Love means Love

Members of the Scottish Episcopal Church voted earlier this year to allow the marriage of same-sex couples to be able to be conducted by those clergy who wish to conduct them. We voted on that after years of discussion. It was passed by the 2/3rds majority in the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy (just!) and the House of Laity (over 80% in favour). The bar to getting this vote through was set so high a few years ago that it seemed impossible to achieve to those who were wanting to nudge the church towards change. However, we carried on, because we believed that love means love. We believed, informed by the bible, by our own experience of God and by our contact with ecumenical and other Anglican friends from across the world, that the love that same-sex partners share has as much potential for the sacramental as the love the opposite-sex couples has.

We voted knowing that there might be consequences to this in our relationship with the Anglican Communion, which we once helped to found. Our beloved friends in the US-based Episcopal Church were told in 2016 by the Anglican Primates that the Archbishop of Canterbury would, for three years, bar them from representing the Communion in ecumenical conversations and that they would be excluded from certain discussions about doctrine. It is important to note that the Primates themselves have no power to do anything other than listen to one another. It is the Archbishop who determines whom he will invite to take part in some discussions and the Primates asked the Archbishop to refrain from including American Episcopalians and he has, to some extent at least done so. Remember that these are the Archbishop’s Sanctions that the Primates have suggested not the other way round – that’s important. They are imposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury personally and by his authority. We do not have an international magesterium in Anglicanism. The Primates have no authority to impose anything.

Being sanctioned in this way is a bitter pill to swallow – not because of the sanctions themselves – they probably affected a dozen US Episcopalians out of a church of hundreds of thousands. Bitter because it has the whiff of pettiness about it and of being branded as being slightly naughty by the Anglican Primates – the gathering of senior bishops from across the Communion. The sanctions are more symbolic than real. They have no teeth and everyone involved knows this far better than the media who persist in rather lurid headlines about punishment and even banishment. None of this is real. I’ve struggled to think of even half a dozen people in Scotland who might (and only might) be affected. For these tiny few, there is the frustration of being barred from something for which they have a passion and for which they have worked. We must bear witness that collective punishment is the ugliest form of bullying and that the Primates are wrong, quite wrong, even to impose a symbolic sanction for what we have done. For the rest of the church, the sanctions will have no effect whatsoever other than getting us a bit of welcome profile as an affirming and inclusive church in the media, and life will go on precisely as it did before.

It fell to our new Primus, the Most Rev Mark Strange to articulate where the Scottish Episcopal Church is right now and he did so brilliantly.

In June the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church voted to change its Canon on Marriage.  This decision was ours to take as a self-governing province of the Anglican Communion.

However, I recognise that this decision is one that has caused some hurt and anger in parts of the Anglican Communion and that the decision taken at the last Primates’ Meeting, which was to exclude our brothers and sisters in The Episcopal Church from debate on Doctrine and from Chairing Anglican Communion Committees, is a decision that now also pertains to us. We will continue to play our part in the Anglican Communion we helped to establish, and I will do all I can to rebuild relationships, but that will be done from the position our Church has now reached in accordance with its synodical processes and in the belief that Love means Love.

This has clearly gone down very well with very many in Scotland. Remember, there were big majorities for what we decided and Mark is much loved and much prayed for by Scottish Episcopalians at the moment.

It is perhaps worth thinking about what it means though.

When I think of the phrase, “Love means Love” it takes me right back to the time when I started to bless same-sex couples who were entering Civil Partnerships. I remember them trying to devise ceremonies that reflected who they were and what they were saying to one another. They would say, “Of course it isn’t a marriage” and then when I asked them what they wanted they said, “Oh, we want to make vows to one another in front of our family and friends and exchange rings and have a blessing”. And I remember realising, perhaps even before some of the couples whom I was blessing realised, that what was going on was an altogether ancient archetype that I knew only too well. Whatever the law might have said at the time, what was clear to me was that they were married in the eyes of God and married in the eyes of their families and friends. In their ceremonies they were enacting the simple truth – Love means Love. It isn’t partial or biased or owned by anyone. Love is something that we can know by its absence and something that can overwhelm us by its presence. And as I conducted those ceremonies I was often overwhelmed by the love given and received right in front of my eyes. I learned that Love means Love from people who were bravely loving when there seemed to be no route map for their journey. The fact that they have ended up arriving at the same destination as same-sex couples who have been marrying for millennia still has an element of surprise about it. It is as though the full expression of Love was hidden for so long – occluded by law, prejudice, convention and expectation. Yet somehow, encouraged by activism, boldness, conviction and wanton cheek, that Love has managed to dawn in a new way upon this particular time in humanity’s story. And the warmth of love’s blessing is holy and powerful and true.

Now, the truth is, no amount of purple prose and joy-filled tears of those of us who worked for this can change the fact that some are upset about this. As I sing the glory of Love meaning Love, I have to remember that some people within the Scottish Episcopal Church are probably having to love me through gritted teeth right now. Their generosity and love is costly and kind and that particular Love means Love too in a very real sense at the moment.

I think that +Mark made it clear to the Anglican Primates that this matter is settled in this part of God’s church. We respect the consciences of all and increasingly I am sure that this will be seen within Anglicanism as the way in which this issue can be managed internationally. We bear witness that we have an answer to the troubles of the communion which we have wrestled fought and prayed for. Don’t be surprised when we seek to bear witness to what God has done for us. It is what Christians do.

I recently presided over one of the first marriages of a same-sex couple in the Scottish Episcopal Church. It suddenly occurred to me during the service that though the rest of the Anglican Communion will believe that we have just started doing gay marriages, in fact, we have just stopped doing them. For Love is Love, and marriage is marriage. We don’t gay marry people, we just opened marriage to all couples. And God is blessing them and God is blessing us as we do so.

Our message to the Communion is a familiar one – “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”

And yes, the Love that we know have known through the ages, just means Love.

 

The Scottish Episcopal Church and the upcoming Primates’ Meeting

There’s been a little flurry of articles in the press this week about the Scottish Episcopal Church.

“SANCTIONS LOOM FOR SCOTTISH EPISCOPAL CHURCH’S PRO-GAY MARRIAGE VOTE”

“SCOTS ‘TO FACE CONSEQUENCES’ OVER GAY MARRIAGE”

“GLOBAL ANGLICAN CHURCH LEADERS CONDEMN SCOTLAND FOR ALLOWING SAME-SEX WEDDINGS”

And so on.

The only awkward thing about all these articles is that the Primates’ Meeting hasn’t happened yet. No-one has condemned anything and no-one really knows what is going to happen.

This press interest seems to have started in London in the middle of the week when someone gave a briefing to the likes of the BBC, the Telegraph and the Guardian. All three had identical stories which didn’t reference anyone in Scotland at all. It isn’t rocket science to come to the conclusion that someone in either Lambeth Palace or the Anglican Communion Office was briefing journalists against the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Now, the thing about this is, as our American Episcopalian friends would no-doubt testify strongly, that there are some things which put the Anglican Communion at serious risk. Off the record media briefings against churches in the Communion put the Communion at far, far more risk than any number of weddings of same-sex couples.

After all, Justin Welby’s own authority is undermined – seriously undermined, if people coming together can’t have any sense of confidence in those who work in Lambeth Palace and the Anglican Communion Office. Trust has been undermined this week and the Archbishop has the capacity either to regain it or undermine it further.

Once that is done, the serious business of listening to one another should begin.

For that is the point of the Primates’ Meeting – listening, not disciplining. When people talk about the Primates issuing sanctions, they have forgotten that the meeting is not a disciplinary body but is there to allow the Primates to listen to one another. The Primates have scarcely any power to discipline in any case. What can they do? There is no Canon Law that holds the communion together. Nor is there any legal mechanism that the Primates could take to chuck any of the churches out of the Communion. The Anglican Consultative Council is the only one of the fragile so-called Instruments of Communion which has a constitution and the constitution is there to hold people together not to break them apart. (And it is also regulated by English charity law and no-one wants the ACC to lose its charitable status because the Primates make an unlawful bid for power over an English charity that they are not the trustees of).

The truth is, no-one knows at this stage what the Primates will say or do. At least 16 of them are new faces who have never been there before.

One of them is the Most Rev Mark Strange, our own Primus. Mark will be able to speak directly about what has happened in Scotland. (He’s taking time to pray this week to prepare for the meeting and the Scottish Episcopal Church is praying with him).

The truth is, what has happened in Scotland is a model for how the Anglican Communion can move forward and move beyond the constant squabbles about human sexuality. Here in Scotland we’ve made conscience the thing that we argued about rather than what people get up to in bed. We’ve recognised that Episcopalians take different views about same-sex relationships and we have honoured all of them. We’ve said that conscience has to be respected.

Now the conscience thing is important to understand – for we have not simply made provision for the consciences of those who object to same-sex relationships being respected. We’ve also said that conscience clauses apply equally to those who do, sincerely and truthfully believe that God wishes to bless those same-sex couples who wish to be married in church. Those of us who believe in offering marriage to all couples have consciences too.

We’ve tried to make it so that individual consciences are respected. It was the only possible way we could hang together. Ultimately, that is the only way that the Communion can hang together too.

We have something to witness to that is good and godly and I’ve no doubt that Bishop Mark will be looking forward to sharing the good things that have happened in Scotland as we have discussed, wrestled, voted and prayed this through. Remember this – the Scottish Episcopal Church decided to stay together over same-sex nuptials and the Communion could decide to do exactly the same.

For myself, as someone who has been part of this argument for longer than I can remember, I would want to say to those interested enough to listen to what has been going on in Scotland, “taste and see that the Lord is good”.

What we are talking about are the best days of people’s lives. What we are talking about are wedding ceremonies that are full of love and grace and compassion and joy. What we are talking about is the sheer joy of welcoming diversity and setting our General Synod free from these squabbles to concentrate on the core task for our church of preaching the love of God to Scotland.

For the love of God is what we are about. The gospel is preached here. God’s grace is known here. And God’s love is shared here. And all this as much during same-sex weddings as any other time. We’ve seen it. We witness to it.

And nothing can separate us from the love of God. After all, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And as it happens, I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor sanctions, nor off the record media briefings, nor primates, nor consequences, nor GAFCON, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.