|Written by Peter Johnston|
|Thursday, 07 June 2012 22:25|
I finished reading Finlay Macdonald's new book "Luke Paul" this evening. Very Rev Dr Finlay Macdonald (to use the full title!) was Principal Clerk of the Church of Scotland until his retirement, a past Moderator of the General Assembly, and before that a parish minister. He has written before and I also have a very helpful book of his on my shelves summarising some of the big debates in the history of the General Assembly, "Confidence in a Changing Church". "Luke Paul", however, is a rather different book in comparison to this earlier work.
This is a piece of historical fiction, if you will. It is the story of a parish minister, Rev Luke Paul, nearing his own retirement, living through the period October 2010 to May 2011, with the backdrop of a Church of Scotland that (like many denominations) is in the process of deciding whether to accept the ministry of gay and lesbian people living in committed relationships with their partners. Dr Macdonald has to be commended for writing a book that tries to do justice to the intricacy of the debates and history of debates, while also giving a flavour of the depth of feeling and real lives that are affected by these debates within the Kirk. He uses storytelling as the means to provide what, he states himself, he hopes will be a positive contribution to people's understanding within the Kirk of this issue. On the whole, in my opinion, I think he succeeds. [There's more...]
The book is very short and perhaps the storytelling suffers somewhat as a result. We are treated more to a series of vignettes of manse and church life, drawn in broad (albeit all too recognisable) strokes, than to an in-depth exposé of life for your average minister. That being said, it is good to read a book that shows a glimpse into manse life, rather than rectory life or vicarage life, for once. What did hit me, and I wonder if non-clergy readers would note it, was the strange variety within ministry. Thinking of my own experience, in one day you can find yourself speaking to 300 children in a school assembly, standing in the pouring rain for a committal at the cemetery, in the office catching up on work needing to be done, reading up on seemingly obscure matters of theology for a paper, sermon or correspondence, sipping tea with a church member while they tell you their news, and then meeting with others to plan some future event. The one thing it ain't is 'samey'.
Dr Macdonald's book is a very helpful primer for anyone who is interested in what has taken place within the Church of Scotland up to the General Assembly of 2011 with respect to the debates about gay and lesbian clergy, and he shows his knowledge in the various passages and conversations that give us this information. Again, because of the brevity of the book, sometimes this feels a little forced, but one cannot fault the accuracy of this background to the story. The book also provides a helpful summary of some aspects of church law with regard to complaints procedures against ministers, not that I am looking for anyone to use it!
What was not at all contrived within the book were the fictional accounts of pastoral encounters between Rev Luke Paul and elders, members and others. These spoke very truthfully and meaningfully to me, and I am sure many other ministers will recognise some of these encounters as familiar.
Rev Luke Paul is left-leaning, seeking a progressive and inclusive church that both welcomes all and means it by fully including them in all aspects of church life, but he is very aware also that he should seek the unity of the church. The full inclusion of gay and lesbian people does come with a cost in terms of church unity when more conservatively minded ministers and members say they will leave. It is a dilemma that I and many other ministers share with the fictional Rev Luke Paul. At what price comes church unity? And how is the church to include all, even those who completely and sincerely disagree with each other over particular points? Some accomodation is inevitable, but, again, what is the cost?
The name of the fictional minister Luke Paul, by the way, is a deliberate play on Luke's inclusive gospel (think the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son) and Paul's oft-quoted "sin lists" that are used to defend a traditionalist anti-gay stance.
The book climaxes with the speech that Rev Luke Paul gives during the debate over the Special Commission's report to the 2011 General Assembly. And it was this section that did make me reflect most. I have written on it before, at the time of the General Assembly, as I was a Commissioner there myself. Indeed, I have been present at many of the events that Dr Macdonald wrote about, and involved too in numerous ways over the past years in trying also to encourage more openness within the Kirk. So much of the contents of the book is very well known to me. But, reading about that debate again this evening, I particularly reflected on my reasons for speaking in support of Dr Macdonald's own motion during that debate.
This motion was to give no particular lead for the Theological Commission that is currently preparing for a report to the 2013 General Assembly. At the 2011 General Assembly we were presented with two options or trajectories to give to the Theological Commission to guide their work: one would effectively close the door permanently for gay and lesbian people in relationships to fulfil a calling to ministry, and the other would explore what it might look like if the Church of Scotland allowed these ministries. I spoke in favour of Dr Macdonald's motion that would have set up the Theological Commission without the General Assembly giving a lead in one direction or the other. It felt wrong to do this at the time, because with all my heart I wanted the Assembly to give the more progressive nudge, but I think I was so fearful of the possibility that the door would be closed for another generation that the alternative of another two years wait was an accommodation worth taking. In the end, my fears were not realised and the nudge towards a more open church was given to the Theological Commission.
As an aside, it was rather amusing to read about one's own attempts to sway the mind of the General Assembly during the book, thankfully no names were used!
Anyway, enough nightly rambling. If you are interested in reliving or finding out more about the various debates in the CofS in recent years, then "Luke Paul" is well worth a read to get you up to speed; if you want to get a glimpse into typical manse life then you can do so; and if you are after a short ecclesiastical yarn (is that an oxymoron?), then it also just about works.
I admire Dr Macdonald for taking the time to write this book, and I do hope many will read it.