On Being Threatened

At the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church one seldom gets that many surprises. Very occasionally you get a vote that is closer than you expect but most of the things you hear are what you expect to hear. However, today I have to confess that I heard things that were genuinely surprising.

As is fairly well known, the Scottish Episcopal Church is currently considering amending its marriage canon in order to be able to keep the church together – specifically to enable the church to contain within it both those who wish to be able to marry same-sex couples and those who don’t wish to do so. There’s a chance that this might happen.

What we heard today is that the question has been asked of the Archbishop of Canterbury as to what, if any, the consequences of making this change might be. It would appear that the only consequence is very personal to the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

He met Justin Welby two weeks ago and was told directly by him that if the Scottish Episcopal Church goes ahead and makes this change then the Primus will himself be personally removed by the Archbishop from leading the World Anglican-Reformed Dialogue – an ecumenical series of international meetings.

It seems to me that we have come to a new place if the Archbishop of Canterbury is going to personally threaten the Primus of a province of the Anglican Communion if that province makes a decision.

There were a number of people at this afternoon’s synod meeting proudly wearing badges that said: “The Archbishop of Canterbury hath no jurisdiction in this realm of Scotland”. However, it seems to me that this Archbishop thinks that he has. (Not for the first time, I would note).

I asked a question about this today as I had heard the Archbishop himself say in public to the world’s press that he did not know whether there would be “consequences” (ie sanctions) against churches other than the US church which chose to move forward in terms of allowing gay couples to get married. This was in the press conference after the Primates’ meeting earlier this year. Indeed, the Archbishop said that he was simply one vote amongst the 38 Provinces and he could not predict how a future Primates’ Meeting would react to another province going down this line. What had changed since that press conference, I wondered, that made the Archbishop able to make this threat in private when he was so uncertain before the world’s press of what the consequences for other churches might be if they voted to bring about change?

The answer from the Primus this afternoon was that the Anglican-Reformed Dialogue convenership is in the personal gift of the Archbishop of Canterbury and not that of the Primates.

Thus, it seems to me that the crisis in the Anglican Communion has reached something new and genuinely shocking. It would appear that the Archbishop very precisely in his own role as one of the Instruments of Communion is now threatening individual Primates with sanctions if their own provinces vote for things that he as the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks that they should not do.

That is a serious development and one which should be noted by everyone. I can’t see that this can possibly be a postive contribution to keeping the communion together.

In all of this, our synod seems to me to be working to keep our church together and not force others to say what they do not believe. The Archbishop of Canterbury seems to be working on quite a different unity model whereby you can have your unity so long as you agree with him.

I think that the Primus’s response to all this was generous, measured and gracious. It was moving to hear him quote the Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church who has spoken of these sanctions from the position of being descended from slaves.

If the Primus is removed from this position as a consequence of the decisions of the Scottish Synod he will join a large group of people who have been removed from a ministry either because they are gay or they support those who are gay or because they are associated with those who are positive about those who are gay. This is how homophobia works in practise. I am shocked that the Archbishop should make himself vulnerable to the charge that he (rather than the Primates or the ACC or the Lambeth Conference) works this way.

I am familiar with the experience of being told that you can’t do things because of these reasons. I stand in solidarity with the Primus and all those removed from a ministry because of their identity as gay men and women (and also those who cannot minister solely because of their gender). David Chillingworth is potentially a very unexpected victim of homophobia. We must all stand alongside him if it comes to pass.

If the synod does vote in favour of trying to keep our church together in this way then I think we’ll be offering the Anglican Communion a model that has gospel generosity at its heart. Far from something that individuals should be punished over (regardless of whether they themselves vote or don’t vote for change), I think we’ve something to offer the communion.

The votes we have before us are not really about human sexuality but about what kind of church we want to be. The Archbishop of Canterbury is gravely mistaken if he believes that threatening other primates in his own role as “first amongst equals” in the Anglican Communion will enable church unity.

The opposite is very clearly the case.

The Scottish Episcopal Church and the biblical case for changing Canon 31

Over the next couple of days, the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church will be meeting in Edinburgh.

There’s a huge amount of business to get through over the three days. I’ll be there as a member of synod thinking through how I will vote on all the motions.

Even though there’s a very wide ranging set of motions to vote on this year, I’ve little doubt that a lot of attention will be spent on Motion 14 which will be heard on Friday morning in a session timed to last just over an hour, and which will begin at 9.25 am. There’s another motion that will be considered during that hour which deals with how we make changes to our liturgies, an important matter given the notion that the liturgies are a primary way we talk about doctrine in the polity of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Motion 14 is the motion which relates to whether the Scottish Episcopal Church will be able to move to a position whereby those clergy who wish to do so can be enabled to perform marriages for same-sex couples who desire to get married in our churches.

The reason that this motion is being given relatively little time for debate this year is that we had an enormous debate about the principles of dealing with this question last year. For almost a whole day, we debated the way in which the church would face this question. Last year the synod was commendably clear and there was a huge majority in favour of introducing this year’s legislation in the way that it is being introduced.

What Synod decided last year is to ask this year and next year’s Synod to consider removing the first clause of Canon 31. This clause currently defines marriage in a way which has led our bishops to rule not only that same-sex couples cannot get married in our churches but also that our clergy and lay readers cannot who wish to marry partners of the same sex cannot do so without fear of losing their license to minister. I’ve always maintained that this was a cruel and unnecessary ruling that has caused real harm to individual people within our churches. I remain of that view.

The idea for moving forward is to remove the clause from the canon which is said to prevent marriage between same-sex couples and replace it with a clause which will protect the consciences of everyone in the church by affirming that “no cleric of this Church shall be obliged to conduct any marriage against their conscience.”

I’m in favour of moving forward in this way. In some ways I would have preferred another solution – I’d have preferred the Scottish Episcopal Church to have made a more positive statement affirming equal marriage. However, I can live with this and can see the value of a solution which does not force people to make statements about marriage which they don’t agree with.

That is all that we are doing – if we agree to this change, we are moving to a position where we don’t insist that everyone believes the same thing in the face of a quite obvious reality which is that we don’t.

But there will inevitably be people who want to hear “a biblical case” for making this change.

It is simply the case that there are people who think that the bible says that gay marriage is sinful and there are (surely a majority in our church now) many people who don’t.

The primary way in which justice has been denied to those of us who are gay has been to call for theological reports or biblical cases to be laid out in favour of marriage equality.

We must be clear this time – the Scottish Episcopal Church, if it makes this change, is saying almost nothing about gay people. What it will do if it moves forward is make a statement about what kind of church we are and acknowledge the simple fact that we don’t all agree.

It does not seem to me to be a particularly big deal for those who are opposed to same-sex marriages to exists in full communion with those who want to conduct or enter same-sex marriages. The reason I don’t think this is a particularly big deal is that we are already as a church in full communion with Christians who can do just that. The man or woman on the Auchtertochty Omnibus who is an Episcopalian is currently in full communion with the married gay couple in Stockholm and the married gay priest in Glasgow, Virginia, USA. The argument that such a person cannot also be in full communion with a married gay couple in Stockbridge or a married gay priest in Glasgow, Lanarkshire is, to say the least, a bit odd. Does geography trump morality for those with anti-gay views? If so, how on earth does that work and does anyone want to offer a “biblical” reason why?

Those who seek for a “biblical” answer to questions about same-sex marriage might probably need to redefine the question. After decades of discussion, no slam dunk biblical argument has appeared that will convert someone from an anti-gay to a pro-gay position. What is happening though is that as every year goes by, more and more people in society and in the church are simply coming to believe that gay and straight people should be treated alike. Whilst changing canons seems grindingly slow, the change in public and ecclesiastical opinion has come so fast that it seems to some of us to be being ushered along by the wind of the holy spirit. (Justice movements work that way).

Those looking for biblical inspiration for what’s going on in the Scottish Synod over the next few days would be better looking at some of the different ways of dealing with conflict in the early church rather than looking for something new in Leviticus or in the story of David and Jonathan. Those texts are distractions from the central question which faces us which is not in fact about whether we recognise same-sex marriage but about whether we recognise one another, with all our different opinions on this question as being so beloved of God that we are forced not to make one another subscribe to statements which we all know that not all of us can unconditionally affirm.

I think the most useful biblical case for what I hope happens in the next few days is to be found in the fifth chapter of the book of Acts – Gamaliel’s response when the early Christians faced the prospect of being wiped out by the authorities.

“…if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

I think that’s the bibilical case for what we’re trying to do. Much more so than arguments which seem determined to apply one particular purity law of the past without dealing with any of the others.

People have worked hard and made hard compromises to come up with a solution to this in Scotland that will allow all to thrive. If synod rejects it I suspect there will be far more future conflict than we can imagine. This is, quite simply, the best way to keep the church together.

May God bless those who who meet in synod in Edinburgh this week. And may Gamaliel inspire our thoughts as we vote on Friday morning.