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.


  1. Julia says

    You’ve worked and prayed on this for a long time and come up with the best solution in my opinion. God be with you.

    • Thanks, but I’m not sure I can claim to have come up with the solution – that claim lies with last year’s synod who did very well at working through all the options available.

  2. Robin says

    Do you really find the “Gamaliel argument” convincing? Two thousand years after Our Lord lived on earth, to believe in the possibility of the priestly and episcopal ministry of women still remains a minority position in the Church, as does the belief that homosexual acts should be legal, let alone blessed. Wait for the “Gamaliel effect” and you’ll wait for ever!

    • Gamaliel’s wisdom is not about waiting for a majority. It is about letting people be free to testify to what God has done for them and conduct themselves accordingly. If this is not with God, then it will come to naught anyway.

      • Robin says

        Surely that must mean that neither women’s priestly ministry nor homosexual acts are of God, since support for them is still the minority position 2,000 years on?

        (I’m not supporting this interpretation, just stating my long-held belief that the “Gamaliel argument” is feeble and solves nothing.)

        • Neither women’s priestly ministry nor homosexual acts (which acts, by the way?) seem to me to be dying out.

          • Robin says

            After 2,000 years they certainly aren’t generally accepted. I just don’t see the relevance of the “Gamaliel argument”. If you believe in something, argue for it, fight for it, act to bring it about!

  3. I don’t want to put words in Kelvin’s mouth (He wouldn’t let me, anyway), but the Gamaliel argument is really a shorthand way of saying that we should look to scripture, not for what Lucy Winkett called ‘clobber texts’, but for the spirit to which scripture testifies, the spirit of unconditional generosity which informs all God’s dealings with humanity: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts’.

  4. Robin says

    I thoroughly agree with what you say, Eamonn. That is exactly how we should use scripture. Maybe my adverse reaction to Gamaliel is a very personal one. It certainly goes back a long way. My trusty old SCM Torch Commentary on Acts, from my teenage years, damns with faint praise:

    “The main point of Gamaliel’s speech is clear enough. He says, ‘Don’t act in a hurry. Time will prove whether God is behind this or not.’ Not a very courageous line, but one which we are all prone to follow from time to time.”

    There are so many things which it is impossible to believe are of God but which over the centuries have *not* come to naught and show no signs of doing so!

  5. The Rev. Jeff Donnelly says

    The Gamaliel example reminds me of the fact that one of the results of the early Jewish-Jesus movement was a divergent branch of Judaism which ultimately developed into an entirely separate religion. We may hope for an undivided Church on this issue, but one very real possibility of what God will do is that Christianity will again diverge into different expressions that may or may not remain unified in one institution. Indeed, the Church already exists on many different paths. I wonder whether the goal of keeping the institutional church together will end up being the real question that needs to be answered.

  6. Fr Enoch Opuka says

    I bet the views of other Anglicans are irrelevant. I have no problem with one being gay. Indeed I have had friends who are gay. But why can’t we leave the issue to individual decision? If the SEC knows that their decision is going to dialienate others why make it. Should churches in Africa advocate polygamy?

  7. Rtgmath says

    Perhaps the best argument regarding same-sex marriage is the fact that marriage is and always has been a cultural artifact. Marriage in the Old Testament varied in custom, but was primarily “bride-price” or family contracts. Boaz and Ruth’s marriage differed from Rebekah and Isaac, and again from Hosea and Gomer, and from Joseph and Mary. The Greeks and Romans had different cultures still, and so do we. Polygamy was allowed, with the exception of Church leaders. Not even Jesus disputed polygamy!

    The overriding considerations in Scripture are faithfulness and love. If Faith is to be relevant to all cultures, we must focus on larger issues, not cultural specifics.

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