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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christians cannot be allowed to discriminate against gays – #gaycake

This article first appeared at the STV news website.

Over the weekend, I had the kind of birthday that is impossible to ignore.

The big round 50 is one of those things that need to be marked somehow. That’s certainly what members of my congregation seemed to think and I found myself whirling and birling round my church at a birthday ceilidh on Friday night and then being presented with a cake and a card and a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday to You at the end of the Sung Eucharist on Sunday morning.

Those who organised this staggered up the aisle after the last hymn carrying the largest, stickiest and most colourful cake they had been able to procure in all of Glasgow.

Not content with an off-the-peg cake, they had decided to go for something a bit more made to measure; something a bit more personal. And so, acknowledging my role as a gay rights activist as well as someone who runs a cathedral congregation, they appeared with a cake bearing a joyfully garish rainbow.

It was my gay cake moment.

Je suis le #gaycake.

But what if those involved in the production of my cake had refused? What if they had been allowed to say no to producing such a cake for an LGBT-identified church leader?

There would have been two obvious consequences. Firstly, I might have woken up on Monday morning a little slimmer, which would have been no bad thing. But secondly, I would have woken up on Monday morning back in the days when I could be discriminated against by those providing goods and services.

Now, a cake seems a trivial matter and a cake such as the one that all the fuss is about in Northern Ireland even more so as it bears the images of a couple of Muppets. However, discrimination is a serious business and every little moment where one is treated as less than someone else in society adds up.

I don’t want to go back to the bad old days when people could refuse to serve you based on their perception of your sexuality (or any other protected characteristic).

I’m sure the gay cake case has been determined correctly by the courts in Northern Ireland, for if the judgment had gone otherwise then the legislation which protects people from prejudice in their daily life would not be worth the vellum it is written on.

Many people are now asking whether there should be a conscience clause to “protect” people from having to provide goods and services to people whom they do not wish to do business with.

Such a clause would mean the effective repeal of legislation that enables me as a gay man to do business in the world in the same way as a straight person. It means that you can’t charge more for a service to a woman than you do a man (or vice versa). It means that you can’t refuse to have a black couple in your B&B because you don’t want “people like that” under your roof.

We must remember through all this debate that racism was justified for decades on religious grounds.

I find it puzzling that some who would be appalled at religious views being used to justify racist actions seem to think that religious views are a legitimate reason for someone opting out of identical legislation preventing discrimination against those of us who are gay.

Actually, saying I find it puzzling is a bit of a euphemism. In truth, I find it terrifying.

It is almost as though a nice white “Christian” heterosexual couple could never be the perpetrators of prejudice.

If gay people are going to be able to live in a world where they are not discriminated against then godly Christians don’t get to choose not to have that law themselves.

The views of Daniel and Amy McArthur, the owners of Ashers bakery in Northern Ireland which was sued because they refused to provide a cake supporting equal marriage are worth considering for a moment.

Their position is clear. As Bible-believing Christians they feel they simply have no alternative but to refuse to make a cake that contradicts their belief that same-sex marriage is wicked.

Clearly not all Christians hold to these views. Those who do hold them usually depend on a misreading of a couple of verses from the New Testament epistle to the Romans.

The trouble is, the epistle to the Romans has rather a lot to say about living under the civil law.

Why do the McArthurs take a fundamentalist line in relation to verses in Romans 1 that are perceived to be about same-sex couples yet seem to completely disregard Romans 13 where St Paul says:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.”

And how, in heaven’s name, can you refuse to bake a cake you don’t agree with in the name of a Saviour who said, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well”?

If the McArthurs wanted to be Christian about that cake, they would have offered a bonus dollop of fresh cream on the side.

The gay cake row is not a clash of rights between the gays and the Christians – plenty of us fit into both categories in any case.

Gay people have a right not to be discriminated against in shops but crucially the same law gives the same right to Christians. If a Christian wants to go into a shop and order a cake then gay owners can’t discriminate against them on the grounds of religion.

The point of all this is not that gay people are privileged in the law; they are not. The point is that customers, all customers, are protected from being discriminated against due to their sexuality or their religion or indeed a number of other categories too. This isn’t about gay people having more privileges than religious people – it is about everyone having the same rights.

Neither is this about limiting free speech. A bizarre argument has been put forward by Peter Tatchell suggesting that this case means that bakers will be forced to write anything that anyone asks for on cakes no matter how offensive. He has raised the suggestion that printers could be forced to print cartoons of Mohamed or that Jewish printers could be forced to print the words of Holocaust deniers.

This is palpably nonsense and, unusually for Tatchell whose views are always worth considering, a complete misunderstanding of the legal point on which this case turns. The cake should have been made because refusing to do so discriminated against someone in one of the protected characteristics that the law quite rightly demands are not used as justification for prejudicial treatment. The courts have simply not determined that bakers have to print anything that people ask them to print on a cake.

Being a Holocaust denier is not a characteristic protected by the law. Being anti-Muslim is not a characteristic protected by the law.

Bakers will not be forced to make cakes with swastikas on them because being a Nazi is not a characteristic protected by law and isn’t going to become so any time soon.

The protected characteristics are easy enough to understand when you list them. You can’t discriminate on the grounds of someone’s age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership status, and pregnancy or maternity.

Anything else, you can turn down just because it suits you.

You can’t refuse to bake a cake because your customers want it to say, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son Jesus” on the grounds that you happen to be a queer atheist. You can’t refuse to have a Christian couple staying in your bed and breakfast because you happen to be a pagan. That is right and proper. And you can’t refuse to produce a pro-gay cake nor refuse a gay couple a bed in a B&B. And that’s right too.

These rights are what we need for a good society to flourish.

People sometimes remember the kind of signs that used to appear outside premises before various anti-discrimination laws were passed.

“No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” is one famous example of appalling discrimination.

Those in Northern Ireland need to remember that these laws now protect us all.

No exceptions.