The sacrament lottery

One of the consequences of decisions being made in different jurisdictions which don’t align with other geographical entities is that you end up with what we tend to call in the UK a postcode lottery. The most frequent use of the term is in describing a situation whereby someone can get treatment for a medical condition paid for if they live in one place but not in another. Or access to a particular school. Or a particular council service.

There’s something of the same thing happens within the life of the church and right now we are seeing new anomalies open up before our very eyes.

This weekend, for the first time, marriage in some parts of the UK (England and Wales) will be open to same-sex couples as well as straight couples. (And no, we are not getting same-sex marriage or gay marriage – those terms become history tonight – it is simply that marriage is open to more couples than once it was).

So, if a gay couple in Scotland want to get married they either have to wait until some date yet to be determined, probably within the next year, and get married in Scotland. Or alternatively they can go down to England and get married there where their marriage will be recognised by the state as a marriage in English law but as a Civil Partnership in Scots law. Within the life of the church, if a same-sex couple get married tomorrow in Carlisle say, and approach their local Anglican priest for a blessing, a service or some form of recognition then they are not supposed to be offered much. They are supposed to be asked why they have departed from the teaching of the church and then, maybe, offered some private prayers of thanksgiving.

However, if that couple from Carlisle should get on a train over the border and approach a sympathetic Anglican priest in Scotland then they can have a lot more. They might, if they so wished have a nuptial mass at St Mary’s. They can have their rings blessed. They can make lifelong vows. They can process in and/or out with splendid music. They can book the bells to be rung.  And they can do all this in public without so much as a hair being batted. Indeed, if one of the Scottish bishops happens to be a pal then they can, if they are invited, choose whether to turn up themselves or not.

It is a remarkably different state of affairs. And this is a year for people in the UK to think about how odd borders are – sometimes feeling very real and sometimes feeling very artificial.

I suppose that it is already the case that some of the sacramental acts of the church are available to different people in different places. For some time now we have had just about every different discipline regarding admitting children to communion happening in our church. Indeed, we have had just about every different discipline happening within individual congregations. However the deal has always been that if someone has been admitted to communion in one then they must be offered the bread and wine everywhere else, even if it is not the local custom to offer communion to children.

I asked my own bishop recently whether it was the case that gay people in the Scottish Episcopal Church could expect to be treated in the same way in all of our dioceses. He didn’t seem to know.

That strikes me as one of the fundamental questions that need to keep on being asked.

I know that not everyone thinks of marriage as a sacrament. However, I know that most people I know in the church think that the love between a man and a woman can be sacramental – can show forth in its essence something of the love of God. One of the questions I often ask those who are hestitant about treating gay people like other people is whether they think that the love that a same-sex couple might share has the same potential to show forth the love of God.

Now, some people just don’t think this is so. They tend to disagree with me on these issues and I have some respect for that. The people I find most puzzling are those who want to say that a same-sex couple do have the potential to show forth by their relationship something of a love that is holy, precious and even divine in its nature but who stumble over the question of whether marriage should or should not have been opened to same-sex couples. (Note the past tense in that last sentence).

We have a sacramental postcode lottery at the moment. People have different access to the sacramental acts of the body of Christ dependent on where they are geographically in the UK and in Scotland. This is an unstable situation that seems to me to be hard to defend as having any integrity.

It is my view that the best hope for peace in the church though and the best hope that we can get on with other business and not become fixated on this topic for a further 10 years of decline is to accept a situation whereby those who want to marry same-sex couples can do so and those who don’t want to do so don’t have to. At the moment we are all forced to behave the same way regardless of what we believe.

In the past we have adopted similar compromises for the sake of the gospel – that which allows clergy to marry people who have been married before but who don’t have to do so seems to be a reasonable situation to look to for inspiration.

I’m thrilled beyond measure for those who will be marrying in England this Saturday who could not have married on Friday. It is as though the legal clocks have been put forward to the present day despite the mainstream churches mostly wanting to exist in their own timezone.

Congratulations to all those getting married this weekend. Good luck. Good wishes. God’s blessings.

Here’s to the future and here’s to removing or at least undermining the postcode lottery by which God’s people get offered half-baked blessings rather than the whole blessing shebang, according to where they happen to live or worship at the time.