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.







Dear Justin Welby

Firstly, thank you for your speech the other night. Oh, I know it wasn’t directed at me, it was for the General Synod of the Church of England. But you knew that lots of us around the communion would be listening in.

In that speech, you said:

The majority of the population rightly detests homophobic behaviour or anything that looks like it. And sometimes they look at us and see what they don’t like. I don’t like saying that. I’ve resisted that thought. But in  [the recent House of Lords debate] I heard it, and I could not walk away from it. We all know that it is utterly horrifying. to hear, as we did this week, of gay people executed in Iran for being gay, or equivalents elsewhere. With nearly a million children educated in our schools we not only must demonstrate a profound commitment to stamp out such stereotyping and bullying; but we must also take action. We are therefore developing a programme for use in our schools, taking the best advice we can find anywhere, that specifically targets such bullying.

Allow me, if I may, to start offering some of that advice that you’re looking for.

Firstly, well done for naming the problem. It is good to stand up and say something unexpected to get people’s attention. Associating homophobia with bullying is really important. Lots of kids have a miserable life because of homophobic bullying and you’ve recognised that and said so more clearly than any other Archbishop of Canterbury. A resounding two cheers for you for doing so.

Two cheers? Ah, well yes. You see, you missed one particular detail. You said you’d heard Lord Alli in the House of Lords saying that 97% of gay teenagers in this country report homophobic bullying and that in the USA suicide as a result of such bullying is the principle cause of death of gay adolescents.  So far, so good. What you missed out on reporting to Synod is that Stonewall’s research shows that such bullying is worse in faith schools and is not tackled as well in faith schools as it is in other schools. That makes the problem one that is sitting right at your door, with those million children in C of E care. Naming that this is a particular problem for the church is something you still need to do. But you’ve come a long way fairly quickly so we’ll just presume that you catch this detail and speak about it fairly soon, shall we?

Now, the real headache is what to do next. I guess the temptation is to set up a committee. However, let me save you some time. Committees always take forever, and I can probably give you some starting points.

Firstly, you’ve said  that you will take the best advice from wherever it comes. Goody! Get on the phone to School’s Out and Stonewall as soon as you are done with synod in York. They’ll be expecting your call. They’ll give you some leads as to who you need to speak to.

What? Did you think I meant that you just needed to talk to those organisations? Oh no, life isn’t that easy. What they’ll help you do is listen to the gay kids themselves. (Start by reading Stonewall’s latest education report if you like, but make sure that is only a start).

My hunch is that those kids will give you plenty to think about and plenty to get on with very quickly.

Whenever I listen to such voices, I tend to hear them talking about role models, challenging bad behaviour and building a culture where homophobic abuse is unthinkable. (“Not cool” is what they sometimes call it. You and I call it “Sin”, don’t we?).

So, when it comes to role models, you’re going to start celebrating some good gay role models and talking about them in public, yes? That will be good role models in the world as well as in the church, won’t it? Ian McKellern can’t get around every school in the country on his own. We need to help him out. A few senior gay clergy making an It Gets Better video would be a start. (You couldn’t find a budget line for that could you, just to make sure it is done well?)

If you’ve a moment, you could check out some It Gets Better videos on youtube. They’ll give you clues as to which other organisations you need to be picking up the phone to, in order to learn how organisations get over homophobia. Start with the military and the police if you like, but make a start somewhere.

Now, we are going to need some guidelines on appointments, are we not? I guess there will need to be a committee somewhere to produce them, but it can’t be hard. Just acknowledge that you want to stop homophobic bullying and so from now on, no appointment of teachers, particularly head teachers in church schools, unless they can demonstrate that they are supportive of gay kids, kids in gay families and gay teachers. Worried about people saying that you are discriminating against good teachers because they don’t like gay people? Face them down Father Justin, face them down. Look them in the eye and say, “You Bet We Are Discriminating!”. And then go on to say that we discriminate against racists (we do don’t we?) and what of it? You’ll win the argument and you’ll make the world a better place.

Don’t forget those gay teachers. We’re building a culture where they can come out, aren’t we? You know, when they can talk as freely about being with their other half as a straight teacher can talk about his or her spouse? Where the kids get to send them cards if they get married (oops, nearly running away with myself) partnered or whatever you want us to call it. Where teachers are not frightened of expressing their love outside the school for fear of what might happen within it.

And yes, we do need some good age appropriate resources for tackling this problem. (We might need some better sex-ed class material too, but why not take that up with your pal Mr Gove when you see him).

However, you’ll be aware that it isn’t just resources that are needed, aren’t you. After all, simply providing a set of resources rather than going for a whole “revolution” in the way these things are dealt with in schools might almost make someone think that you thought that the problem was simply one of the children’s attitudes and that the world (the school?) around them was not partly to blame.

And blaming the kids would never do, would it? It would be like passing the buck on child abuse and blaming the victims themselves. We’d never do that now, would we?

Oh, wait a minute…..