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Monday, May 22, 2006

Separated Brethren

The Church of Scotland General Assembly is being held this week in Edinburgh. This year there are a couple of issues of great interest which may be debated – embryonic stem cell research, and blessings of gay partnerships. Please pray that our separated brethren don’t separate themselves still further! The manner of procedure at the Assembly is rather complicated. Essentially, the various committees and so forth which have been meeting during the year produce reports, which are presented to the Assembly along with ‘deliverances’ – resolutions for the Assembly (and thus the Kirk) to adopt. These range from ‘receiving the report’ – ‘Jolly good, carry on’, in effect – to major doctrinal statements. The way to challenge them is to propose amendments, or alternative deliverances.

This year the big issues are to be found in Appendix H of the Legal Questions Committee report (link to Word document), and Appendix III of the Church and Society Report, which is the Society, Religion and Technology Project summary report mentioned earlier on this blog. The Legal Questions committee suggest passing a 'declaratory act anent civil partnerships', which would mean it would definitely not be a disciplinary offence for meenisters to 'bless' gay relationships, while stating that no minister had any obligation to bless such things. (I am not entirely sure what the Kirk understands by blessing.) Evangelicals within the Kirk are naturally not too chuffed with the idea that the Kirk would implicitly acknowledge the validity of gay unions, and have put forward an alternative declaratory statement (which can be found on p.26 of the Daily Papers for Saturday to Monday, linked to here). This states that, since marriage is what it is, 'And whereas diversity of practice on this matter will lead to confusion in the Church and in the nation', no minister or deacon should bless civil partnerships. I have no idea whether the Assembly is more likely to pass the original declaratory act, or this amendment; I fear it may be tempted to settle for fudge. However, interestingly, while chatting to a very liberal Kirk youth worker whom I happen to know, he indicated opposition to Appendix H precisely because it is fudge, and it allows to Kirk to avoid (again) discussing its views of gay unions. I wonder, then, if liberal and conservative opposition might at least mean that the matter is referred to... another committee, probably... for proper examination. There is considerable politicking going on, however - see here and here.

The Church and Society Council's report, meanwhile, includes various statements on stem cell research which would be adopted if the report were received as it stands.
Stem Cell Research
17. Recognise the differences of view which exist within the Church on the moral status of the embryo and the acceptability of embryo research on stem cells, serious
genetic diseases and infertility.
18. Strongly urge HMG not to weaken the provisions of the UK legislative framework on embryology, and to ensure that in any future legislation the concept of the special status of the human embryo be maintained and protected.
19. Urge HMG to ensure in any future legislation that embryo research is allowed only under a specific licence from a regulatory authority, on a strict case-by-case
basis, only where there are significant expectations of the relief of human suffering, and for which no realistic research alternative exists.
20. Recognise that surplus human embryos arising from in vitro fertilisation or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis may be used in medical research with a view to eventual treatments involving stem cells, subject to the 14-day limit.
21. Oppose the deliberate creation of human embryos for research by IVF methods or nuclear transfer cloning methods, except into serious diseases and only under exceptional circumstances.
22. Oppose the creation and use of human embryos as a source of cells in the treatment of diseases, and urge HMG, in any revision of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, not to include a legislative provision which would allow this.
23. Urge HMG to encourage research into stem cells derived from adult tissues and placental cord blood, and to work to find therapeutic solutions which avoid embryo use.
24. Oppose the creation for research or therapy of parthenogenetic human embryos, animal-human hybrid or chimeric embryos, or human embryos that have been deliberately made non-viable.
25. Call upon the stem cell research community to ensure a more rigorous peer review of stem cell research, and greater honesty in presenting the significance of its discoveries, aware of the harms caused among vulnerable patients by publicising premature or false expectations.
26. Commend this report to churches for study, encourage its wide distribution, and encourage the Society, Religion and Technology Project to continue its examination of
contemporary issues in human genetics and embryology, and to bring a report to a future General Assembly.

Emphases added. As evangelicals have pointed out, given the legislative framework in Britain, the notion of the embryo's 'special status' has become completely meaningless - it has little or no effect on policy formation. The restrictions upon research suggested by the report are also pretty empty, particularly in no 19, which really says, 'let's only allow embryonic stem cell research when it looks as though it might work.' Which particular moral principle is that based on, please?

Again, amended versions of this have been put forward.

On one level, this is pretty unimportant - the Kirk is not institutionally opposed to current abortion legislation, and pro-lifers have upon occasion had a very hard time in the Kirk. It does look as if the evangelicals are waking up and fighting harder than before to keep the Kirk from a complete and utter departure from traditional Christian views, though, so do pray that things don't get worse.

And, of course, that lots of them notice the amazing coincidence that the Catholic Church preserves traditional Christian moral teaching, and doesn't look like she's planning on departing from it any time soon...