade or two society in general, the law and religion no longer see what all the fuss was about.

Homosexuality was a crime in England/Wales until 1967, in Scotland until 1980, and in Northern Ireland in 1982. Scotland will legalise same-sex marriages in the next 12 months and by the end of today the Kirk may begin the process of allowing gay men and women in committed relationships to answer a vocation to Christian ministry. The times they are a-changing – but then they always have been.