Commissioners also approved a report which could pave the way to allow some ministers to conduct same sex marriages in the future.
The Assembly voted in favour of instructing the Legal Questions Committee to examine whether Church law may be reformed to allow ministers who wish to conduct same sex marriages to do so, without removing the legal protection available for any Minister or Deacon who refuse to officiate at ceremonies as a matter of conscience.
A report of the committee’s findings will be presented to the General Assembly next year for further discussion.
Commissioners also agreed that the Church should take stock of its history of discrimination against gay people, at different levels and in different ways, and apologise “individually, corporately and seek to do better.”
An amendment to recognise the Church’s doctrine and practice in matters of human sexuality and marriage was accepted by the General Assembly.
The decisions were taken after three hours of impassioned debate over options presented by the Theological Forum.
The debate was carried out in a spirit of grace and humility, but there was no mistaking the strength of feeling expressed in the Hall. Some commissioners on the traditionalist wing of the Church claimed the report was “biased” and “one-sided” but their arguments failed to carry opinion.
A majority agreed that the Theological Forum, in consultation with other councils of the Church, should investigate theologically, the theme of reconciliation to address divisions between churches and wider society.
Presenting the report, Theological Forum convener, Very Rev Professor Iain Torrance, said he and his colleagues could see “no sufficient theological reason for the Church not to authorise specific ministers to officiate at same-sex weddings”.
He added that this would be possible “if doing so does not prejudice the position of those who decline to do so for reasons of conscience”.
Professor Torrance told commissioners that the Church’s journey on the issue had parallels with the one it has taken on the ordination of women in the 1960s.
He said the debate was initially won by ‘justice arguments’, reluctantly accepted by traditionalists,
Professor Torrance said opponents later gave way to a new theological understanding which made room for women’s ministry.
Professor Torrance added said that the Forum was trying to frame the argument on same-sex marriage in a new way, drawing on the work of theologian Robert Song:
“Song suggests that rather than the old fraught polarisation of heterosexual versus homosexual, where the notion of homosexuality is demonised as disobedient to a creation expectation to pro-create, it needs to be reframed,” he added.
Speaking after the debate, Rev Scott Rennie, minister at Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen, said he was “delighted” that the General Assembly had decided to move forward on the issue.
“There was a real feeling that we have to find space for everyone in the Church and I hope it is not too many years before I am able to marry people of the same gender,” he added.
But Rev Mike Goss, clerk of Angus Presbytery who has been representing the traditionalist wing of the Church in media interviews this week, said he and his colleagues were “frustrated” that the Church was not coming together over the issue.
“Although there were things in the report that myself and friends felt could have been better expressed, it has not altered where things are with this debate,” he added.
“I hope that by having it today, we have highlighted that we do not feel that our position has been well reflected in the report itself and that will help the Church know where we are coming from.”
Mr Goss said he had “no difficulty apologising” to the gay community.
“If I have caused hurt to other folk unintentionally then I am more than happy to do it,” he added.
Speaking after the debate, Professor Torrance said he felt that the Church as a whole understood that the Theological Forum was trying to move it out of a “culture of mutual denunciation into a non-binary situation”.
“A non-binary situation is the only one in which we can honour each other and enable mutual flourishing,” he added.
In a world where political and social issues are becoming increasingly polarised, the spirit of respectful dialogue in the Assembly Hall today is a welcome reminder passionate debate is still possible without resorting to ever more divisive rhetoric.