Scottish Government’s proposals for Marriage

The Scottish Government has published its proposals for amending marriage law in Scotland. There are one or two surprises too as they are going to try to amend some of the bits of law that apply to straight couples getting married. I didn’t see those changes coming and they are likely to be a bit lost in the hubbub surrounding the news that the Scottish Government has indicated that it is to legislate in favour of allowing same-sex couples to get married.

Religious bodies will need to opt into the legislation. They will be able to authorise all of their celebrants to do same-sex marriages if all (yes, all) agree. Alternatively they will be able to nominate designated people as celebrants so long as the religious body has agreed that it is appropriate for some of its celebrants to do so.

The new legislation is to be warmly welcomed. It isn’t equal marriage (most notably in the ways in which celebrants can be authorised) but it is getting very close and it provides a workable way forward for marriages of same-sex couples to be regarded in the same way in society as marriages between a man and a woman.

All of this will kick-start decision-making processes in a number of churches including my own. Somehow or another the Scottish Episcopal Church will need to make its mind up what to do.

For now, I’m simply going to say that I’d be very happy to conduct such marriages and look forward to the day that same-sex couples will be able to be married in St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow. Indeed, there are members of the congregation hoping and wishing and praying for that day who want to get married and who are currently unable to do so.

I’ll continue to support and encourage those couples and continue to work to ensure that they can have the happiest day of their lives in their own church as soon as possible.

But what, I hear you ask, about those other changes? Here are a few things to think about.

Well, it looks as though there is going to be a significant change to the law which would allow registrars to conduct weddings (of any kind) anywhere rather than simply in approved premises. Up until now, religious and humanist celebrants have been able to conduct weddings just about anywhere in Scotland whilst registrars have been limited in where they could do it. This has meant something of an industry developing whereby couples shopped around for a marriage celebrant who was prepared to go to their preferred place – mountain tops, beaches, hotels, golf-courses etc. Generally speaking, I think it has been Church of Scotland and notably in recent years humanist celebrants who have been involved in this business. (In my diocese the bishop frowns at the thought and clergy need permission from him before celebrating a wedding outside of a church. In this case, I share in his frowns and don’t generally do weddings outside a place of worship).

I expect the consequence of this to be that civil weddings will rise in numbers, Church of Scotland weddings will fall in numbers and maybe those humanist figures which have risen so impressively will now start to tail off.

Another big change, which does not seem to me to have been thought through at all is the idea of establishing a category of wedding based on belief. (This would subsume the humanists). Thus, a group or organisation could establish itself as a belief group and apply for recognition for doing weddings.

It seems to me that it would be entirely possible that a Christian group which was not a church could be established with celebrants drawn from existing denominations authorised to do same-sex weddings. I don’t see how the state could discriminate against, say, Changing Attitude Scotland or Affirmation Scotland applying to have (lay) celebrants authorised to do same-sex or indeed opposite sex ceremonies. All kinds of groups could be imagined. There could be an Ecumenical Lay Association for Same-Sex Marriage for example. Or a bunch of renegade nuns.

Expect a lot more ink to be spilled over this suggestion.

Oh, and one more thing. The current proposals we have from Holyrood and Westminster don’t seem to me to deal with issues about celebrants being authorised from outside their current jurisdiction. I see a way whereby someone might end up authorised to conduct same-sex weddings in Scotland (an Anglican priest, for example) being asked to go to England (for example) and conduct the wedding of a gay couple. Seems to me that, notwithstanding the local ecclesiastical courtesies, the local registrar in England and Wales would struggle to say no.

Finally, a very welcome change in that people going through gender transition will no longer need to divorce their spouse before being recognised in their new gender. This was an iniquitous situation and one issue which my own congregation raised in its response to the Scottish Government.

Talking of responses, this is round 2 of the consultation process. We are going to need responses to all this to come from individuals and groups and congregations and denominations all over again. More details about that in due course.

But for now – hurrah!