(function() { (function(){function c(a){this.t={};this.tick=function(a,c,b){var d=void 0!=b?b:(new Date).getTime();this.t[a]=[d,c];if(void 0==b)try{window.console.timeStamp("CSI/"+a)}catch(l){}};this.tick("start",null,a)}var a;if(window.performance)var e=(a=window.performance.timing)&&a.responseStart;var h=0=b&&(window.jstiming.srt=e-b)}if(a){var d=window.jstiming.load;0=b&&(d.tick("_wtsrt",void 0,b),d.tick("wtsrt_","_wtsrt", e),d.tick("tbsd_","wtsrt_"))}try{a=null,window.chrome&&window.chrome.csi&&(a=Math.floor(window.chrome.csi().pageT),d&&0=c&&window.jstiming.load.tick("aft")};var f=!1;function g(){f||(f=!0,window.jstiming.load.tick("firstScrollTime"))}window.addEventListener?window.addEventListener("scroll",g,!1):window.attachEvent("onscroll",g); })();

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Separated brethren mk ii

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland proved to be disappointingly clueless about stem-cell research, and indecisive about the propriety of blessing civil partnerships. The only amendment to the deliverances concerning embryonic stem-cell research was to remove a qualifying clause, which resulted in a categorical statement that embryos should not be created for purposes of research. That, of course, is good in itself. Sections 19 and 20 passed, however, supporting the possible use of existing embryos (de facto, those 'left over' from IVF treatment) for research 'only where there are significant expectations of the relief of human suffering, and for which no realistic research alternative exists'. Clearly this statement in itself includes an assumption that the ends can justify the means; and although I appreciate that to create embryos for research is a commodification of the embryo over and above that involved in experimenting upon it if it happens to be there, it seems to me at least a little inconsistent to pass one thoroughly utilitarian policy and deny another. Besides which - quite apart from the moral questions about the intrinsic nature of IVF - it is not as if 'spare' human embryos are an unavoidable by-product of IVF procedures as such. The debate was not very long, and the Assembly did not really seem to engage with the two major issues: a) whether the embryo is fully human, and b) whether one can do evil that good may come of it. This was perhaps unsurprising given that the Kirk is not opposed to the use of contraception in marriage, to IVF, or to current abortion legislation. Nonetheless, disappointing.

The Legal Questions Committee debate was more interesting. The Convener of that Committee strongly insisted that the proposed Declaratory Act (see previous post) did not constitute an innovation, particularly as a previous Assembly, in 1993, had rejected a motion moved which declared that ministers could never bless gay unions: the Convener argued that ministerial freedom of conscience on this issue was essentially already Kirk policy. This is not an entirely indefensible position, but it became clearer in the course of the afternoon that it was really a rather perverse one to maintain - not least because the novel development of civil partnerships in Scots law, which can give gay partners the same legal and financial privileges as married people, would make the religious marking of a civil partnership a considerably stronger statement by the minister in question. It could be taken (at least) to imply not only that the minister was willing to acknowledge the relationship as valid, but also that he was prepared to allow it to be analogous to marriage in its standing within society.

First, someone from the Mission and Discipleship Council proposed that the Act not be passed, and that instead consideration of the matter be deferred until the publication of that Council's forthcoming report on human sexuality, due next year. This amendment was narrowly defeated.

A counter-motion was then offered, which affirmed that marriage was between one man and one woman, and that ministers should not offer services marking civil partnerships. A different amendment was also tabled, to invoke the 'Barrier Act': this concerns innovations, which should be sent to presbyteries (local bodies) for consultation before consideration at the next Assembly. The Assembly therefore had several options: it had to decide which (if either) of the motions it supported, and decided whether either should be sent to the presbyteries. Debate on the real issues ensued before voting. It was a reasonably well-conducted debate. What was very noticeable was that all those in favour of ministerial freedom of conscience (as they saw it) tended to stress compassion and inclusiveness, God's compassion and inclusiveness (often in terms of the characteristics of 'my God'), their own strong feelings about the matter, and their own personal experiences (some of which were indeed heart-rending). Those in favour of the counter-motion tended either to say simply that Scripture and Judeao-Christian tradition had never doubted that the only proper sexual relationship was marriage; or to point out how isolated the Kirk would be in world Christianity if it decided that gay unions were acceptable (not, of course, an argument in itself). There is no doubt which speakers had the more cogent case. The Legal Questions Committee Convener seemed to want the debate to be about 'freedom of conscience', claiming that the Kirk had a long tradition of this (an ingenuous formulation), and ended up declaring that while it was the Word of God which was to guide the Kirk, it was the Word as read and prayed over by each individual minister. It was a particularly horrible moment, as one suddenly saw private judgement turned into a value in itself - unsurprising, and perfectly consistent which the development of Protestantism, but horrible nonetheless. One liberal speaker indeed said - when explaining, essentially, why he felt free to depart from the word of Scripture, although that may be an unfair phrasing - that Jesus did not leave a book to the Apostles, but promised to send the Spirit to lead them in all truth. Indeed so! But are you so sure that you find the Spirit's leading when you feel inclined to conform to the patterns of the world...? This is a tragedy of liberalism within the Reformed tradition, which had never struck me before: they have quite legitimate criticisms of Reformed orthodoxy, or at least some correct intuitions, but they do not know where to go with them...

The voting was a complicated business. The Assembly first voted that each of the motions could be sent down to presbyteries; but then it had to decide which motion it favoured, and thus which would actually be sent. 314 commissioners voted for the counter-motion, and 322 for the motion. So the Legal Questions Committee motion will go to presbyteries, and for the moment I presume that Kirk has no opinion on whether or not it is a disciplinary offence for ministers to 'bless' civil partnerships. (This, incidentally, was reported in the headlines on Radio Scotland as a decision 'that the blessing of gay unions should be a matter of conscience for local ministers' - not exactly...) Eight votes in it! I was very surprised, I must admit, that it was so close; I had expected the liberal faction to have a much larger majority. Maybe there is not so much madness in the Kirk as it sometimes seems; and perhaps grass-roots opinion will turn out to be more traditional than the high heid-yins expect. At the same time, as Aelianus has said, in a way it does more harm if things for the moment look maybe not quite as bad as all that - it will be that much longer before many folk start seeing the peril of the Kirk, and perhaps encounter the fullness of Faith...

There was then a final vote on the Legal Questions Committee motion. This has been reported by the Scotsman as a vote which 'saw the committee's motion carried by 372 for to 240 against.' This may be a little misleading - it was not entirely clear to commissioners (one of them said afterwards) whether they were a) voting on the motion as such; b) again voting on whether it would indeed be sent down under the Barrier Act, now that the Assembly's preference for the motion over the counter-motion had been expressed; or c) expressing their opinion on the motion for the guidance of presbyteries once the consultation began. These numbers therefore may not represent the Assembly's opinion as such, depending on how many commissioners thought they were voting on b). More helpful report in the Herald.

I'm sorry - ish - if this bores all of you (whatever tiny group of readers we have). The Kirk was my foster-mother, or perhaps my wet-nurse, and I still feel I should pay attention to her!