By Rev Dr David Sinclair
I attended the session at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland few weeks ago. It can be an exhausting time, even though most of it is spent simply sitting and listening. It is also a time that can almost simultaneously provide and obscure perspective. In the midst of a debate it is possible to hear things you hadn’t considered before, have issues set in a context that sheds new light; and also, virtually at the same time, forget how easy it is to focus purely on internal matters, and forget what all this might look like to the world outside.
One of the ways to cope with the volume of information and opinion coming at us is to apply a particular ‘lens’ to what is being heard. And looking through the lens of ‘minority’ can help us see more clearly, at least part of what is going on.
So the first realisation for the Church of Scotland (and the church in general) is that it is now living, and has been for some time, in a societal context where it is a minority. The realisation has taken a little time to catch up with the reality, but we do now notice that the secular tide is coming up the beach in a way that has not previously been our experience.
Of course, the Kirk is still a fairly large minority, still with close to 10% of the population officially in its membership and another million people who, in a census, will say they belong (even if the Kirk doesn’t know who they are!). But the point is that we still organise ourselves, and think of ourselves, and expect others to treat us, as if we were still a majority. We have still to get our heads around what difference it makes to be a minority in the land.
We heard stories from other countries in the General Assembly. We heard from the Czech Republic, perhaps the most secular country in Europe – or even the world. We heard from Pakistan of the narrative which GMA knows well – a narrative of persecution and corruption and sanctified ignorance, and of the real physical and mortal danger involved in being a Christian there. We heard of the threat seen by the government of Israel in a plantation of fruit trees – and of how they were bulldozed down, while we were meeting, to make a point about power and control, about intolerance and inferior status.
And we understood – at least we thought we did – how the human instinct to uniformity, to intolerance, to monoculturalism, to monocredalism, is an instinct that can never be anything but destructive of freedom and life. We looked to the day when people could live beside one another without insisting on everything and everyone being the same.
And we managed to map out for ourselves a way in which differences over understandings of sexuality might be lived with, a way of living together in the church where congregations could, if they wished, have ministers who were openly gay – and we realised that, for that to happen, the church would have to admit openly gay people to be educated and trained for the ministry.
We managed to do that, but not without an argument – and not without one third of the Assembly opposing it. The proposal will be discussed in the church at large over the next year, before coming back to next year’s Assembly for final approval. (The Church of Scotland never makes decisions hastily!)
But I hope it occurred to all of us, as the debate was going on, how out of touch we must look to anyone looking from the outside – if anyone still is! I suspect that the whole argument must have looked and sounded like a discussion from another age and another place. Is this really the defining debate for the church’s identity? There are some who seem to think that it is; but, if it is, then we truly have become not only a minority but an irrelevant one.
The bible and the church have important things to say, words and action to contribute, on issues of poverty and inequality, human freedom and personal responsibility, mutual dependence and the renewing power of forgiveness. We have contributions to make about care for one another, and care for creation; about how to live for the other, not just for oneself. We can’t allow ourselves to be seen as a body of people caught up by a debate that the society in which we are set left behind years ago.
The sobering truth is that even minorities can find minorities among themselves – and even minorities have to be aware of the dangers of looking inwards instead of outwards, of intolerance instead of acceptance, of destructive division instead of creative unity.