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.

Civil Partnerships – What now for the churches?

It has just been announced that a man and a woman have won their fight to enable them to register a Civil Partnership.

At first sight, it will seem only just and right to most people. If same-sex couples can enter either a marriage or a civil partnership then why shouldn’t an opposite-sex couple?

Put like that, it is a matter of simple justice and it is unsurprising that the Supreme Court has found as it has done.

However, if I’m honest, though I  believe that same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples should be treated in the same way, I don’t think that this was the best solution.

It seems to me now to be inevitable that we will have two statuses of partnership open to all couples – marriage and civil partnership. One gives fewer benefits than the other. Get married and you are far more likely to be treated as married when you travel than if you enter into a civil partnership. The benefits here in the UK are almost exactly the same. (I use the word almost even though I can’t now think of any differences at all apart from the name and the manner in which one can enter a civil partnership). The benefits when travelling the world will differ significantly. We fought for same-sex couples to be able to access marriage which conveys more benefits whilst now an opposite sex couple has fought for the right to be treated less well than married people.

Why people would want to fight to be legally partnered in a system which was once discriminatory to gay couples is complex but it usually is justified by the phrase “Well, Civil Partnership doesn’t carry the patriarchal baggage of marriage”.

Those who make this claim are denying all the work done over the last century to remove the patriarchal baggage around marriage. They are claiming that marriage hasn’t changed and are denying reality.

Personally, I would have preferred the Civil Partnership system to have come to an end once same-sex couples were allowed to get married. I’d have allowed those in Civil Partnerships to remain in them but not allowed any new ones to be registered.

This opinion sometimes leads to loud howls of protest from people who think (entirely wrongly) that marriage is inherently a religious institution. Anyone thinking it to be so simply doesn’t comprehend either the law of the land nor the history of marriage.  (Marriage was around before the church – no, really it was). This confusion is even promoted by the likes of the BBC which claimed today that “Civil Partnership is free of the religious connotations of marriage” as though entering marriage though a civil ceremony is a fraud.

The odd thing is that those who howl most loudly about this are people that I know to have rejoiced most loudly at the Irish marriage referendum which resulted in the Irish state doing exactly what I’d have wished for here – closing the Civil Partnership system and allowing all couples access to marriage.

I suspect that “the patriarchal baggage of marriage” is in fact a euphemism for stigma about divorce, which a good many righteous people have made worse over the years. (Yes, you know exactly to whom I am referring). And anyway, whilst we can argue about whether marriage carries patriarchal baggage there’s no argument about civil partnerships – they very certainly carry the baggage of inequality and oppression.

I think it may still be legally possible for the governments within  the UK to resolve this as I’d have hoped it to be resolved though I suspect that the momentum is with so-called “straight civil partnerships” now and politically their creation is inevitable.

But never mind what I think, what about the churches?

Interestingly, there was a proposal put forward to the Scottish Episcopal Church to allow Civil Partnerships (between same-sex couples) to be registered in churches. A number of us argued successfully against this in the General Synod three years ago, to the considerable surprise of some liberal friends who just presumed that the gays wanted everything offered to them. Th gays, so to speak, could see this coming over the horizon and had a fair idea that the church would end up in a terrible mess if we proceeded in that way. Firstly it would have lessened the case for allowing the marriage of same-sex couples in the Scottish Episcopal Church and secondly it would have led sooner or later to decisions about whether or not to allow opposite sex couples to do something in church that looked like marriage but which wasn’t marriage. And so, I joined others in arguing against it and that vote was comprehensively lost.

(As a side note, it is worth remembering that if those who might be characterised as being opponents of same-sex marriage had come forward with support for civil partnerships in church 10 years ago then I’d probably have bitten their hands off and I don’t think we would be anywhere near marrying same-sex couples now).

But back to the churches.

Where now for those who thought that Civil Partnership was a tidy hiding hole for the unfortunate people who feel the need to enter into gay coupledom who are not really fully human but can’t really help themselves?  (The Church of England, I’m talking about you, though not you alone). Seems to me that this judgement puts you even deeper into the mire.

Here are the obvious questions:

  • Will a man and a woman remain in good standing with a church if they enter a Civil Partnership?
  • In the Church of England will they remain in good standing only if they enter into a Civil Partnership but promise their bishop they won’t have sex?
  • Will anyone in a Civil Partnership be able to become ordained without the need of getting married?
  • Can a bishop (or archbishop) be in a Civil Partnership only if he or she is part of a same-sex couple?
  • How long will it be before there are liturgical resources for recognising Civil Partnerships in churches?
  • Will pro-gay campaigners, particularly in the Church of England now realise the absurdity of campaigning for anything that falls short of marriage?
  • Will those advocating the church recognise Civil Partnership continue to do so now if it is open to opposite sex couples?
  • What is the difference between a Civil Partnership and a Marriage?
  • Do the churches care about the fact that the number of marriages will now inevitably decline?
  • Will the churches see marriage as a better institution for opposite-sex couples than Civil Partnership and what will this say about their current and previous policy towards God’s beloved gay children?
  • Which churches will regard children born in a civil partnership differently from children born in a marriage?
  • Will this lead to greater equality in churches or less equality in churches?
  • Is the Church of England going to find itself in the absurd position of supporting Civil Partnerships for opposite sex couples in order to retain them for same-sex couples so as to deny marriage to same-sex couples? And what will the Global South make of that?