Response from the College of Bishops

The following is the response from the College of Bishops to the group of more than 50 lay readers and clergy of the church who wrote expressing concern in unusually strong terms to a set of guidelines that the bishops introduced with no consultation last year. This has already been published online elsewhere and so I’m copying it here as I’m aware of the levels of interest in this topic which remain high. I’m far from convinced that this is an adequate response to the issues raised in the letter and it seems to me that the fundamental question that many people are now talking about is not how we want gay people in the church to behave but how we want our bishops to behave. It is clear that the bishops are currently falling some way short of  the kind of leadership that many people hope for and pray for on a daily basis. I will leave off commenting further today though I may return to this topic later in the week. For now, people are welcome to comment below or re-post and comment elsewhere.  Bizarrely, the guidelines themselves still do not seem to have been posted on the website of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

I’m grateful to the clergy in Edinburgh who organised the letter of concern – I was happy to be one of its signatories.

22 December 2014

I am responding to your letter which has been passed to me by our Secretary General. My response has been agreed with the other members of the College of Bishops. I would be grateful if you would circulate this response to the other signatories of your letter.

The situation in which we and other churches find ourselves is one of considerable challenge and we are grateful to you for your recognition of that and your support for us in our ministry. It is not within the experience of any of us that we find our church out of step with the provisions of Civil Law with respect to marriage. We are aware that a substantial section of our church would wish to bring the practice of our church into line with the Civil Law as soon as possible. Others, of course, wish to continue to uphold a more traditional position.

As bishops, we are acutely aware that the issues which are part of the wider discussion of human sexuality and are touched on in the Guidance issued by the College are not abstract matters of policy. They affect deeply the lives and relationships of members of our church, both clergy and laity. It is regrettable, therefore, that some have been upset by the style and tone of our Guidance
document; this was not our intention. We are aware that what we say should be expressed in a way which is compassionate and which honours the depth of the feelings involved.

The Guidance offered by the College of Bishops was not intended to pre-empt any future discussion or synodical decision. It was issued at this point because of the need to bring clarity as the new Marriage Act becomes effective in Scotland. This is where we are at the moment. Our document is not seeking to defend the status quo but rather to preserve a space in which both the Cascade and Synodical processes might be allowed to work themselves through to a point where we can discern the mind of the church on this matter. We feel that for a diversity of practice to arise before we have done this will neither contribute to the unity of our church nor ultimately will it assist us as we try to move forward together.

I know that many who signed your letter are committed to the Cascade process. It is a process which, in a number of forms, has been followed by many churches. It seeks to provide an opportunity for honest conversation across difference and to foster a sense of belonging to one another in Christ. Whilst it did not achieve universal acceptance, we were greatly encouraged by the Pitlochry Conference and by expressions of the process at other levels. The purpose of the Cascade process has not been primarily to seek a resolution of these issues – rather it offers a way in which we can respond to our diversity and thereby create an environment in which resolution may be possible.

Ultimately, this resolution must come through General Synod. The process for doing so in 2015 will be the subject of debate by the Faith and Order Board at its meeting in March. This may lead to a full debate at General Synod in 2015 on the Theology of Marriage in response to a paper to be prepared by our Doctrine Committee. We also expect a debate which gives General Synod members the opportunity of expressing a considered view on a number of options for canonical and other changes. The College trusts that our Cascade Conversations will mean that votes on the floor of General Synod – when they come – will give expression to a deeper unity and catholicity which our church has sought in honest conversation, mutual respect for diversity and prayer.

The question of the authority of the Canons is of particular difficulty. It affects clergy and all who hold a licence for ministry in our church. Whether or not a priest or a deacon can promise obedience to the Canons is ultimately a matter of personal and ministerial integrity. But, because we are an episcopal church, it also involves the bishop before whom such declarations are made.

There are of course wider issues involved here – about the nature of the Scottish Episcopal Church and its place in Scotland today. Many people in and beyond our church would recognize that we have, over the years, bravely represented and advocated gospel-inspired positions on social, moral and justice issues. We honour that history and our tradition of openness and compassion. The challenge we now face is to be open and courageous about engaging with our own theological diversity – honourably resolving difficult questions in a way that strengthens and deepens our oneness in Christ. I believe that we are not only capable of doing this for ourselves but of offering it as an example to others.

Thank you again for your letter. I know that it arises from the deeply held feelings of many people within our church and I hope that this response helps to answer some of their concerns.
With kind regards,
The Most Rev’d David Chillingworth


  1. Thank you, Fr, Kelvin, for making the contents of the SEC Bishops’ Response to the Letter from 50 people concerned about their attitude towards the openness of the Church to the prospect of its eirenic treatment of clergy and Church members – desirous of solemnising Same-Sex monogamous relationships in the context of Marriage.

    It seems to me – an outsider, but a member of the New Zealand Anglican Church – that the Letter has challenged your Bishops to positive action on behalf of Christians – and others – who consider faithful Gay relationships to be equally acceptable to God as those of heterosexuals. The Church, surely, must act to affirm faithful monogamous relationships on both sides of the spectrum.

    Let’s hope your General Synod will move ahead to affirm such relationships, so that the Church may get on with other aspects of its mission; knowing that human justice for ALL people is paramount in the propagation of the Gospel. If SEC is pro-active in this important matter, it can only encourage churches like my own – in ACANZP – to follow suit.

    • The General Synod is, to some degree, inhibited from sorting this out until the bishops themselves decide to back a proposal which would allow all to flourish in the church.

      The synod contains the bishops and they have an effective veto on canonical legislation.

      I’m baffled at the moment as to why they have not rallied around a position which allows all of us, both those in favour and those against, to act according to our consciences in this area. I think that this is a position which would re-unite the church again. I know those who disagree with me on the substantive question about lesbian and gay relationships who are as mystified and as frustrated as I am that we are taking so long to deal with this and who, like me, want to get on with the business of letting Scotland’s people know that God loves them.

      Everyone I know says they want to come to a resolution which does not de-church other Episcopalians. The position that the bishops have taken comes very close to de-churching some of us and I remain greatly concerned for the Province as a whole.

    • Amen.

  2. From my reading, it’s a carefully worded document that attempts not to pre-empt what may happen at Synod. Talking to each other face-to-face is always better than written communication, in my opinion. This issue does need a resolution and I’m sure that people on both sides of the debate, in good faith, would want to honour each other. Bishops have a tough job but so do the people who don’t get the opportunity to attend Synod, for whatever reason.

  3. Chris Hansen says

    I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of being talked about by people who would rather not talk to me. This “listening process” that the C of E is going through is bull. They’ve been doing variations on that for years. Nothing comes out of it except more conversations. No progress is made thereby.

    The trick is to push the bishops to take a stand and do some prophetic leading.

    • The current process in the Church of England is related to the Cascade Process that we’ve had in Scotland.

      Some people have benefitted from the process here. There’s no getting away from that. It has been a good thing for some but by no means all.

      Some have felt very disappointed and upset that the bishops themselves now appear not to have been working in accord with the principles of the process itself.

      And some, like me who have been working for change in this area for years, were excluded from the design of the process and from its major set piece provincial event.

  4. FakePete says

    I feel very angry reading that.

  5. Steven says

    Dear Kelvin

    Interesting developments. Not much in that letter really.

    What would you do if you were Primus?

    The reality is the SEC has always (at least in my mind) been open to a more progressive stance on this kind of issue and yet does contain those for whom this would be (very?) difficult.

    Would you seek to maintain unity by some kind of compromise (CoE and women Bishops) or would you forge on ahead with prophetic change leaving those who didn’t like it to make their own choices (like the Episcopal Church)…?

    The New Testament Christians didn’t seem to care much for unity at the expense of integrity and justice.

    For my own part I think it is better for churches not to try and fudge this issue (look at the terrible mess in the Church of Scotland) but to agree a position and then firmly pursue same, come what may. People would not tolerate an institution that allowed a minority of people to adopt racist positions and so it should not really be any different for those who want to maintain positions that discriminate against same-sex couples.

    All this is – of course – easy for me to say.


    • What would I do if I were the Primus? Well that’s a good question.

      The first thing I’d remember is that the Primus is simply the spokesperson for the College of Bishops and doesn’t have the authority that, for example, an archbishop might think he possesses.

      I would however as a bishop argue in a favour of a solution which allowed people to act according to their conscience in this area. I don’t agree that people should be forced to “firmly pursue” a particular stance over this issue. It isn’t who we are. In fact I think the problem at the moment is that people are being forced to pursue a position that they don’t agree with and that situation is unsustainable.

      The reasons for not forcing people to marry gay couples are these:

      1 – No gay couple wants to be married by someone who has been forced to do so but who would really prefer not to.

      2 – It would be illegal anyway and our canon law determines that we will abide by Scots Law.

      3 – We already have a precedent with divorce – no-one is forced to marry anyone who is divorced, they can chose whether or not to do so. I think that is a reasonable compromise and it has served the church well.

      4 – I don’t think anyone should be compelled to marry anyone and that is the situation that we currently have.

      However there are some positive things that a Scottish bishop could do at the moment. Although I agree that same-sex marriages cannot take place in churches or be done by SEC priests until there is a decision made by General Synod I don’t agree that it is the case that someone cannot affirm allegiance to the canons of the church because they happen to be in a same-sex marriage.

      I think de-coupling those two issues is urgent.

      I would argue in favour of an equal opportunities policy for the church.

      I would try to seek a way of bringing forward a synodical resolution which would allow same-sex marriage, allow those who don’t want to be party to it not to have to be and I’d argue in favour of that as a godly compromise that would allow us to get on with our gospel business of sharing the good news.

      If I were the Primus I would probably be encouraging the College of Bishops to allow me to say publicly that we regretted that some people had been excluded from the Cascade Process and I’d seek to commit the College to a more consultative leadership style. In particular I’d want to say that there should never be a process about people that did not include them in the design of the structures of the conversation. I’d want to say that we would never construct a conversation about the ministry of women without women being involved, we would never construct a conversation about ethnic minorities in the church without appropriate consultation with people who belong to ethnic minorities and I’d commit the church never to make the mistake that has been repeatedly made of constructing a conversation about LGBT people without their involvement.

      If I were wise, I’d be learning a lot more about the experience of trans people because I’d realise that trans issues are inevitably coming our way.

      Does that answer the question?

      • Steven says

        Yes, it does rather. Thanks.

        For the avoidance of doubt I would not advocate forcing anyone to marry anyone. When I said it is better to adopt a position and then pursue that I meant in terms of whether or not to permit equal marriage in the SEC (which is not the same as saying that all priests would therefore be compelled to marry gay folk).

        We have just filed an equal marriage petition in Belfast, so thoughts and prayers all welcome!


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