Slaying the Paper Tiger

In the very first blog post I wrote for this contribution to the digital aether, I mentioned that I happen to attend St. Columba’s Church of Scotland, a parish whose minister is Louis Kinsey. Louis has become embroiled in the controversy surrounding gay ordination within the CoS. As a result of the tension surrounding the issue, the Assembly of the Church of Scotland slapped a moratorium on the discussion of the matter.

I should explain, right at the outset, that I’m not going to leap into this with an opinion about homosexuality in the life of the church. I have headaches enough right now without adding that to the list of ‘things that will get me lynched by Christian brothers (in love)’. But I do have something to say about the moratorium, because I think that in this case, and with specific reference to Louis, the CoS has wandered into a minefield it didn’t even know existed.

The precise wording of the moratorium is as follows:

Instruct all Courts, Councils and Committees of the Church not to issue press statements or otherwise talk to the media or to make decisions in relation to contentious matters of human sexuality, with respect to Ordination and Induction to the Ministry of the Church of Scotland, until 31 May 2011.

The particular point I wish to make here is that, although this final issuance is a significantly amended redraft of the original, which read “Instruct all Courts, Councils and Committees of the Church to observe a moratorium on issuing public comment, whether in publications or otherwise, and decision-making in relation to contentious matters of human sexuality, in particular with respect to Ordination and Induction to the Ministry of the Church of Scotland, until 31 May 2011”.

There are some important distinctions here, but they are not distinctive enough, at least to accomplish what the Assembly set out to do. And that is because it appears, at least from my reading of the minutes, that no one involved realised just how radically communications media have changed and blurred the boundary between private comment and public utterance.

The original draft was changed because, according to the logic of the statement, no one in any CoS congregation could discuss anything at all. No one could preach a sermon on the topic. No one could sit in a congregational Kirk session and attempt to determine what that congregation, as a whole, believed to be the correct interpretation of the Bible. Clearly such a situation was unworkable, and so the moratorium was reworded. As a result, the CoS believed that public debate would be safely contained, and –


No, that wasn’t the sound of the CoS Assembly shooting itself in the (other) foot, surprising as that may seem. That was the sound of the CoS Assembly leaping 500 feet in the air and spreading itself across the landscape (thank you, Edmund Blackadder) as a result of stepping on a concealed landmine that has now gone off, ironically enough, in the pages of the Herald.

What no one at the Assembly meeting seems to have considered is, well, you and me, Dear Reader. Us inhabitants of the blogosphere. They could profitably have learned lessons from other groups who have sought a ‘civilised quietude’ on contentious issues.

Take, for instance, the ongoing libel case being brought against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association. Singh, in an article published in the Guardian, wrote that

“The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”

The BCA, objecting in particular to the two emboldened terms I have just quoted (quoted in order to inform you, Dear Reader, as to the nature of their complaint, and in compliance with Schedule 1 of the Defamation Act 1996 – damn, I hate that I have to be so careful with language in order to protect myself from litigation by a now discredited organisation all of whose ‘evidence base’ for their system of treatment has been, according to the BMJ, completely demolished), chose to sue Singh, and in so doing didn’t shoot themselves in the foot so much as take the leg off at the knee with a grenade launcher.

The blogosphere responded in fine fashion, publicising Singh’s plight as much as possible, and as for the ‘evidence base’ – the by-now infamous ‘plethora’ of supporting evidence for chiropractic efficacy – it was taken apart piece by piece in 24 hours by the online community who, with near-maniacal tenacity, hunted down every footnoted reference and posted the results for all to see. The result was a massacre of flimsy arguments, with the raked dorsal fins of the selachian bloggers occasionally breaking the surface as they circled the bloodstained water in which the BCA had been torn apart.

I support Simon Singh. You can read more about his plight here, and I encourage you to do so.

My point, insofar as it relates to Louis Kinsey and the Church of Scotland, is that far more than emailing, blogging is the internet’s communication medium. There is no legal framework in place yet for dealing with blogs – which is why the recent ‘Night Jack‘ case has been so controversial – but within this communications paradigm, the wording of the CoS moratorium is totally ineffectual. There are three points to the statement quoted at the top of the article:

1.) Not issuing press statements.

2.) Not otherwise talking to the media.

3.) Not making decisions in relation to contentious matters of human sexuality, with respect to Ordination and Induction to the Ministry of the Church of Scotland.

The interesting thing is that Louis has absolutely abided to the letter of these laws. Point 3 is essentially irrelevent to our discussion, as it has to do with actions taken rather than discussed. But points 1 & 2 could stand a little further scrutiny.

Louis has not, since the passing of the moratorium, issued a press statement. He has written for the press, it is true, but these have been sermons on other topics entirely. So that dispenses with (1). But it is (2) that’s the interesting one.

Louis has been very, very careful in this regard. I would expect nothing less: Louis is a friend of mine and so I know him to be a smart guy, Ron Ferguson’s allegations of intellectual subluminescence notwithstanding. (I’m not one of Scotia’s intellectual giants either. Because I’m not Scottish 😉 If, however, Ron Ferguson chooses to go toe-to-toe with me, I will be more than delighted). To show you what I mean, here is an article published in the Aberdeen Press & Journal. The telling phrase appears near the end:

“Mr Kinsey also declined to comment yesterday.”

Louis hasn’t spoken to the media. The media themselves have told us as much. So that just leaves the blog then.

Ah yes. The blog. Well, this is where it gets interesting. Louis has not been prohibited from making public statements on the issue. As a preacher, he is by definition a public speaker, which is why the wording of the original moratorium was amended. Since church services are open to all, even journalists, there is no realistic way for this moratorium to function. Because when Louis uses his blog to proclaim Christianity, for the edification of his parishoners and anyone else who reads it, he is preaching. Even though Louis has kept to both the letter and the spirit of the moratorium (I have read no subsequent discussions on the rightness or wrongness of homosexually-active clergy) he has been misrepresented in both the P&J  and Herald as breaking it, when in fact he has not done so; he has merely (!) challenged the reasons for its existence at all.

In fact he need not have done so. As I have demonstrated, the moratorium, because it was insufficiently phrased, has nothing whatsoever to say about blogging, which makes it the most tissue-thin of paper tigers. But it does indicate that there might be a more serious problem abroad.

I began this blog by saying that the CoS had stepped into a minefield of which it has been unaware. In fact the problem is more serious than that: to extend the metaphor further, the minefield in question is in the church’s own backyard. Right to expression (and, correspondingly, privacy) is going to be the big intellectual battlefield for the next 20 or 30 years. It was, after all, one of the reasons offered for the invasion of Iraq – you can’t bring democracy without bringing that freedom with you. And the Christian Church is an organisation the history of which essentially consists of one enormous battle to express what it considers to be the truth of the human condition without fear of persecution. When the church starts muzzling its own ministers I fear for its continued existence. It’s all very well not wanting to rock the boat, but if that is your primary concern then you’ll never step over the side and walk on water.

There is a further issue. The ineffectiveness of the CoS’s moratorium speaks to a deeper problem, which is this: they seem unaware of the various modes of communication open to them. Traditionally, of course, the church has been slow to accept change (there are some who would argue that that is at the core of the debate on homosexuality, though I respectfully disagree), but all divisions aside I think something every branch of the church would agree on is the need to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Assembly’s aforementioned ignorance is deeply troubling, not because it leaves them open to ridicule for those who are of a mind to (although it does); it is because it suggests that the church’s mission (in all senses of the word) has been abandoned. Otherwise the church would be making a concerted effort to use all the means at its disposal to ensure its fulfillment. What we have here is evidence that this is not happening, and that seems to me to be the biggest problem of all.

Controversy won’t kill the church. Apathy will.

About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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2 Responses to Slaying the Paper Tiger

  1. Louise says:

    Well argued.

  2. Pingback: Spewing Filth « Starlingford Chronicles

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