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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Praying for the Powerful

Just over four years ago, I was on sabbatical in the USA and one of the institutions that I visited was Washington National Cathedral in the US capital. It is an odd entity in many ways, carrying with it what feels very much like a load of assumptions about established religion in a land where religion is not established. There’s no doubting that the cathedral is there for America rather than simply for its city or its locality as that is what it was built for and determined in foundation documents. Yet the paradox is that America proudly believes in the separation of church and state in a way which might lead one to believe made a National cathedral an impossibility. As usual, religious people manage to hold the paradox together, believe 6 impossible things before breakfast and Washington National Cathedral has a place in the life of the United States that can’t really be explained with logic alone.

When I visited, the question that the cathedral faced was what happened if Obama were to lose the election. Not because the cathedral cared particularly about Obama winning but because his opponent was a Mormon. No-one knew what would happen. Would a Mormon president want a liturgical act at an Episcopal cathedral or not? And work was being done to try to find out. It is the nature of conservative institutions to work very hard to adapt to circumstances and all cathedrals are inherently conservative in that sense. That’s what often makes them places where radical things can happen.

There is currently a hoo-ha about whether the choir from Washington National Cathedral should sing at the inauguration of President Trump on Friday. The word has gone out that the choir will sing and there’s quite a lot of people who think that is inappropriate given the mores and peccadilloes of the incoming president.

I can see this one from both sides. It seems unsurprising to me that the cathedral would want the choir to accept the invitation. Otherwise, they are going to have to vet every incoming president’s agenda for suitability in the future and that is not a comfortable place to find oneself. It seems to me that one either accepts all the invitations or none of them. One cannot get into the business of picking and choosing or else one will forever be in the midst of conflict and forever be upsetting half the country.

However, I can also see it from the side of those who want something to protest about. Trump is a baffling figure to the liberal establishment at prayer. He is their worst nightmare. Why should the church turn out on parade for someone seen as an ogre? Are there no limits? Isn’t Trump so far removed from normality that normal presumptions no longer apply?

There’s a similar connected discussion about whether there should be a liturgical celebration for the new president in the National Cathedral and indeed about how or whether people are going to pray for the new president in US Episcopal churches across the country.

There’s a wee nugget of Scottish Episcopalian church history that our US daughter church might want to be aware of in trying to work their way through these dilemmas. However, before I get to that, I think it is worth noting that it can matter hugely whom one is praying for.

A significant part of my time of formation for priesthood was spent in Egypt living with the Coptic church and also with Anglicans in Cairo. In that environment I learnt about subtle and not so subtle forms of persecution and have never forgotten the response of one Coptic bishop when I asked him why a particular sectarian attack on Copts had taken place. He leaned back on his chair and stroked his not inconsiderable beard and said very sadly: “attacks take place because we do not love our Muslim brothers and sisters enough”. I’ve never forgotten those words from someone who himself could have been a target of violence. (They were spoken in the compound which was recently blown up with great loss of life just a few weeks ago).

The point is that at that time in most of the big churches in Cairo (Anglican and Coptic) people were very careful to pray for the then president Hosni Mubarak. The reason they were keen to pray for him was that there would generally be a couple of well dressed young men in the congregation to check that such loyal prayers were being uttered. The secret police were not really that secret. The government was always just checking up and people prayed with an implied threat over them at all times.

When I was in the USA – I was immediately intrigued by one aspect of the intercessions that is connected with praying for the powerful. Wherever I went I found that the intercessions contained prayers for the Archbishop of Canterbury. That is unremarkable in the USA but to a Scottish Episcopalian on tour it was a revelation. We tend to pray for our diocesan bishops and sometimes (but not that often) for the Primus, and almost never for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, not praying for the Archbishop of Canterbury is almost a part of who we are.

The prayers for the Archbishop in the USA illuminate the incredible hurt caused by Rowan Williams and his successor in snubbing the American church and persistently misunderstanding or misrepresenting its polity. “We prayed (and also often paid) for your ministry” you can feel the US Episcopalians wailing in their distress. We played the pipe for you and you refused to dance.

But back to the Scottish Episcopal Church – that church which blessed the US Episcopalians into being.

For controversy about prayers for the powerful are a big part of our history. At times in our history, the safety and wellbeing of those gathered in church was directly connected with which monarch was being prayed for in the prayers. I am not the first Episcopal priest in this city who needed to worry about safety and security for the congregation. Prayers for the House of Stewart could (and sometimes did) lead to violence.

Gradually it became the practise of Episcopalians in this part of the world to pray for the ruling House of Hanover. However, not all in the pews ever really got there.

American Episcopalians today might be interested in the historical records of Scottish Episcopalians in the pews faced with clergy who, rightly or wrongly, and for a whole range of reasons believed that they had to pray for the Hanoverian regime.

There are records of congregations going to divine worship and when the state prayers for the House of Hanover were read those in the pews simply and loudly slammed their prayerbooks shut or coughed loudly.

There’s even reports of people deliberately partaking of snuff in the pews at the contentious moment the better to affect a snuffling, coughing and sneezing fit.

Now, let us finish with a prayer from the wonderful US Book of Common Prayer.

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world:
We commend this nation to thy merciful care,
that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace.
Grant to the President of the United States,
the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth),
and to all in authority,
wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will.
Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness,
and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.

Now, do I hear the people say Amen?

Or Aaaah-choooo?