Living the Word

Luke 15:11-24

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At the end of May following the decision of the General Assembly that whilst we as a church uphold traditional Christian teaching on human sexuality and marriage the Church of Scotland will in the future allow congregations call a minister in a civil partnership. In our magazine, the Herald, I tried to give as fair an assessment of that debate as I could and I am grateful to everyone who has expressed appreciation for that particular pastoral letter. I concluded by saying that I hoped that this was my final word on this whole affair. A little boy in church watching the minister very closely said to his Dad, ‘What does it mean when the minister looks at his watch?’ To which his Dad replied, ‘Nothing at all son, nothing at all.’ Minister’s ‘finalies’ are like that; once over lunch my wife informed me that I concluded the sermon with four finalies. So, six weeks on from the debate at the Assembly and having gained some perspective on what happened I would like, this morning, to attempt an assessment of the merit of Albert Bogle’s motion. It is a motion that it is very easy to criticise and to tear apart; but I have a sneaking feeling that at its core there are issues Christian truth we abandon at our peril.

For those who are completely bamboozled by what I am saying let me once gain sketch in the background. About six years ago a proposal was sent down under what is called the Barrier Act that ministers who so wish should be allowed the bless civil partnerships. When this was debated in Glasgow Presbytery Rev Peter White set out very eloquently and powerfully four principles from the Bible that taught that homosexuality was sinful and therefore could not blessed in Christ’s name. During the debate the followed no one tried to answer Peter White’s four points and most memorably Professor Newlands said that the acceptance and blessing of gay relationships was advancing in society and that the church has better get used to that and stop living in the past. In the years that have followed, despite the various theological commissions and studies that have been set up and in due time have reported, the debate has not moved on one inch. Then in May of this year, after a long debate, the General Assembly passed a motion on the name of the former Moderator Albert Bogle that the church affirms its belief in the traditional understanding of marriage, whilst allowing individual congregations who wish to call a minister in a civil partnership the freedom to do so.

During the coming year this motion will be drafted into and Act to be placed before next year’s General Assembly it well be that these proposals will be voted down either at next year’s Assembly or when Presbytery’s come to consider the matter.

So this is where we are. In the press there have been reports of congregations preparing to leave the Church of Scotland. Personally I am committed to a group of 350 minsters and elders who are committed to staying within the Church of Scotland and working for the renewal of the church. I stand by the statement I made two years ago that I believe that as a minister I am called to live as an expression of the covenant love of God, that it of the essence of my life to be with you, to share with you all that I know of the love wisdom and grace of God. So until God discharges me from that call wherever you go, I will go; if you wish to remain in the Church of Scotland so will I.

Let us think about Albert Bogle’s motion. Over the last four years I have read as much as I can about the pros and cons of the church accepting homosexual practice. Since I stand on the principle at the heart of the Church of Scotland’s confessional standards that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the supreme rule of faith and life and since those who want to liberalise the church’s traditional position on homosexuality concede that the teaching of the Bible on this subject is consistently condemnatory that I remain convinced that the traditional view is correct. However one story I read haunts me.

In Chicago a traditionalist Christian bloke, like me, decided he wanted to get to know the gay community in his city. He spent a great deal of time befriending people in the gay community, it took a long time for them to trust him because their experience of Christian’s was one of closed minded people who simply condemned. During this time of his friends in his home church who was gay, confided that he believed God was allowing Him the freedom to go and live with the gay community in Chicago. This chap’s response was predictable, he said that God would not permit someone to do what was described as sinful in the written word of God, the Bible. Nonetheless this chap insisted God was allowing him go; so he went and lived in the gay community in Chicago. After five years or so he appeared back in the church, his friend went and spoke to him. He said that he found no peace, no satisfaction living in the gay community and that God was now calling him home to a church where there was forgiveness, acceptance and orthodoxy.

In terms of law, in terms of rigid application of a principle, no matter how good and Biblical that principle is such a story makes no sense at all. But it makes perfect sense in the light of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

It was not right that the son demand his share of the inheritance, forsake his responsibilities and give himself over to a dissolute life. But the father allows him go because, law, tradition, duty cannot create love. It was only in the journey home that the son discovered the wonder, beauty and desirability of his father’s goodness and love.

I am not sure that either the traditionalist or the revisionist can win this particular argument, I am even less convinced of the value of a victory for either side; the rancour and division would poison the church for at least a generation. Does Albert Bogle’s motion in removing the ordination of gay clergy from the list of going to the stake issues allow us that freedom that the father gave to the prodigal son? The most important issue is that we be a church that people no matter who they are, no matter what their sexual orientation can always, always come home to and in coming home discover the goodness, unconditional love forgiveness and mercy of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I used to play golf on a Monday morning and after particularly awful presbytery meetings with Bob MacIntyre; Bob had set up Marks and Spencer in Inverness and then came out of retirement to set up Marks and Spencer in Bermuda. I said to him once ‘Bob having spent a life time in Marks and Spencer you must know all about book keeping and accountancy.’ He replied that never in his life had he counted to money taken or the number of items of ladies underwear sold his job was very simple to make the store a good place to be so that people would come back. So he made it his number one priority to make sure the staff were happy and contented to know that he was concerned about them, because if the staff were happy and knew they were cared for they would be helpful to the customers, they would be concerned that the store was in good order the store would be a good place to be and people would come and come back again. If they did not buy something the first time they came it did not matter they would be back.

I realised then that churches should be places where people want to come back to. First time they come they might find it all a bit boring, a bit traditional a bit odd in this day and age. But if there is something of Christ here they will want to come back. I never realised how important that was until I thought long and hard about that guy in Chicago. You cannot put these things into church law; it is something we must live.

My final point, and this is a real planed finally, may not be that different from my last; and that is the law has limitations. I had the privilege many years ago of attending a talk given by Andrew Heron, who had been Presbytery Clerk here in Glasgow and had been Moderator of the General Assembly. He told the story that one day a young minister phoned him up and asked what church law said on a particular point, to which his reply was ‘Church Law can stop you making a fool of yourself, but it cannot make you wise.’ I knew a minister who if he spotted some fault in an elder would preach on such failings the next Sunday and name the elder concerned. In law he had the right to do that, but was he wise?

On writing on what it is to be a Christian, Eugene Peterson quotes a poem from Gerald Manley Hopkins that just as when kingfishers fly and the sun dances of their feathers it is as though they catch fire, just as when a bell rings the beauty of the chime rings through the whole bell, so the Christian should be a love and resonating with the love, grace and beauty that resonates through and shines form the Saviour. The Christian faith is not about conforming to a set of rules, and maintaining a set of standards it is about being alive with all the grace and charm we find in Christ Jesus.
The poem concludes:

I say more: the man justices,
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eyes what in God’s eyes he is –
Christ, For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not His
To the Father though the features of man’s faces.

My deepest fear is that if the champions of gay rights win this debate the church will be in place where she is demonstrably unfaithful to the word of God and that is a fearful and terrible place for any church to be, men can change acts of the general assembly but they cannot change the Word of God. If the traditionalists win there will be at least a generation of rancour. Either side can contend to have the law on their side but neither side will be wise. Instead we should devote ourselves to being the father’s house in the parable of the Prodigal Son, a place where people have the freedom to leave but who will discover afresh the Father’s love and goodness when they come home. Does Albert Bogle’s motion despite its apparent inconsistency afford us the opportunity to be such a home for people to go from and then come to home to?