BBC News reported that the Rev. Dominic Smart, pastor of Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, announced his resignation in February. He and the bulk of a congregation of approximately 325 members planned to leave the Church of Scotland in protest of the Kirk allowing the appointment of gay ministers.
Smart and his membership took issue with the General Assembly’s 2011 decision to allow the appointment of gay clergy members, an act that gathered steam two years earlier when the GA appointed Scott Rennie to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen, located less than a mile from Gilcomston. The action to induct Rennie as the first openly gay minister in the Church of Scotland touched off quite a theological debate.
“Our decision is not about Scott Rennie,” Smart said. “Our decision is a response to the way in which the General Assembly, as the highest court of the Kirk, has marginalized the Bible by approving the practice of same-sex relationships for ordained ministers. Our decision is about the Bible and its place in a modern church and a modern Scotland.
“It wasn’t a personal thing about one individual. It’s a bigger issue about the denomination and its attitude toward Scripture.”
Checking out before check-in
Smart and Gilcomston members made good on the announcement to depart, leaving their Union Street sanctuary to hold their first service apart from the Church of Scotland on March 10 at the Copthorne Hotel on Huntly Street under the name of Gilcomston Church.
Reports indicated that hotel management cancelled the booking before Smart and his congregants were able to have their worship service there. However, the general manager of the Copthorne said the hotel had nothing against the church meeting there and did not initiate the cancellation, saying there was a mutual understanding with the minister and congregation regarding the booking.
Smart said the cancellation was made by hotel management because of complaints and threats that had been received regarding Gilcomston’s scheduled service there.
A report indicated that hotel officials banned the congregation because its views on marriage were “offensive,” according to the complaints received by clients.
“The existing clients and guests were offended by our presence there, so hotel management wanted to have a discussion to explain face to face their reasons for cancelling the booking,” Smart said. “It was a very amicable meeting. We felt no animosity toward the hotel. Our problems were with those pressing the hotel (management).”
The congregation moved its first service away from the Gilcomston South sanctuary in the city centre to the Beach Ballroom along the coast of the North Sea.
Working with Presbytery of Aberdeen
While Smart and a sizeable majority of congregants met by the sea, about 30 Gilcomston South members remained for a Church of Scotland worship service under the direction of the Rev. George Cowie, presbytery clerk and convener of the special committee working on the matter involving Smart and his congregation.
“It is deeply sad when people choose to leave the Church of Scotland,” Cowie said. “We believe that the Church of Scotland is a broad church and that it can accommodate people who hold differing views. In this case, however, the situation has not involved conflict, scandal or litigation. All parties have shown respect for one another, and it has been a good Christian witness for us to engage with one another in this manner.”
The Presbytery of Aberdeen met March 14 and decided that the remaining members of Gilcomston South will worship at South Holburn Parish Church where Cowie presides.
The presbytery also determined that the new congregation formed from Gilcomston South will be invited to use its former church property on an interim basis as it ponders the future of the Church of Scotland congregation.
“We knew this was coming, and we have been working quite closely with the pastor and people leaving,” Cowie said. “We will allow them to have temporary use of the building while we consider our own needs in the City Centre of Aberdeen.
“We’re trying to work on a cooperative basis, endeavoring to work in a Christ-like way despite the differences that have arisen.”
While separation from the Kirk and presbytery was not an easy decision to reach, Smart was encouraged by the way Aberdeen’s leadership worked with the Gilcomston congregation in an amicable way.
“Throughout the process of leaving the Church of Scotland, we developed a good working relationship with our presbytery in Aberdeen,” he said. “It was good to see you can disagree with an institution but do so Christianly. It was a parting of ways without a great deal of conflict. It lets people know you can part graciously without trying to destroy each other.”
Smart said his current congregation was pleased with the presbytery’s decision to allow the property to be used until a decision is reached regarding the future of the facility, a decision that possibly could result in the congregation staying there.
“We’d be very happy with that outcome because we are engaged in a lot of gospel work in the city centre,” Smart said. “We need to continue declaring the witness of the Lord Jesus. We’re pleased with the interim arrangement with the presbytery and await their plan for the future, which should be complete in May or June.”
Not the first to leave
The issue of leaving the church over the GA’s decision regarding homosexuality has been ongoing for Smart and his congregation for some time, culminating with the decision to break away from the Church of Scotland.
“We felt that the decisions made locally by Aberdeen Presbytery and the General Assembly in 2009 and 2011 were taking the denomination clearly away from Biblical standards on social conduct,” Smart said. “We felt we couldn’t go along with them. They went against the nature and role of Scripture in the life of the church. We felt it was crystal-clear that the decision that had been made was dismissing Scriptural leading. With a great deal of reluctance and regret we felt we had to part ways.”
Smart and his Gilcomston followers are not the first to leave the Kirk over the issue of gay clergy.
A BBC News report from June 2012 revealed that St. George’s Tron Church and its membership of more than 500 made the same decision to depart after more than 12 months of prayer and thought were given to the matter.
The issue rose to prominence in 2011 when the Kirk’s General Assembly voted to accept gay clergy members as long as they had declared their sexuality and were ordained prior to 2009.
Scotland‘s largest Protestant church swept away centuries of tradition and voted to allow gay men and lesbians to become ministers in May 2011, opening up the prospect of the church allowing civil partnerships for same-sex couples.
The Church of Scotland imposed a temporary moratorium in 2009 on admitting gay and lesbian ministers after Rennie became the first openly gay clergyman in a homosexual partnership to be officially appointed as a minister in the church.
The church’s General Assembly voted to lift that moratorium, allowing gay ministers to take on parishes for the first time since its formation 450 years ago.
The General Assembly also allowed serving gay and lesbian ministers who have kept their sexuality private to openly declare their sexuality – a proposal bitterly resisted by evangelical and conservative ministers.
The vote followed official warnings that allowing gay clergy could split the church, forcing traditionalists to resign and join more conservative churches formed after the last great schism, when 474 ministers resigned in 1843.
The Rev. Dr. William Philip, minister of St. George’s, said the Church of Scotland was “choosing to walk away from the Biblical gospel, and to walk apart from the faith of the worldwide Christian Church.”
“Instead, it clearly and deliberately chose to set an opposite trajectory toward normalising such relationships. In doing so the highest court of the Kirk has marginalized the Bible, the written Word of God,” he said.
A matter of accountability
Smart, who has been at Gilcomston for 15 years, shared that stance against appointing gay ministers in reaching his decision to resign from the Church of Scotland and lead a newly-formed congregation comprised of a large contingent of Gilcomston South members.
“We believe it was taking the Kirk away from what the Bible teaches quite clearly,” he said. “Our decision to leave has been the culmination of careful study, sincere discussion and prayer over the past four years. We have weighed up many different options and believe the decision we have reached has the most integrity.
“Our decision comes from a view shared by most Christians. This view has been shared throughout 2,000 years of the history of the worldwide Christian church. The Kirk prefers to align itself with a handful of Western European and North American denominations, which have torn themselves apart by taking the same novel line.”
It’s a matter of accountability, Smart explained.
“When the denomination is a national church, it has to check itself on whether it is a cultural artifact or a product of the work of Christ,” he said. “The danger is (the Kirk) sees itself as a reflection of society and becomes accountable to the culture of society; it strives to please the culture. I think that is the question that needs to be asked: Is the Church of Scotland accountable to Scottish culture or is it here to speak to Scotland through God’s Word? It was established by the people of Scotland and has become a product of its society.”
Cowie said the Church of Scotland will give additional consideration to the matter of same-sex relationships of clergy members during the General Assembly session scheduled for May 2013.
“Like many churches around the world, particularly those in the west, it is a contemporary issue, and the church has not established its mind yet,” he said. “The church will be considering its theological position on same-sex relationships. It has been a significant debate for our church.”
A new journey
Smart and his congregants will begin their new journey independently but plan to look into an affiliation with another denomination.
“We’re taking things one day at a time right now,” Smart said. “Our intention is to affiliate, but we have decided we will not rush the decision. We believe there is strength in interdependence rather than independence. We want to form strong links with like-minded congregations.
“I think, more than anything else, what we want to see is a clear gospel witness for Jesus in Scotland, a gospel which proclaims very clearly God’s unconditional love for all sinners. We want that to be increasing in Scotland.”