What the Scottish Episcopal Church is Voting On

As I write this, it is just over 24 hours until a debate and a vote in the Scottish Episcopal Church’s General Synod that lots of people are going to be more interested in than most other General Synod happenings. It is the debate and the motions relating to a change to the Canons (ie the rulebook) of the church which could change who can get married in church. If the proposals are accepted tomorrow then same-sex couples would be able to get married in such churches that wanted to host such marriages and by such clergy who wished to be nominated by such

Rather tellingly, there is an item on the agenda just before this called “Strategic Direction” and this is scheduled to take half an hour. The various motions around marriage have two hours scheduled for them. There would be those who believe that the marriage motions say more about our strategic direction than will be said in the debate with that title.

It is probably worth a quick outline of what the synod will be doing.

The big motion is Motion 6 on the agenda. This motion is simply this:

That the amended text for Canon 31 be read for the second time.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this is rather a lot of fuss about a motion which is only about a dozen words long. However, what we are talking about has been talked about more than anything else that I remember whilst I’ve been on Synod – far more, for example, than the debate about whether to open nominations to Episcopate to clergy who happen to be women.

There are various ways to think about the matter at hand. One of the key things to remember is that outside just about every Scottish Episcopal Church there is a sign which is proudly displayed which says, “The Scottish Episcopal Church Welcomes You”. That lies right at the heart of what a lot of people will be thinking about when it comes to how to cast their vote tomorrow afternoon.

For those people who think this way, inviting same-sex couples to marry in church rather than being rejected by the church is simply a matter of being true to who we are. The sign suggests that everyone is welcome, so why should everyone be welcome on as equal a basis as possible?

Of course, for some others the debate is primarily cast in different terms. For some people this is about what the bible says and here we have some people who read  the bible with great devotion and who come to the conclusion that we can’t open marriage to same-sex couples and others who read the bible with great devotion and come to the conclusion that we can. I think that one of the consequences of the years of debate about this is that there has been an acceptance by most people that no-one owns the bible and no-one can defiantly declare that the bible says one or other thing about same-sex nuptials. Some will point to the various clobber verses (men lying with men being an abomination in Leviticus etc) and take their cue for there. Others see these as being admonitions of their time and see the fact that we teach that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God as being a defining argument.

Unless you are a complete newbie to this blog then you will not be surprised to hear that I’m very strongly in favour of change and believe that we have a divine mandate to make the change. It is because of my faith and because of my reading of the bible that I believe that change should come.

However, it is important to realise that the debate tomorrow is not being conducted in terms of a motion that will allow the Scottish Episcopal Church to vote either for or against the marriage of same-sex couples. I kind of wish that it was, but it resolutely isn’t.

The synod agreed a couple of years ago that the way that it wished to debate this was to see whether there was enough of a majority to remove the inherently heterosexual definition of marriage that had been placed in the Canons thirty odd years ago and replace it with a statement that acknowledged that Scottish Episcopalians believe different things about marriage and make proposals for allowing those who wish to marry same-sex couples to do so whilst protecting the conscience of those who do not wish to marry same-sex couples.

This is fundamentally a vote about what kind of church we want to be.

If we want to be a church that tries to respect people’s consciences on this issue then the thing to do is to vote in favour of motion 6. If we want to be a church which insists that everyone has to abide by the rules of a minority position then the right thing to do is vote against motion 6.

That’s the thing, you see. We can be pretty sure that there will be a majority in each of the houses of synod in favour of moving forward. That means that there will be a majority in each house, including in the house of Bishops voting against the current policy of the bishops.

Should this vote fail, we’ll be in a strange place. No doubt some reflection will be needed but what is certain is that the bishops can’t defend a position that they’ve just voted against.

Should the vote succeed then it is incumbent on all of us to abide by what it says and work to protect the conscience of those who don’t want to solemnise the marriages of same-sex couples. Scots law means that there’s no way anyone can be forced to do so anyway, but there must be no disparaging those who don’t want to take part in any way at all.

Now what are the consequences of this?

I have absolutely no doubt that some churches will see a rise in their membership if we pass this proposed change. I am also, perhaps surprisingly, sure that the rise in numbers will affect those who are most opposed to change as much as those who are in favour of it. I think people looking to join churches tend to make their choices on the values of the local community. A clear sense of ethos helps people to make up their mind which church to join. And those churches which make a clear declaration one way or another on this question will see people who are looking for a church to join that suits them come inside and try them out. A clear policy helps people join. It won’t help those who say nothing.

One this is certain – if we pass this motion there will be clergy from England who will want to come to Scotland. Not particularly gay clergy, though I’ve no doubt that there might be a few of those. There will simply be a number of clergy who would rather be in a church that respects conscience on this issue and want to be part of a church like this.

We’ve struggled to recruit and retain enough full-time clergy from within Scotland in recent years and I have no doubt that this issue is very real. We’re a church in which refugees are welcome, in many different ways.

“But what about the Anglican Communion?” I hear you cry.

Well, the Anglican Communion will be left unchanged by this vote one way or the other. The Anglican Communion exists of churches, some of which have made arrangements for same-sex couples to be married in church and some of which have not. The Americans and the Canadians got there before we did and they represent a larger slice of world Anglicanism than we do.

This is not only a big issue within Anglicanism for a very, very small proportion of Anglicans and a very, very large proportion of media producers and journalists.

If the Scottish Episcopal Church does move forward and agree to this vote then there will be headlines (thankfully bumped down the page by the General Election on Friday) which proclaim loudly and confidently “Church Splits over Gays”. They will run the same tired story that they have been running for a very long time indeed and which has the advantage of being a great story and the disadvantage of not being actually true. The Anglican Communion will still exist on Friday morning, notwithstanding anything the Scottish Episcopal Church might do on Thursday afternoon. Oh, and the Archbishop of Canterbury will still have no jurisdiction in this realm of Scotland, notwithstanding the very few calls that will be made that will be very loudly reported, that he should Do Something About Scotland.

If the Scottish Episcopal Church moves forward and votes in favour of Motion 6 to amend Canon 31 tomorrow it will not be the first Anglican church in which the marriages of same-sex couples will be celebrated. Nor will it be the first church in the UK nor in Scotland to allow such marriages.

However, it will be a church which has something to offer others – a model for dealing with this issue that will allow the church to get on with being the church and bringing God’s kingdom in. The key to it all is to make the question of whether or not clergy can marry same-sex couples a matter of conscience.

Making this a matter of conscience is the mainstream Anglican answer to the troubles that have beset us for so many years. What happens in Scotland tomorrow could well inform other parts of the Anglican communion in the future. Far from being outside the boundaries of Anglicanism, what I hope we will do tomorrow is slap bang in the middle of classic Anglicanism which seeks not to build windows into other men’s souls and to allow people to make decisions to the best of their ability with their own consciences informed by scripture, reason and tradition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tim Farron Question and the Archbishop of Canterbury

Let us return once again to the Tim Farron Question.

Oh, I know, I really do know that you’d much prefer it if we could just move on. However, the Tim Farron Question is actually rather important. And trust me anyway, this isn’t [mostly] a post about Tim Farron, who might be expected to have other things on his mind at the moment.

For the sake of those watching from furth of these shores who might be confused by all this, Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats – a political party in the UK which bears upon its weary shoulders the hopes and dreams of many who believe that liberalism is the answer the problems of this wonderful world.  Now, a certain journalist, Cathy Newman managed to discern that it might be interesting to ask Mr Farron who is an evangelical Christian whether or not he believed gay sex to be a sin. Over many occasions that the question was put by Ms Newman, Mr Farron refused to answer. The presumption amongst many being that he did indeed believe that gay sex is sinful but couldn’t say so in his position as a liberal leader. His defence seemed to fit with this – he and many others claimed that it was not proper for a politician to determine what was and was not a sin, that whatever he might believe in private he had acted in favour of gay rights (a claim which has been disputed by some looking at his record in parliament), and that yes, it so happens that His Best Friend Is Gay.  His defenders than asked why people were not making a fuss about other politicians’ views on whether gay sex is a sin. This led to the Prime Minister being asked directly whether she did or did not believe such a thing and she came out with a commendably clear answer. She did not.

Subsequently, Tim Farron has done an interview in which he said that he did not (or maybe did no longer, it wasn’t clear) believe that gay sex is a sin. This led many to say that this was the end of the matter, the show was over and that we must all move on.

I now don’t know whether Tim Farron ever did or did not believe gay sex to be a sin, I am agnostic about whether he has ever changed his mind about it and it must be fairly obvious that I don’t think he dealt with this matter very well. However, there are perhaps limits as to how much wisdom there is in pursuing the matter with Mr Farron any more.  Chris Creegan in particular has written eloquently to suggest that it is time to let go of the matter and move along. And I find myself agreeing in part with Chris in that I think that just pursuing Tim Farron is now rather pointless. However, I am of the view that the Tim Farron Question illuminates other matters that I’m not at all ready to move on from. And that takes me away from Tim Farron and on to the church and in particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Before I get to the point that I now want to make about the Tim Farron Question, which is not in fact about Tim Farron, let me just say that I think that those defending him tended to think that they were defending a Christian from the aggressive bullying of secularists when in fact those most concerned with Tim Farron’s position were actually other liberally minded Christians appalled at what he appeared to be saying. After all, it didn’t seem to show Christianity or LibDemery in a particularly good light. And who on earth ever thought that it was good for LGBT people for commentators to defend the right of prominent people to seem to defend (or be seen to defend) gay rights in public but actually to think them sinners in private?

But anyway, the fact of the matter is that having had a while to reflect on the Tim Farron Question, I think I want to say something about the Tim Farron Answer – or at least one of the answers that he gave whilst being relentlessly asked time and again the same question. He said, rather witheringly that it was not his place to answer such a question because, he was not the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Now then. Now then.

What are we to say in response to this? It would appear that we have someone saying that the church and indeed the Archbishop of Canterbury might be better placed to rule on the Tim Farron Question than Tim Farron. I know that the poor, beleaguered Christian soul was at the end of his tether when he said this but it is worth asking ourselves whether he was in fact right and that Cathy Newman was directing the Tim Farron Question at altogether the wrong person all along. Whilst I happen to think that Cathy Newman’s questioning was legitimate at the time, I do find that I’m considerably more interested in whether the Archbishop of Canterbury believes gay sex to be a sin than Tim Farron.

Now, into the middle of this, steps the Archbishop of York who rather bizarrely, when interviewed at the weekend seemed to suggest that Tim Farron was never qualified to answer the Tim Farron Question in the first place.

So, there we have it. I’m not that interested any more in Tim Farron’s view. John Sentamu doesn’t think Tim Farron has enough theological training to have a view. To whom shall we turn to find the answer to the Tim Farron Question? John Sentamu batted anyone getting close to asking him the question with a strong denunciation of the criminalization of homosexuality. We must be thankful at times for small mercies and I am indeed glad to hear this from the Archbishop’s lips.

But is gay sex a sin?

It seems to me that the Tim Farron Answer to the Tim Farron Question leads us inevitably to the gateway of Lambeth Palace itself.

“I’m not the Archbishop of Canterbury”, Tim Farron wailed piteously.

But someone is.

And that someone ought to be being asked the Tim Farron Question every time he encounters the press.

The question matters because the truth is, Justin Welby probably does have a view and probably does have enough theological training in the matter to satisfy even the Archbishop of York.

And it matters mostly because it is a life and death matter. There are those who would tell us that if the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed the view that gay sex is not a sin then vulnerable Anglicans would be slaughtered by Muslims in Africa and elsewhere. Personally I don’t believe this and think it has more to do with Islamophobia than anything else. Indeed, I’ve strongly condemned the Archbishop of Canterbury when he has said such things in the past. (See – You Condemn it, Archbishop if you want a catch up).

But it is very much a life or death question if the Archbishop remains silent or, even worse, express the view that gay sex is in fact a sin. Silence equals death, for some of us, as the long-standing slogan used amongst HIV activists suggests. Silence in the face of the homophobia that is prevalent in society leads to suicide for some and damaged lives for others. The cost is high.

So here’s the thing. I do still think that the Tim Farron Question was legitimate. However, I have moved on. I now think that the Tim Farron Answer matters too.

Does the Archbishop of Canterbury think gay sex is a sin?

Oh, Cathy Newman – I do hope you get your chance.

The fact that the question has been put at the forefront of public life in the UK at the moment makes it  inevitable that it will be asked of other people. Cathy Newman deserves the chance to ask the Tim Farron question of the person Tim Farron thought should answer it. And if she doesn’t get the chance to ask it, I suspect others will.

More than that, I think others should.

“Now, Archbishop Justin Welby, you’ve heard all the debate about Tim Farron – but what do you think? Do you think gay sex is a sin?”