Both the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church appear to be on the march towards marriage equality. Compared to the Church of England our Scottish neighbours seem to be more progressive and, enlightened. There again Scotland has a long and proud history of enlightenment! Of course I write this as a progressive on matters relating to sexuality and, gender. Some conservatives in the Church of England are no doubt somewhat less sanguine.
Such conservatives will no doubt argue that the Scottish churches have ceased to be orthodox churches. But, surely the counter view is that orthodoxy and progression can be perfectly natural bed fellows? My orthodoxy is rooted in belief in the creed as a communal declaration of faith. The creeds are the kite mark of orthodoxy. The Scottish churches have recognised this. This doesn’t mean that progressives within the Scottish churches have won; unless that is a determination exists to regard issues of human sexuality, particularly as they relate to marriage, in win-lose terms.
A summary on the Church of Scotland’s web site of the outcome of its meeting of the General Assembly includes the following:
Professor Torrance said he felt that the Church as a whole understood that the Theological Forum was trying to move it out of a “culture of mutual denunciation into a non-binary situation”.
“A non-binary situation is the only one in which we can honour each other and enable mutual flourishing,” he added.
The Church of Scotland, in doing its theology, which it did robustly, has come to the conclusion that a simple binary outcome cannot exist within the church to ‘issues of human sexuality’ and, that a monochrome one size fits all mode of praxis is not possible. The Church of Scotland has further accepted that orthodoxy cannot be defined in relation to sexuality. The implications of this are significant.
The conservative voice in the Church of England continues to argue for a binary approach and, whilst it does it will, following Professor Torrance’s line of reasoning, succeed only in ensuring that honouring each other as orthodox creedal believers and, enabling mutual flourishing cannot take place.
But, and here is the interesting point, if mutual flourishing – that is to say the flourishing of both orthodox-progressive and orthodox-conservative churches – is to occur then both need to be freed from the yoke of binary thinking. Binary thinking may, if Professor Torrance is correct be a very subtle form of self-harm. This is perhaps counter intuitive to a church unwittingly imprisoned by binary ways of thinking, theologising and, believing. Yet, if Professor Torrance is correct binary thinking and a winner takes all mentality must be challenged because a non binary mode way of being church ‘is the only one in which we can honour each other and enable mutual flourishing.’
The Church of Scotland has linked the conclusions it has arrived at to notions of flourishing and, growth. The Church of Scotland’s analysis is that if a binary solution is sought and imposed the overall size of the mission pie decreases. That’s a sobering thought.
The Church of Scotland recognizes that it must remain a broad church and, a relational church; a church which allows for and facilitates different integrates on issues of human sexuality, just as it does, if you will exclude the pun, on a ‘host’ of other areas of difference. The irony is that the Church of England used to be a famously broad church. The Church of Scotland’s challenge to us C of E types includes a rediscovery of our breadth. Breadth makes no sense, as a motif, separate from diversity of thought and, theologies. And, if we are serious about our status as a national and established church we must be a broad church. Breadth cannot just be about styles of worship, or ways of being church. Breadth must incorporate both multiple ecclesiological and (supra) doctrinal integrities.
The Church of Scotland has also subtly redefined one aspect of leadership. Leadership, or at least thought leadership, in issues relating to human sexuality is about drawing out and facilitating differences and, integrities. For the Church of Scotland leadership, enlightened leadership, has meant giving due consideration to the whole and not a particular faction or grouping within the whole. The views of the individual leader (or in C of E terms bishop) are of less importance than their ability to recognise and foster different integrities.
Surely this should be characteristic of our C of E bishops if we are to make any real headway? The risk for the bishops is that should they continue to seek a uniform, binary, solution a large swathe of church and country will continue to fail to take note of their every proclamation. This would be a tragedy because we live in an era when the country needs to hear the voice of its public theologians. Pursuing the binary, as already suggested, may well be a very dangerous form of missional self-harm.
By stating that ‘a non-binary situation is the only one in which we can honour each other and enable mutual flourishing,’ the Church of Scotland is affirming the orthodox theology of progressives and, conservatives alike. It is bringing something of Desmond Tutu’s ‘ubuntu’ theology to these lands. It is claiming for itself Martin Buber’s I-thou philosophy. It is explicitly making the case for twin integrates.
The Scottish have given us English some new words to think about: flourishing, relationship, mutuality, integrity and respect.
Perhaps all of us, orthodox-progressives and orthodox-conservatives alike, in the Church of England, need to take some Scottish lessons?