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.







Canon Law

We had such a good evening discussing Canon Law at the Cathedral’s gay group on Monday evening. Presumably all churches have evenings like this.

Canon Law is more often talked about than referred to. In this case, we were looking at Canon 31 which is the canon about marriage.

There are quite a few interesting things that we talked about in relation to the canon, but first, here is the Canon itself.


1. The Doctrine of this Church is that Marriage is a physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman created by their mutual consent of heart, mind and will thereto, and is a holy and lifelong estate instituted of God.

2. No cleric of this Church shall solemnise Matrimony except in accordance with the civil law of Scotland for the time being in force in relation to civil marriages and unless satisfied that compliance has been made with such preliminaries as are therein required for the Solemnising of Religious Marriages.

3. No cleric shall perform the Marriage Service, nor permit it to be performed in Church, for parties who are within the forbidden degrees, as specified in Appendix No.26. No cleric shall perform the Marriage Service, nor permit it to be performed in Church for parties, for one or both of whom a decree of Nullity of Marriage Ab Initio has been pronounced by a Civil Court, nor for parties, either of whom has had a previous marriage dissolved quoad civilia in a Civil
Court, so long as the other spouse in the marriage so dissolved remains alive, unless that cleric shall have been given a Certificate of Authorisation on the grounds that there is no ecclesiastical impediment to the marriage in terms of Section 4.

4. In cases where a decree of Nullity of Marriage Ab Initio has been pronounced by a Civil Court, or in any case where either or both parties to a proposed marriage has, or have had, a previous marriage dissolved quoad civilia in a Civil Court, but the other spouse to that marriage remains alive, any cleric to whom an approach is made by or on behalf of either party with a view to the solemnising of such proposed marriage shall refer the matter to the Diocesan Bishop. Upon receiving such reference, the Diocesan Bishop shall make such enquiries into the circumstances of the case, and take such pastoral and legal advice, as shall seem appropriate, and thereafter may issue, or decline to issue, to an officiating cleric, a Certificate of Authorisation in terms of Appendix No.27 authorising and approving that cleric’s officiating at the Solemnisation of Holy Matrimony of the parties concerned according to the Rites and Ceremonies and Canons of the Scottish Episcopal Church. No Bishop shall entertain an application which has already been before another Diocesan Bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church without the agreement of the Bishop of that other Diocese and the Episcopal Synod.

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.

6. The solemnisation of Marriage shall take place in Church except with the written sanction of the Bishop.

We were, obviously, looking at the Canon in the light of the knowledge that the Scottish Government is planning to change marriage law to allow same-sex couples to get married.

I’m still not entirely convinced that the parliamentary process is going to be quite as easy as the politicians thing. They appear to me to be planning on building new discrimination into new law and that might well unravel. For example, they talk about “protecting” any cleric who belongs to a denomination which has opted in to doing same-sex weddings where the celebrant in question doesn’t want to do them but they don’t propose doing anything about the cleric who wants to perform a same-sex wedding when their denomination has not opted in. That is clear and obvious discrimination and I’m not sure that it will (or should) pass muster when it comes to legislation.

It is worth noting that this business of providing “protection” to those who don’t want to do same-sex weddings is a nonsense and a red herring. No-one can be forced to conduct any wedding at the moment. No additional legislation is needed. No-one, if you think about it, can be forced to pray or perform any religious act that they don’t believe in. It is absurd to think that any court in Europe is going to start to force people to perform religious ceremonies they don’t want to. That’s because celebrants already have rights – the same rights which mean that one can’t be forced to perform religious acts. We already have freedom of concience in Western Europe. Same-sex weddings are no threat to this at all. The more you hear from the SNP Government about providing “protection” in this area, the more you know they are trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes or trying to delay the process. It just isn’t necessary. Not a jot or a tittle of the law needs changing, as Someone might well once have said.

Now, when it comes to that Canon there are a couple of interesting things to note. Firstly, note the definition of marriage as being, “a physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman created by their mutual consent of heart, mind and will thereto, and is a holy and lifelong estate instituted of God.”

Opinion has been expressed in the church recently by those with some power and influence in this area, that the church wouldn’t be able to marry same-sex couples whilst this statement is in Canon law. However, the church manages to marry couples whose lives have not reflected this standard all the time. If we marry divorced people, then our relationship with this doctrinal statement must at least be nuanced.

I was very interested to see an old copy of the Canons recently – I think it came from the 1920s. I looked up Canon 31 and found that this doctrinal statement was simply not there. I think (and I’d be happy to be corrected if I’m wrong) that it was inserted precisely when we did start to recognise divorce.

Section 5 of the Canon is rather interesting. It suggests that it is legitimate to perform the service of Benediction (ie perform a blessing) for couples whose marriages have been contracted irregularly (ie not within the other terms of the Canon) so long as they have not had a marriage refused for reasons connected with a divorce. (It is extremely rare for our bishops to refuse marriages in this area).

It seems to me, that should the state allow same-sex couples to marry, Canon Law is at least nodding towards the possibility of giving the couple a blessing in church, even without changing a word of the Canons.

Clearly there is a time of discussion and reflection needed with regard to the way Canon Law intersects with Scottish Law. If the state allowed same-sex marriage but the church didn’t, it seems to me to be very likely that some clergy would start to refuse to marry straight couples and simply suggest that for reasons of equality everyone goes to get married in the registry office and an appropriate church service can follow immediately afterwards. That seems not only very likely but only a couple of years away.

Alternatively, the church will allow everyone to live according to their conscience on this matter. Allowing those who wish to conduct such marriages to do so and allowing those who wish to refuse to do so too. This is how we deal with divorced couples wanting to get married, so there is clear precidence for this path. It seems to me that this would be wisest and the path forward which least distracted us from other mission inititives.

Incidently, if we do start to unpick the definition of marriage that we have in Canon 31, don’t expect it to be easy. It currently says,

The Doctrine of this Church is that Marriage is a physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman created by their mutual consent of heart, mind and will thereto, and is a holy and lifelong estate instituted of God.

I’d be happy with it if it said,

The Doctrine of this Church is that Marriage is a physical, spiritual and mystical union of two people created by their mutual consent of heart, mind and will thereto, and is a holy and lifelong estate instituted of God.

There are others who would find it much easier to reconcile their own experience with the church if it said,

The Doctrine of this Church is that Marriage is a physical, spiritual and mystical union of created by their mutual consent of heart, mind and will thereto, and is a holy estate instituted of God.

And I’ve recently heard a bishop questioning the last clause who would really prefer –

The Doctrine of this Church is that Marriage is a physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman created by their mutual consent of heart, mind and will thereto, and is a holy and lifelong estate.

Ho hum.

All of this is, of couse, about the canonical definition of marriage and takes no account of the liturgical formularies, which are different and diverse. I’ll perhaps look at them in another post.

Suffice it to say that the biggest change that the Scottish Episcopal Church has ever made in relation to marriage was in producing a new marriage liturgy which regards the two persons contracting the marriage as equals.

That seems to me to be a far greater change to our ecclesiastical views on marriage than allowing same-sex couples to marry. Indeed, it is one of the foundations upon which the case for same-sex marriage can be built.