Can the Epi Scopal Church speak of the love of God?


In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Identity matters. It always has of course but these days it seems to matter a huge amount.

And one of the most difficult things for Scottish Episcopalians is to explain to others who we are.

The name doesn’t help of course.

Scottish Episcopal always sounds a bit more like an Edinburgh based insurance company than a part of the church universal. And the simple truth is that a lot of people have never heard of us, or if they’ve heard of us have no real idea who we are.

Tricky names make things difficult.

My name is one that lots of people get wrong. One of the great advantages for me in living so close to Glasgow’s greatest, if not widest river is that I live within the only few square miles of the world where I seldom have to spell my name to people.

This came home to me once when I was gearing myself up to do a national broadcast on the BBC. And I could hear the continuity announcer in the headphones I was wearing introducing me live on air as the Very Rev Kevin Holdsworth. I sighed deeply just before the red light went on ready for me to be bright and perky to the nation. And I heard him finish his sentence with, “… the Very Rev Kevin Holdsworth, from St Mary’s Epi-Scopal Cathedral in Glasgow”.

The Epi-Scopal sounds more like a procedure that you would have done at Gartnavel than an identity that you would want to be known by.

The truth is, we’ve not been doing terribly well as a church with getting people to know who we are.

My view is that this is one of the biggest jobs that the Scottish Episcopal Church has on its hands at the moment. No-one is going to learn anything about the love of God from us if they think we are an insurance company or a ghastly piece of medical equipment that goes up your nose, down your throat or ….

No, let’s not think about where else an Epi Scopal might go.

But it is a job that can be done. We can reclaim our space in the public life and consciousness though probably not by being meek and mild.

This week I found myself being asked to talk to dozens of young LGBT activists who were gathered in Edinburgh for a conference. I was asked to join a human library. The idea being that the young people could come and speak to all the exhibits and hear our stories and ask us question.

I know of no process more clearly designed to make you feel ancient. But the young people treated us all like national treasures and had good questions.

And they all wanted to know what church I came from.

And I tried to explain.

Are you like the catholics? Yes

Are you like the Lutherans? Yes

Are you a bible church? Yes

Are you a Reformed Church? Yes.

It was a little puzzling for them.

Until they started asking questions that were a bit like the questions that were being put to Jesus in the gospel this morning. Then we started getting somewhere.

Well, what do you think about marriage? Who can be married? What do you think about divorce? What does your church teach?

And I found that my identity was being seen through the lens of what they thought were decent ethics.

And I don’t really have a problem with that.

I think our ethics – the way we behave are our calling cards. People will remember us by the way we behave at least as much as by what we say.

I find it interesting that religious groups in Jesus’s day found their identities in what their leaders taught about marriage.

And I find it interesting that Jesus is sitting down with his disciples and giving his take on marriage and talking about how it is changing.

Marriage was political then as it is now. Jesus is in the part of the world where John the Baptist had his head cut off for challenging Herod’s marital behaviour. His answers to the questions here are not just about what the man or woman on the Jerusalem omnibus is to think about marriage and divorce but had political overtones.

Jesus is using language which might put him at risk from harm – which may be why some of his teaching about it seems to be done in private with just the disciples.

As I was preparing this sermon, I saw others on social media having trouble trying to work out what to say about it. Mark 10 is a difficult chapter for many to preach on.

I think that it is no problem at all if we are prepared to accept and preach boldly and with confidence the truth, which is that the body of Christ today teaches things differently about marriage than the person of Jesus did when gathered in private with his disciples.

We don’t believe that someone who is divorced is committing adultery when they remarry. That was one of the questions the young activists asked me this week.

We believe and teach something different to Jesus in his name because we believe in our day that the love of God commands us to have compassion.

We live in a place and time where we teach that God’s love compels us to recognise that sometimes people need another start, and recognise that sometimes the ending of a marriage may prepare the way for new life better than staying in something that is not working, abusive and painful.

And we do so in Jesus’s name believing that we are following him in sharing compassion and love in the world, notwithstanding these few verses of Mark chapter 10.

I believe that the Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. “ would do the same if he lived in our day.

I’ll probably never convince the fundamentalists.

But then you never can.

Last week’s gospel included the line that if your eye sins you should pluck it out.

Cedric nudged me in the ribs and pointed at the preacher and said, “but he’s got two eyes, why should we listen to a word he says”.

My response to that gospel is always the same- Never trust a two-eyed fundamentalist.

And maybe that can shine a light on Jesus’s words that we hear today. Maybe the same sense of Hebraic hyperbole is going on. If you get married, stay married he says and does so with a force that seems downright unreasonable now but in his day was part of the daily rhetoric.

But then he says, “oh, and let all the little ones come unto me”.

And he loves them and he blesses them

I know where I hear most the God of Love in today’s the gospel as I read it in our times.

And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Our identity in the world will be found when we can do the same.

In the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit. Amen.


The recent Synod on the Family which has taken place in Rome comprising many leaders within the Roman Catholic Church has once again highlighted attitudes of Christians to divorce.

It seems to me that there really are very different attitudes to divorce in different parts of the church – both geographically and denominationally.

You could hear a certain amount of exasperation this morning when the presenter on Radio 4’s today programme was asking Cardinal Vincent Nichols whether or not the Synod meant that in future divorced and remarried Roman Catholics could or could not be received back into communion in the church and simply couldn’t get a straight answer. The reason of course is that in that situation there doesn’t appear to be a straight answer right at the moment. One may emerge and the hearts and thoughts of many Christians will be with that church as it wrestles with these questions.

For us in the Scottish Episcopal Church on that particular question there is a very straight answer indeed – no-one is excluded from communion because of their marital status.

One of the peculiarities of church life is that very widely differing practices over divorce are apparent yet they don’t seem to have led to the schismatic fellowship-breaking sensibilities which just as differing attitudes to same-sex relationships have led us into. This bears considerable reflection. After all, I’ve heard a priest working in the Church of England preaching at a wedding about about the joys of  “African Marriage” which turned out to be marriage in which a divorce is simply not a permissible option. (My hunch is that this will more often work to the detriment of women than of men). I find it puzzling as to how people with such views cope with working in churches in which divorce is sometimes seen as a better way forward than for a couple to stay in a relationship which is harming either or both of them.

I think access to divorce is something which is very important. Even though we don’t have any problem these days in welcoming those who have experienced divorce to receive communion, we must remember that we once did have a big problem with that and that attitudes linger which can be hugely harmful. I’ve several times heard clergy who have divorced say to me that at least we talk about issues relating to same-sex couples whereas we almost never talk about issues relating to divorce. We talk about whether someone in a gay relationship can become a bishop but we don’t talk about whether someone in a second marriage can become a bishop. That question gets tucked away and doesn’t see the light of mature reflection very often.

It seems to me that divorce is an issue when it comes to leadership in our church in a very different way to other parts of the church. It is much, much more common for clergy and particularly bishops to be divorced in the US church than it is in this country.

We do have a particular marriage discipline here in Scotland. A couple can get married in our churches where one or other of them have been married before. It is not uncommon for us to conduct such marriages. (Well, not for me at the moment as I’m not conducting any marriages until the bishops’ latest homophobic guidance is withdrawn. I’m happy to bless those couples who get married in registry offices. If it is good enough for the gay couples then I think it has to be good enough for the straight couples, but that’s another story.).

However, a couple where one or other party has been married before want to get married then they can only do so with the permission of the bishop. Usually their local priest will meet with them and hear the story and then contact the bishop who may well want to meet with them and have a pastoral conversation. It may well be that something like this is what will emerge in the Roman Catholic Church. Certainly it is what some in that church including those at a very high level, appear to want to happen.  We’ve got it already and usually it works just fine.

I think it is clear to me that we shouldn’t marry couples where the marriage itself would bring the church and marriage itself into disrepute. It is also clear to me that we shouldn’t marry people where they may have a dependent from a previous relationship who is not being supported financially. However, I think that we should be asking that question of anyone coming to marriage these days rather than just those who have been divorced. Plenty of people who get married have children from other relationships whether it is the first time they are getting married or not, and making sure that they are supported properly has little to do with divorce.

I also think that if the church is prepared to marry a couple where one of them is a member of the clergy then it has to accept the divorce and the remarriage and ensure that there are no posts in the church that they are formally barred from simply because of that marriage. It seems to me that this is unclear and that lack of clarity can be quite harmful to people.

It seems to me that rule of church life – canon law, has to make space for the pastoral sensibilities of the church at its best. When we get this even slightly wrong we end up seeing the church at its pastoral worst.

We have a number of people who worship in St Mary’s because the marriage discipline of the church that they would rather be worshipping in has harmed them and those whom they love. No-one wants that to be the case and it is good for churches to return to think about the way they deal with those who are divorced from time to time. A blessing on the Roman Catholic Church as they try to work out which way to go next. And let it be a nudge to others to ponder whether we’ve got our own practice working as well as it can work and and whether it communicates effectively the love  and compassion of God that is far bigger than any of us.