The Church of Scotland is moving closer to ending its historic opposition to people in same-sex relationships becoming ministers.
Figures obtained by the Press and Journal show that 21 of the Kirk’s 46 presbyteries have so far voted in favour of a controversial policy that would give congregations the freedom to appoint a gay man or woman if they wished.
This means the so-called “mixed economy” proposal would need the support of only three more presbyteries before it could be referred to the General Assembly, which has the ultimate say over whether it should become Kirk law.
Under the plans, the Church would retain the traditional position – a ban on gay people in relationships becoming ministers – as its default stance.
But congregations could opt in to a policy to appoint a minister in a same-sex relationship under a “conscience clause”.
The proposal is aimed at ensuring both sides of the debate are accommodated within the legal framework of the Kirk.
A total of 10 presbyteries, made up of ministers, elders and deacons, have rejected the proposal so far and 15 have yet to make a decision.
It has been backed by presbyteries in Aberdeen, Orkney, Shetland, Caithness, Sutherland, Abernethy, Gordon, Kincardine and Deeside, Argyll and Glasgow.
Members of the Buchan, Lochaber, Lochcarron and Skye, Uist and Lewis presbyteries have rejected it.
The debate over the issue was triggered by the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen in 2009 – a decision that resulted in some people leaving the Kirk because they believe the Bible teaches Christians that gay sex is wrong.
The Rev John Mann, of pro-gay rights Kirk group Affirmation Scotland, said he was “very encouraged” by the direction of travel within the Church.
The group has decided to support the proposal despite the fact that it “still enshrines inequality and discriminatory treatment for lesbian and gay people in the church”.
Mr Mann said: “Although this proposal is not perfect, it is a step in the right direction and it allows people the freedom of their own conscience.
“We are praying for a time when the Church and other denominations affirm people in same-sex relationships and celebrate love between two people as a gift from God.
“We will keep working towards full equality in the Kirk. That is our mission.”
Evangelical Kirk group Forward Together, which has a membership of about 70 ministers and elders, said it would be difficult to predict what the future held until all presbyteries had voted.
Acting director the Rev Douglas Cranston claimed the vote in many presbyteries had been close, which meant that “any hope that this will heal divisions is forlorn”.
“There will be a reaction in response to this,” he added. “We have been able to hold on to people for the time being but if are going to have this affirmation I think there will be a steady drift away from the national Church.”
The Kirk has around 800 ministers serving nearly 1,400 congregations and only 18 have left in recent years for a variety of reasons, leaving most congregation members behind.
Former Lochcarron, Applecross and Torridon parish minister the Rev David Macleod and the Rev Roddy MacRae, who led congregations in Glenelg and Kintail, recently quit the Kirk and joined the Free Church of Scotland.
The Rev Dominic Smart and members of Gilcomston South Church of Scotland in Aberdeen left the Kirk in March last year.
But Mr Mann played down the impact of the vote.
“The threatened mass exodus has not happened,” he said. “It has been a trickle.
“I think people who are unhappy will just stick together and feel as they always have – the Church has lost touch with their values.”
It is understood that the presbytery of Dumfries is expected to vote on the issue tonight and Lothian tomorrow.
A Church of Scotland spokesman said: “The vote is under way and presbyteries have until December 30 to submit their returns.
“Those presbyteries who have yet to decide will be doing so in the coming weeks, and each presbytery will be debating and voting according to their own individual points of view.
“The outcome of the vote will be known in the new year.”