'Sinful' Church of Scotland told it must accept gays in its ranks

Edinburgh, Scotland - An influential group of ministers in Scotland's largest Protestant church has said that its clergy and congregations have been "sinfully" intolerant of gays and lesbians in its ranks. In a report on homosexuality, a working party has concluded that the Church of Scotland has been institutionally homophobic for much of its history, and urged its 520,000 members to accept that gay and lesbian Christians have a right to serve in the church, as long as they are celibate.

But the report, which is being presented to next month's ruling body of the Presbyterian church, the general assembly in Edinburgh, has failed to give any firm views on whether practising homosexuals can be ministers or even elders in the church. Instead, it urges the church to rethink its hostility to active homosexuals in its ranks.

The report follows a bitter split in the church which emerged after the general assembly narrowly voted last year to allow ministers to bless same sex couples who had married in a civil ceremony - an issue which has caused deep divisions in the Anglican church worldwide.

The vote was overturned in December when local presbyteries rejected it, by 36 to nine, effectively making it illegal for a Church of Scotland minister to give same sex blessings. The authors of yesterday's report urged the church to find a middle ground. It suggests the church had to recognise that many Christians did believe active homosexuality was permissible between a monogamous couple.

Callum Phillips, from the gay rights pressure group Stonewall Scotland, said the report's ambivalence on active homosexuality was a cop-out. "Theological debates may be very interesting, but same sex relationships are a fact of life, and I would expect all organisations, whatever their basis, to recognise that lesbians and gays have exactly the same rights to a full relationship under the law."