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

10 Unanswered Questions about Same-Sex Marriage

Last week, at the General Synod in Edinburgh, it was announced that the Scottish Episcopal Church is to undergo a process of discussing what were referered to as “same-sex issues”.

I’ve written about this before, and no doubt will do so again.

For today though, here are some of the questions that are running around in my mind, most of which I don’t think were asked last week during General Synod and which I don’t think we have any answers to.

  • Once the Scottish Parliament has completed its legislative process and marriage for same-sex couples is legal in Scotland, what will be the consequences of a priest blessing such a couple in church. (NB – I can already, in some circumstances, bless couples entering into a Civil Partnership)?
  • Will all priests of the Scottish Episcopal Church be subject to the same discipline in this area or will different rules apply in different dioceses?
  • Will a member of the clergy who enters a civil marriage with someone of of the same sex have equality of opportunity in the church or will they automatically be ruled out of some appointments? Will there be parity between dioceses in this area and will the bishops have agreed a common policy?
  • If the Scottish Government were to subsequently proceed to allowing straight couples the possibility of entering a Civil Partnership, what would be the consequence of a member of the clergy entering a civil partnership and living in church-provided accommodation with their partner? Is that an acceptable moral choice in the church?
  • If it is not an acceptable moral church in the church for straight couples to live in a Civil Partnership when they have the opportunity of getting married, what standards apply to same-sex couples who might have a choice much sooner as to whether they live within a civil partnership or get married?
  • Is it acceptable for any member of the clergy to live with someone without having a legally binding committment to that person or not?
  • Is it acceptable (or even legal) for a bishop to refuse a licence to a priest on the grounds of their marital or partner status?
  • Would it be acceptable for a bishop to insist that clergy in same-sex Civil Partnerships should get married to one another once the opportunity arises for them to do so?
  • Does the peculiarly Scottish moratorium against bishops attending Civil Partnership ceremonies still apply and does it extend to civil marriage for some clergy and yet not for others?
  • Would a bishop support a priest who came to the conclusion that as the church has not made up its mind about who may get married, the right thing to do would be to declare a moratorium on marrying anyone (gay or straight) until the process of discussion about what marriage is had been concluded?

I don’t think that any of these questions is a hypothetical question.

Anyone with more questions or any answers?