Rev. Stephen Allison, Public Engagement Coordinator, has provided this report to the General Assembly about the Public Engagement Group as they respond to consultations and meet representatives from other organisations.
In addition, he told commissioners that the Free Church of Scotland have now been invited to be members of the Scottish Government Faith and Belief Representatives Group. This is an opportunity to attend meetings with the Scottish Government’s Faith and Belief Team – a group of civil servants with responsibility for increasing engagement between faith organisations and Government – and to interact directly with other civil servants and Government ministers on proposed legislation, often prior to consultations being formally launched.
The report says: “The main work of the Public Engagement Group has been responding to consultations since the last General Assembly and we are grateful to the support received from many members of the Free Church of Scotland with specialist knowledge and expertise in a variety of areas.
“The Group responded to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill call for views. Whilst we recognise the difficulties experienced by people with gender dysphoria, and seek to care for them within our Church, we made clear that we believe that gender is neither a choice nor a social construct. We are, therefore, not convinced that automatically affirming someone’s understanding of themselves is the best way to care for them.
“In particular, we were concerned that a move away from requiring a medical diagnosis and supporting medical evidence will result in less support being given to those who are wrestling with their identity. We are also concerned about lowering the minimum age to sixteen, which will lead to more young people making life-altering decisions without proper support. We also shared the concerns of a number of women’s organisations around the loss of women-only safe spaces and the increased risks this poses for women and girls.
“The Group also responded to the Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Scotland) Bill Consultation which is seeking to introduce so called “buffer” zones around abortion clinics. We do not advocate pro-life vigils as a wise or appropriate way to engage with this issue. However, we oppose buffer zones as a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression, which sets a dangerous precedent of the state being able to ban both protests and efforts to persuade individuals to change their mind on controversial issues. A democratic society should allow free and open debate.
“In addition to these issues, we have continued to encourage the wider Church to engage with MSPs in relation to the Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill. We have encouraged Presbyteries to meet with local MSPs to outline their opposition to the bill. We also are particularly encouraging those in healthcare professions to seek meetings with MSPs to outline their concerns.
“Finally, we have been involved in work opposing the proposed ban on conversion practices – particularly related to sexual orientation and gender identity. I have written letters to newspapers outlining our concerns, including a letter co-written with the Parliamentary Representative of the Bishops Conference of Scotland. I have also met with several MSPs to express our concerns.
“Issues around a proposed ban on conversion practices represents one of the biggest threats to the spiritual independence of the Church that we have faced since the Disruption. The Scottish Government’s Expert Group Report suggests that simply teaching on the goodness of marriage could amount to conversion practices and that the Government should have the right to remove the licence of ministers if they fall foul of the proposed legislation. In addition to the impact on the Church, there are also immense ramifications for parents who fail to affirm their child’s declared gender identity or sexual orientation. Whilst we oppose abusive and coercive conversion practices, these practices are already illegal in Scotland and accordingly any proposed ban is directed against the ordinary activity of churches and parents. We would call on the prayers of the whole Church as we continue to oppose the proposed ban on conversion practices.”
The report noted that in his role, Mr Allison has met representatives from organisations including Care, the Catholic Church in Scotland, the Church of Scotland, the Apostolic Church, the Christian Institute, Evangelical Alliance, Greater Love and Logos Scotland.
He has also been part of the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office, the Care Not Killing Steering Group and the Social Issues Team of Affinity and is a formal supporter of the Let Us Pray Campaign opposing the proposed ban on Conversion Therapy.