A Form of Benediction for Married Persons

Well, the change in the law last week makes quite a difference for clergy in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Oh, I know that you don’t think it makes any difference unless the Scottish Episcopal Church opts into the legislation to allow same-sex couples to get married but that’s where you are wrong.

You see, for quite some time, there have been couples entering into civil partnerships who have turned to sympathetic clergy in sympathetic congregations for services to mark their joy in getting hitched.

Now, in Scotland there has been no great demand for a new liturgy for blessing same-sex couples because we had a brilliant new marriage liturgy in 2007. One of the things that this service emphasised was the mutuality and equality of the couple – There was no giving away of brides, for example. In this service, the gender of the couple was not emphasised hugely and indeed one could perform the service without mentioning the gender of the couple even though until last week that was quite illegal under Scots law. (Oh yes, really!)

Now at the time that this service was introduced we were encouraged by the liturgy committee to see it as a resource for a number of different situations – for example, bits and bobs could be lifted out and used to make a splendid service for blessing a couple having a golden wedding ceremony. We were encouraged to experiment with it.

We were also encouraged when one of my colleagues helpfully pointed out that if one chose option A at every point then the service made no mention of the gender of the parties to the marriage whatsoever and that it was tantamount to being an ideal service for marrying a same-sex couple. (This version of the service has been known locally around here as the McCarthy version of the service ever since, in homage to my neighbour at St Silas who was the person who pointed it out).

Last year the bishops of the church formally acknowledged that these informal blessings were taking place. (Got that? I know it is difficult to make much sense of that but there you go). They effectively said that they didn’t want such services happening without their knowledge and that clergy were to let them know and work collaboratively with their bishops. They also said that bishops themselves were free to attend such informal services formally. Or was it that the bishops were informally able to attend these formally recognised services? I can’t for the life of me work it out any more. Anyway, the point is, the bishops knew that the services were taking place, wanted to know that they were taking place and said that they might or might not turn up to them but that this was a matter for each bishop.

Now the thing is, people were getting civil partnerships and we were using the marriage liturgy to put together an appropriate service which looked very much like a wedding. All you needed to do was substitute “Loving and lifelong partnership” instead of “lifelong marriage” for example and Bob’s your aunt – you had an appropriate service.

However, the wordings we have been using are not going to be appropriate for couples who are going to be getting married. You can’t have a couple getting married in the morning and then declaring they are entering into partnership in the afternoon in church. They are not entering into a partnership when they are already married. Neither can you simply recite the marriage liturgy over a couple who have been married earlier in the day because that would be naughty. Again, I have to admit that the reasons why this would be naughty escape me but I know naughty when it comes to liturgy and that would be it.

So, what to do?

One might hope for guidance from the church in this situation yet where is that to come from? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has had a note from their bishop illuminating them as to what service to use for such couples. Yes that’s right – those services which the bishops have formally acknowledged happen informally (or informally acknowledged happen formally, I don’t know) and to which they might turn up. After all, one doesn’t want a bishop turning up to a service and getting sniffy about the liturgy. That would never do.

Fortunately, we have several sources of authority in the church. These include the liturgy and the Code of Canons.

The Code of Canons says this in Section 5 of Canon 31

A cleric may use the form of Benediction provided in the Scottish Book of Common Prayer (1929) to meet the case of those who ask for the benediction of the Church after an irregular marriage has been contracted or after a civil marriage has been legally entered into, provided only that the cleric be satisfied that the marriage is not contrary to Sections 3 and 4 of this Canon.

The point of this is that you can’t use the service of Benediction for a couple who are related to one another too closely and can’t do it if the marriage itself has been forbidden in church because if one party has been married before and a bishop has refused permission for a second marriage. (Refusal is possible but rare).

Thus – the canons seem to suggest that a form of Benediction is the right thing to be offering.

I don’t think that the letter of the law is very helpful suggesting that it be the service of Benediction from the Scottish Prayer Book 1929 but that service does have a very lovely prayer which I’ve rendered here in modern English:

God the Father,
God the Son,
God the Holy Spirit,
bless, preserve and keep you;
the Lord look upon you with favour and mercy
and so fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace,
that you may so live together in this life
that in the world to come you may have life everlasting.

This, it seems to me, is a wonderfully helpful resource in determining what to do with couples approaching the church for Benediction after a civil marriage ceremony. And all the more useful as the number of straight couples wanting this is surely destined to rise if the church forbids same-sex couples to wed in church. I expect that thoughtful straight couples will say, “Well, what’s good for the gander is good for the gander as the old gay proverb goes. If our gay friends get offered Benediction after getting married in a civil service then that’s what we want too.”

So, it seems apposite to look again at the modern marriage rite to see whether it has any useful resources that could flesh out a service of Benediction for Persons who are Married that would serve whatever the gender of the couple.

I’ve put this together for that purpose and hope that it is the beginnings of something useful for everyone.

I’d be interested in hearing feedback both on the content presented here and any use of this service by anyone in the future. Remember, this one is for straight people too.

You can download it here:
Service of Benediction

If you think I’ve made any mistakes and allowed the M word to remain in places where it would be naughty for the M word to be, do please let me know.

And if, in the future, we get to a situation whereby straight people can enter a civil partnership and then want that partnership blessed in church, you can be sure I will have just the thing right up my sleeve.

Are all these distinctions not becoming rather silly?


A couple of people have asked me to give details of the service of Benediction which can be used in the Scottish Episcopal Church where a couple conduct a marriage which is a legal marriage but one which is irregular under canon law.

The form of service that we are talking about is this one:


The canon that governs marriage in the Scottish Episcopal Church includes this clause:

5. A cleric may use the form of Benediction provided in the Scottish Book of Common Prayer (1929) to meet the case of those who ask for the benediction of the Church after an irregular marriage has been contracted or after a civil marriage has been legally entered into, provided only that the cleric be satisfied that the marriage is not contrary to Sections 3 and 4 of this Canon.

Here’s the whole thing if you want chapter and verse.

Now, the reason this is interesting at the moment is that the Scottish Government is keen to introduce the possibility of marriage for same-sex couples. I’m very much in favour and hope that the Scottish Episcopal Church enjoys a fruitful discussion about these matters over the next months and hope that the result of those discussions is that we can opt into whatever means the government chooses in order the enable those marriages to happen.  Now, obviously, one matter that will need some attention is the marriage liturgy. There will need to be some work put in to ensure that it can be used for all marriages. This won’t be too much trouble though as we’ve plenty of experience of rewriting liturgies in inclusive language. (Not least the fairly recent rewrite of the ordinal to ensure that it did not use male pronouns all the way through the liturgy for making someone a bishop).

One little detail which seems to have passed most people by is that the Canon which governs marriage in the Scottish Episcopal Church explicitly authorises an old form of words, the Service of Benediction from the Scottish Prayer Book for use for a couple whose marriage is legal but cannot for some reason be regarded as having been regularly conducted according to the canons of the Scottish Episcopal Church. For a long time, this was the mechanism by which divorced people could have a blessed (ie a benediction) in church after a civil marriage.

Nowadays, most couples where one person or other has been divorced can have a marriage in church anyway, by going through a pastoral procedure involving the bishop.

However, the clause permitting Benediction still exists. Its only stipulation (and it uses the word “only” quite explicitly) is that the marriage is a legitimate one and that the couple have not been refused a marriage by a bishop if they have gone through the pastoral process pertaining to divorce.

The consequence of all this is that once the Scottish Government legalises marriage for same-sex couples, the Scottish Episcopal Church has on its hands a piece of Canon Law which permits those couples to be blessed in church using an authorised liturgy.

The liturgy itself would need some very minor modifications to be modified for inclusive language of course, but clergy do that all the time.

Here are two versions of the text to show how easily that can be done:



Now, someone might want to argue that section 1 of Canon 31 (which is a doctrinal statement) prohibits this. But the point it, Canon 31 has a number of clauses which all have the same validity. Section 5 was explicitly put into the canon to deal with situations where a couple’s marriage did not fit within the boundaries of Section 1.

Anyone attempting to argue that Section 5 does not apply if a couple’s marriage falls outwith the doctrinal boundary of Section 1 risks casting a slur upon those divorced persons blessed in church under the canon thus far. Such an argument would undermine the position of the Faith and Order Board’s recent first submission to the Scottish Government. It would also undermine the Grosvenor Essay produced last year by the Doctrine Committee. (You can’t argue that Section 1 of the canon means what it literally says amidst fast changing circumstances without also applying the same standards to Section 5).

Without taking any actions, the Scottish Episcopal Church is going to find itself in the interesting position of having a service, albeit an archaic one, of blessing for gay couples authorised because of the actions of the Scottish Parliament.

Now, wouldn’t it be much more sensible for us to have some discussions about this in the synod instead to ensure that there are appropriate resources for everyone who is engaged in ministry with engaged couples in our church?