Gay clergy row threatens mass resignations from Church of Scotland

Scotland - The Church of Scotland is braced for mass resignations over moves to allow the ordination of gay ministers, with up to 150 conservative and evangelical ministers threatening to quit, the Guardian can reveal.

The rebellion began after the Church of Scotland became the first major presbyterian church in the world to allow openly gay and lesbian ministers to take up parishes at its general assembly in May, despite evidence that 20% of its elders and office-bearers could leave in protest.

The assembly also opened the way for the full ordination of gay ministers in the 450-year-old church within two years.

But senior sources estimate as many as 150 serving ministers are considering resignation, in the largest schism in the church since 474 ministers quit in 1843 to form the Free Church of Scotland.

However, a spokesman for the Church of Scotland denied that so many ministers were threatening to leave and urged critics of gay ordination to wait until a theological commission reported in 2013.

At least six ministers have left since the assembly in May, with one minister and his entire congregation at Gilcomston South in Aberdeen poised to leave as a group, in the first large-scale protest.

Mike Strudwick, session clerk at Gilcomston South, said he expected the minister, the Rev Dominic Smart, and his congregation to resign en masse very soon, but were still discussing the details of how and when.

He predicted other churches opposed to gay ordination could follow, and perhaps form a new breakaway church. He said he could "well believe" there were 150 ministers considering resignation.

"Maybe five or six years down the line there will be a grouping of like-minded evangelical Presbyterian churches," he said. "It is more than conceivable that there will be a number of churches in the next months or years who will leave the Church of Scotland."

The split is the most significant fallout since the ordination of Scott Rennie, an openly gay minister in a long-term relationship, to Queen's Cross church in Aberdeen in 2009. His appointment provoked a major dispute within the church, mirrored in the Church of England and other churches overseas, about the role and status of gay clergy and same-sex marriages.

The Church of Scotland's ruling body voted in May to endorse Rennie's appointment by allowing any gay minister who had declared their sexuality before 2009 to take up new posts and parishes in the church.

While effectively authorising gay clergy in the church, the assembly voted to postpone a formal decision on allowing gay people to train as ministers and be fully ordained in future until its special theological commission reported in 2013. It also prevented serving gay ministers who declared their sexuality after May 2009 from taking up new posts until at least 2013.

Other figures in the church confirmed that other ministers are planning to resign, although some believe the revolt will not be large.

One obstacle to mass departures is that ministers who resign loses their home, income and future pension payments. Congregations would lose their church and its buildings.

Critics of this strict ruling are thought to be planning to contest it in May, in a bid to give rebellious ministers greater protection.

The Rev Ian Watson, a prominent member of the evangelical group Forward Together, said he believed only a few ministers would leave in the near future.

"I know of five who have actually left or will do so in the next few weeks and maybe one more for whom this is on the cards. I am not one of them," he said. "If there will be an exit, it will be two, three years down the line at least."

The Rev Peter Johnston, of the liberal One Kirk group which supports gay ordination, said he believed some rebels were threatening to leave simply to put pressure on the church, but hoped most critics wanted to keep talking about a harmonious solution.

The general assembly's decision "does leave them in an awkward position", he said. "I can grasp that but the majority of folk in the Church of Scotland want to see what the theological commission comes back with. From our perspective, we're still trying to keep dialogue open with all people."

Strudwick said: "It's very difficult to be in this position because we are the people who are sticking to the traditional views of the Church of Scotland.

"The church is putting itself out of line with the majority of Christians worldwide. It seems very difficult for ministers to be put in this position of sticking to their convictions but then losing their manse."

The Church of Scotland spokesman added: "It is disappointing that any ministers or members feel the need to leave the church before the commission reports.

"We stress that no final decisions have been taken, and the church is currently holding more dialogue on this issue.

"Only five ministers have indicated their intention to demit charge citing this issue. So far only one has actually left.

"There is no evidence to support the claim that significant numbers of ministers are preparing to leave.

"In keeping with our traditions, everyone continues to work for the peace and unity of the Church of Scotland."