Here’s the summary of decisions taken at Church of Scotland General Assembly today. In short: ministers in same-sex relationships who were ordained prior to 31 May 2009 may be now inducted into new charges (until 2013, when we get to do this all over again), and there will be a theological commission considering how to go about lifting the moratorium on ordination of ministers in active same-sex relationships. This consideration will necessarily also involve revisiting the question of blessing civil partnerships within the Church of Scotland.
First, as I said at the end of what turned out to be a very, very long day on Twitter, I am, right at this moment, extremely proud to be the civil union spouse of a minister who has served (as a locum minister and pulpit supply preacher) in the Church of Scotland. I’m proud because, in spite of the religious difference in our household, we have always shared common deeply-held values, and my respect for Mark has translated into a respect for the churches he has served; it is painful to me, as I know it is to him, when those churches act in a way that is contrary to the values which govern our shared household, and a great relief when they act in accordance with what we both understand to be the best principles derived from our tradition(s) and sacred text(s). In short: I believe the General Assembly made the right decision, difficult as it was for many of the commissioners, and difficult as it will be going forward. The vote, and many of the heartfelt speeches from the assembly floor, took incredible courage and grace, and the Church as a whole ought to be commended.
And I am relieved, as the civil union spouse of a minister who has served in the Church of Scotland, and may do so again should we be fortunate enough to find ourselves back in that country (and I do hope it is soon), that the test of ‘faithful marriage between one man and one woman’ has, at least for the moment, been eliminated from potential requirements for clergy. Our choice as an interfaith couple to attempt to uphold both of our religious traditions by stepping outside of them, rather than subverting them by marrying according to the rites of one or the other, and our choice to uphold our views of egalitarian partnership by seeking a civil union rather than civil marriage, also stems from deeply held personal beliefs that neither of us believes contrary to the spiritual or legal requirements of our faith, and it would have been deeply distressing to me to think that those choices would prevent Mark from returning to serve in a church to which he has developed, I think, a stronger attachment than he is likely to admit. Even more distressing is the fact that, in all probability, Mark wouldn’t have been barred from the church except by his own conscience, because nobody would think to question the exact legal status of an opposite-sex partnership, or because an opposite-sex civil union would be deemed as close enough to marriage to make no difference. This is clearly an unjust double standard, and the shift towards recognising civil partnerships as a potentially valid covenant relationship goes a long way to eliminating it, and making our own position considerably more clear.
All that being said, my professional interest in the debate is, of course, the use of Judaism in defining positions. In that respect, today was fairly predictable, and most of what I have to say I already said last year, when the Special Commission’s preliminary report came out.
Predictably, there was (1) a lot of noise from ‘traditionalists’ about the Bible being totally clear and uncompromising, both on this issue and in general, and (2) a lot of noise from ‘revisionists’ about other bits of the ‘law’ that have been superseded, and Jesus being a counter-cultural revolutionary, which he might’ve been, though most of what people suggested marked him as counter-cultural is pretty consistent with the Judaism recorded in the Mishnah. In the first case, as a scholar of hermeneutics I am torn between derisive laughter and outright despair, because there are precious few things in this world that are totally clear, even fewer that involve language of any kind, and of these, scripture is certainly not one. In the second case, I go straight to despair, because much as I agree with the conclusion reached, I also agree with those who would argue that the method of throwing out whatever bits of scripture happen to be inconvenient at the moment cheapens the entire enterprise.
Against this despair, however, I hold the hope of a few people (whose names I seem not to have recorded) who spoke sensibly and coherently in favour of a holistic reading of scripture–what we in liberal Judaism would term meta-halakhic principles–which reveals the traditionalist approach to differ from the revisionist only in which passages get cherry-picked to validate the interpreter’s worldview. Yes, of course there are some bits of ancient text that we must judge to be no longer relevant as rules for our day to day existence–but the deciding factor is not convenience or faddishness. ‘Revisionists’ (and I still hate that label) do immeasurable damage to their own cause by lumping all ‘superseded law’ together, and speaking of human relationships and black pudding as moral equivalents. People are far, far more important than sausage–and that is precisely why there must be holistic, or meta-halakhic, interpretation of scripture applied to issues that touch on human dignity, and none is really necessary for dietary laws.
There’s probably more, but it was a long day which has now turned into tomorrow, I’m tired, and Tuesday and Wednesday there will be debate on the Palestinian Kairos Document which I also have a strong interest in, for probably obvious reasons. I will say one more thing, though I think Mark is getting ready to write a much longer post on this: the dichotomy between theology and human rights is a ridiculous construction. If you can honestly say that you understand honoring the image of God to be separable from–or even opposed to–guarding the dignity of your fellow humans, then somewhere, something in your religious education went horribly, tragically wrong.