The sacrament lottery

One of the consequences of decisions being made in different jurisdictions which don’t align with other geographical entities is that you end up with what we tend to call in the UK a postcode lottery. The most frequent use of the term is in describing a situation whereby someone can get treatment for a medical condition paid for if they live in one place but not in another. Or access to a particular school. Or a particular council service.

There’s something of the same thing happens within the life of the church and right now we are seeing new anomalies open up before our very eyes.

This weekend, for the first time, marriage in some parts of the UK (England and Wales) will be open to same-sex couples as well as straight couples. (And no, we are not getting same-sex marriage or gay marriage – those terms become history tonight – it is simply that marriage is open to more couples than once it was).

So, if a gay couple in Scotland want to get married they either have to wait until some date yet to be determined, probably within the next year, and get married in Scotland. Or alternatively they can go down to England and get married there where their marriage will be recognised by the state as a marriage in English law but as a Civil Partnership in Scots law. Within the life of the church, if a same-sex couple get married tomorrow in Carlisle say, and approach their local Anglican priest for a blessing, a service or some form of recognition then they are not supposed to be offered much. They are supposed to be asked why they have departed from the teaching of the church and then, maybe, offered some private prayers of thanksgiving.

However, if that couple from Carlisle should get on a train over the border and approach a sympathetic Anglican priest in Scotland then they can have a lot more. They might, if they so wished have a nuptial mass at St Mary’s. They can have their rings blessed. They can make lifelong vows. They can process in and/or out with splendid music. They can book the bells to be rung.  And they can do all this in public without so much as a hair being batted. Indeed, if one of the Scottish bishops happens to be a pal then they can, if they are invited, choose whether to turn up themselves or not.

It is a remarkably different state of affairs. And this is a year for people in the UK to think about how odd borders are – sometimes feeling very real and sometimes feeling very artificial.

I suppose that it is already the case that some of the sacramental acts of the church are available to different people in different places. For some time now we have had just about every different discipline regarding admitting children to communion happening in our church. Indeed, we have had just about every different discipline happening within individual congregations. However the deal has always been that if someone has been admitted to communion in one then they must be offered the bread and wine everywhere else, even if it is not the local custom to offer communion to children.

I asked my own bishop recently whether it was the case that gay people in the Scottish Episcopal Church could expect to be treated in the same way in all of our dioceses. He didn’t seem to know.

That strikes me as one of the fundamental questions that need to keep on being asked.

I know that not everyone thinks of marriage as a sacrament. However, I know that most people I know in the church think that the love between a man and a woman can be sacramental – can show forth in its essence something of the love of God. One of the questions I often ask those who are hestitant about treating gay people like other people is whether they think that the love that a same-sex couple might share has the same potential to show forth the love of God.

Now, some people just don’t think this is so. They tend to disagree with me on these issues and I have some respect for that. The people I find most puzzling are those who want to say that a same-sex couple do have the potential to show forth by their relationship something of a love that is holy, precious and even divine in its nature but who stumble over the question of whether marriage should or should not have been opened to same-sex couples. (Note the past tense in that last sentence).

We have a sacramental postcode lottery at the moment. People have different access to the sacramental acts of the body of Christ dependent on where they are geographically in the UK and in Scotland. This is an unstable situation that seems to me to be hard to defend as having any integrity.

It is my view that the best hope for peace in the church though and the best hope that we can get on with other business and not become fixated on this topic for a further 10 years of decline is to accept a situation whereby those who want to marry same-sex couples can do so and those who don’t want to do so don’t have to. At the moment we are all forced to behave the same way regardless of what we believe.

In the past we have adopted similar compromises for the sake of the gospel – that which allows clergy to marry people who have been married before but who don’t have to do so seems to be a reasonable situation to look to for inspiration.

I’m thrilled beyond measure for those who will be marrying in England this Saturday who could not have married on Friday. It is as though the legal clocks have been put forward to the present day despite the mainstream churches mostly wanting to exist in their own timezone.

Congratulations to all those getting married this weekend. Good luck. Good wishes. God’s blessings.

Here’s to the future and here’s to removing or at least undermining the postcode lottery by which God’s people get offered half-baked blessings rather than the whole blessing shebang, according to where they happen to live or worship at the time.


  1. Technically it’s not a past tense. It’s the present perfect – referring to an action in the past that affects the present. A bit like Genesis 1:12.

  2. Those of us in the wilds of Argyll & the Isles are already well aware that our postcode dictates our access to the sacraments!

  3. Lawrence Rosenfeld says

    Help out a poor Episcopalian Yank, please. The tale of the couple in paragraph 4 who “get married in Carlisle” puzzles me. Have I got this right? They may have a civil wedding in England but cannot get it blessed in an Anglican church there, but they can have a “nuptial mass” in Glasgow – still post-civil-ceremony – for the blessing of their not-legal-in-Scotland-yet marriage?

    Warm greetings from San Francisco to Fr. Kelvin and all his fans.

    • Thanks Lawrence. Happy memories of San Francisco.

      Yes, you’ve understood that precisely right. I think that their wedding in Carlisle would be regarded as a civil partnership in Scotland until the point where marriage becomes open to same-sex couples here and then regarded as having been a marriage from the date they entered into it from then on. However, I find myself hesitating over this – have we reached a point where their marriage is recognised as a marriage in Scotland now? That may be the case – I’ve lost track. The legislation has passed in Scotland but the marriages have not yet started – expected October in Scotland.

      • Augur Pearce says

        I would be a bit cautious about this. The normal English rule is that the couple marrying must have capacity to marry according to the law of the place where they were domiciled before the marriage took place. Now at present, i.e. until the 2014 Act is brought into force by the Scottish Ministers, Scots law still denies the capacity of a man to marry another man. Hence two men domiciled in Scotland – i.e. living in Scotland and intending to return there – wouldn’t satisfy the requirement of the English rule and therefore can’t marry in England, despite the 2013 Act now being in force. This has a knock-on effect: if the hypothetical ceremony in Carlisle were not recognised by English law as a valid marriage at the date when it took place, then it would not be recognised in Scotland as a CP (nor, after the 2014 Act takes effect, as a marriage).
        Had the position been reversed and the Scottish Act come into effect first, then an English couple could have married in Glasgow, because the Scottish Act specifically provides for the rejection of SSM by other legal systems to be disregarded. (See s.5(4)(f) of the 1977 Act as amended by s.2 of the 2014 Act.) As usual, the Scots have done things better!

        • Does Scots law recognise the capacity of a man to marry a man (or a woman to marry a woman) at the point that the relevant Act receives Royal Assent or at the time when ministers establish the secondary instruments which enable marriages to take place?

          • Augur Pearce says

            The latter. (And sorry it took me over two years to spot the question!)

  4. Very good post. The Anglican Church has always played this sort of game,
    It did the same thing with the marriage of divorced persons
    Having a mother who was divorced, when she married my father just after the War (strangely, in the bounds of Diocese of Carlisle) they were married in the Presbyterian Church. I used to think that she was probably technically excommunicated; though she never stopped being a worshipping Anglican.
    I guess in the eyes of the Church of England this means I am a ba^&*rd! (And there would be some who would agree, though perhaps for different reasons).
    One of my theological teachers me assured me there is no defacto excommunication unless there has been a proper process…which there wasn’t.
    I think the thing that hurt her most was not being allowed to join Mothers’ Union!
    When we came to live in Australia in the late 60s, the remarriage of divorced persons was very much the live issue. We fortunately resolved it within a decade…but there are still some who will not marry divorced persons.
    When and while the issue of inclusive marriage is finally being resolved perhaps we should also be casting our eyes around to see if there are other places where we have allowed arbitrary interpretation of rules to dictate our practice.

  5. Robert Ellis says

    You are far more charitable than I can be at the moment. I have been an Anglican priest for 43 years and I have never been more ashamed of the Church of England than I was last Saturday. Thankfully those of us who are retired can thumb our noses at silly Pastoral Letters from Archbishops which were neither sensible nor pastoral. Having said that I suspect they are between a rock and a hard place but that is what leadership is about.

  6. Augur Pearce says

    A more general point, too. I’m not persuaded that one can merely speak of ‘marriage’ in all contexts. When it comes to marriage formation, there will still be celebrants approved for one or the other or both types of marriage. Even after a marriage has taken place there will be differences, some acceptable, some not. One that particularly annoys me concerns titles and precedence. Let’s assume that the Earls Mountararat and Tololler (I hope you know your Iolanthe) both get married – one to Phyllis (female), the other to Strephon (male). Phyllis will become the Countess Mountararat, taking precedence alongside other countesses. But Strephon (it has been decreed) will remain a mere Mr. and gain no precedence at all from his husband’s peerage. Grrr!

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