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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

Do we want honest leaders?

Can a leader hold (or express) personal convictions counter to the position of the body he or she leads and still be trusted to lead?


This question has been raised by two stories reported in the news this week, both involving Christians and both related to their stance on gender related issues.


Kate Forbes, a member of the Free Church of Scotland, was the early front runner to take over from Nicola Sturgeon as leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland. She still seems to be the favourite,[i] but she has faced a barrage of criticism for her responses to questions posed to her about the recent Gender Recognition Act (which would allow people aged 16 and over to self-declare their gender) and same sex marriage. Forbes was not an MSP when same sex marriage was legalised and she was on maternity leave when the Gender Recognition Act was passed, but she said she would not have voted for either had she been in parliament at the time. Despite her assurances that she is a “servant of democracy” and, now that same sex marriage is a “legal right” she would “respect and defend that democratic choice to the hilt”,[ii] critics have said that her position should disqualify her from leadership. How can they trust her if she might vote against same sex marriage (or gender self-declaration) in future?


The second story concerns Sam Mawhinney, moderator-elect of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI). When asked about his views on women in ministry, he said he does not agree with the ordination of women but that he did not wish to make it a “primary issue”.[iii] In response, a letter signed by over 150 people who claim to be members of PCI was sent to the denomination and (apparently simultaneously) to the press. It criticses Mawhinney for making his personal views known and calls on PCI to issue a statement affirming “the value and worth of women as equals in both the church and in wider society”. The letter also said that “Misogynistic remarks” are not rare within the Church and that Mawhinney’s comments had encouraged other clergy to "voice hostility to women in leadership roles”.[iv]


The parallels between these two cases are striking:

  • Both Forbes and Mawhinney stated their personal views honestly and in a measured way in response to questions.

  • Both hold these views based on their understanding of Scripture and these interpretations have been the majority position in the Church (and in wider society) for the vast majority of Christian history and remain the majority position among Christians (and nations) globally to the present day.

  • Both expressed awareness that their own views are not universally held by those they hope to lead, recognised that the positon of the bodies they hope to lead is different from their own conviction, and said they did not wish to make these issues a matter of contention. Indeed, their views are held by significant numbers of others within the bodies they hope to lead.

  • Both are, so far as I can ascertain (although only through personal interaction in one case), sincere and humble people who are seeking to lead with integrity.

  • Both have been attacked not for anything they have done but for stating their sincerely held convictions.

Would those who criticise Forbes and Mawhinney prefer leaders who lie or who keep their true beliefs hidden? Do we really want a society, or a church, in which leaders cannot speak honestly about issues of morality and conviction, perhaps even seeking to influence others on these matters? Do we think that a personal view is enough to disbar someone from leadership if (s)he has said (s)he will not make it a point of contention or actively campaign to change the current state of affairs? Is it not possible to trust a person who has shown personal integrity in the past to abide by their word? Can we not allow them to lead and then hold them to account for how they act? After all, a party leader can be removed if she fails to live up to her promises and a moderator is only in position for a year!


The Kate Forbes case reveals deep problems in contemporary society: the intolerance of tolerance and cancel culture. Many people have a deeply distrusting attitude to those in leadership, or at least toward those who hold to views branded “socially conservative” (simply meaning what most people believed for most of history). It seems they would prefer leaders who have no coherent reasons for their beliefs (as was evident when politicians supporting gender self-identification could not explain what they believe a woman is or why they think as they do) than those who hold a consistent worldview that shape their views on every issue. In this inconsistent and toxic culture, those who hold Christian convictions are accused, explicitly or implicitly, of hating others or being ‘phobic’ of them. Such unfair attachs are aired widely on social media and often reported in traditional media.


So much for society. Surely the Church should be better? Not according to the signatories of the letter criticising Sam Mawhinney. Their tactics are no different from those in wider culture. They did not seek to resolve differences directly with Mawhinney or to engage through the denomination in a measured way. They went to the press at the same time as writing to the Church. They threw in a reference to misogyny on the same page as their criticism of Mawhinney’s comments, implictly tarring him with that brush. They appear to want a leader without conviction, who keeps his real beliefs hidden. Their behaviour is not Christian and what they want in their moderator is not consistent with what Scripture expects of Christian leaders.


There is one important difference between these two stories (besides the obvious fact that one hopes to lead a country, while the other will lead a denomination). Mawhinney said clearly that he does not regard ordination of women as a primary issue. His continued ministry in a denomination that practices it shows that he is not seeking to break fellowship with other Christians over the matter. I see no reason why Sam Mawhinney cannot lead his denomination in good faith. Indeed, I have every confidence he will do so. But I am not entirely sure that Kate Forbes can do the same for her country and party. The matters she commented on are not secondary issues for her denomination or other Christians who accept the authority of Scripture (and presumably they are primary for her too). They relate to the definition of sin. Given that fact, would Forbes not feel obliged to vote against it in future if the opportunity arose? Would she not support a colleague who wanted to campaign against same-sex marriage? People in Scotland may have a legal right to same-sex marriage, but a Christian view of rights does not derive from public opinion, the law of the land or the democratic process. Can a Christian use the word ‘right’ in relation to something that God declares to be wrong?


I have no desire to criticise Kate Forbes. Indeed, I admire her courage in speaking truth when it would have been easier not to do so. I also recognise that Forbes may not have meant by ‘right’ what I think the word means (or should mean to Christians). I am thankful I have not been called into politics and believe those who have need our prayers. But, I can understand the concerns of people committed to LGBTQIA+ values who see Forbes as a threat. Not because I think she wishes them any harm - I am certain she does not - but because I suspect she may find herself compelled to say, campaign for and vote for positions they don’t like in future. In many ways, I hope people will trust her to lead. I don’t doubt she could do it well (notwithstanding my disagreement with her nationalist position). But, I pray that, should she become leader and first minister, she will stand firm in her convictions under God and that she might help lead Scotland towards a greater awareness of its need of God and his salvation.


[i] https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/scotland/2023/03/kate-forbes-quit [ii] https://www.politics.co.uk/news/2023/02/21/forbes-insists-she-is-servant-of-democracy-amid-backlash-on-same-sex-marriage-views/ [iii] https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/over-150-presbyterian-members-sign-letter-criticising-incoming-moderators-comments-on-ordination-of-women/1273002118.html [iv] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-64818128

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