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Scottish Synod opens church door to same-sex weddings

13 June 2015

by Pat Ashworth in Edinburgh

neil clifton

Historic: St Paul's and St George's Church, Edinburgh, where the Scottish Episcopal Church's General Synod is meeting

Historic: St Paul's and St George's Church, Edinburgh, where the Scottish Episcopal Church's General Synod is meeting

SAME-SEX couples could be married in the Scottish Episcopal Church by 2017, following a vote in the Church's General Synod on Friday.

The Synod, meeting in St Paul's & St George's, Edinburgh, voted to remove the opening section from Canon 31 on the solemnisation of holy matrimony. This is the section that describes marriage as the "physical, spiritual and mystical union" between a man and a woman.

A conscience clause added to the canon will ensure that no cleric is obliged to conduct a marriage ceremony that is against his or her conscience. The Church will simply stay silent on marriage, something made possible in the Scottish Episcopal Church because its doctrine is expounded not in its canons but in its liturgy. Modern Scottish liturgies place increasing emphasis on marriage as revealing the love and character of God.

The decision to put this into process was not arrived at lightly. The vote on Friday was the outcome of a measured, meticulous and demanding process of four debates on four motions, and was conducted - in public at least - with grace and courtesy.

All voting was by secret ballot, and speculation that a "shy Tory" vote, as in the General Election, might come into play did not happen. The debate was seldom angry and at times very moving. One bishop acknowledged the journey he had made as a result of the Church's listening process, the Cascade Conversations; and another declaring his own sexuality to be "ambiguous".

The full text of section one of Canon 31 reads: "The Doctrine of this Church is that Marriage is a physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman created by their mutual consent of heart, mind and will thereto, and is a holy and lifelong estate instituted of God." A comprehensive paper on the theology of marriage from the Doctrine Committee was the basis for the six options in front of Synod on which voting might ultimately take place.

Option A was to remove section one from Canon 31. Option B would remove the section but add a clause saying that no cleric would be obliged to solemnise a marriage against his or her conscience. Option C was to retain section one, but alter the text to render the description as non-gender specific, for example by deleting "one man and one woman" and substituting "two persons".

Option D added the conscience clause to that. Option E was to add non-specific gender references, a conscience clause, and an additional statement that within the Church there were two expressions of marriage: one between two members of the opposite sex and one between two people irrespective of gender. Option F was as E but including a conscience clause.

An early amendment sought to keep the definition of marriage in the canon but allow clergy to opt out of this on an individual basis. This attempt at a compromise was brought by some of the Evangelical clergy, but was decisively rejected by the Synod. Canon Malcolm Round (Edinburgh) had called it an "amendment for unity and diversity".

That amendment was lost, but three others were carried: voting by single transferable vote (STV), which the Primus, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, said would "allow the possibility of seeing what people could actually live with"; something that would mean the voting process could continue until one option had at least 50 per support. The options were reduced to three - A, C and E - by dealing separately with the conscience clause; and a procedural motion was agreed to be debated before proceeding to a final vote.


THE debate on the theology of marriage (Motion 9) aroused strong passions. The Bishop of Edinburgh, the Rt Revd John Armes, reflected that the Cascade process had revealed no single conviction. The Church had disagreed on the Bible before: there had been "creative rediscovery of scripture" since the first century.

The Revd David Mumford (Brechin) was anxious about the lack of definition in the Doctrine Committee's paper of what marriage was. It showed a "wilfully confused" definition of marriage that was "too cultural and not sufficiently ontological". The Revd David Mills (St Andrews) drew Synod's attention to recently published research on the good outcomes and benefits outcomes for the children of same-sex partnerships.

The Bishop of Glasgow & Galloway, the Rt Revd Gregor Duncan, said he had "tried very, very hard to come into agreement that we should solemnise same-sex marriages. . . I am certainly not at that point, despite my best efforts." The Cascade conversations had changed him: "I experienced a dramatic drop in my anxiety levels. . . I can live with whatever the Church decides to do and know that my particular conscience is protected. On this journey, this is where I am. This is a journey we all have to take."

The Revd Paul Watson (Aberdeen) was puzzled that there was no theologically conservative option.

Dr Beth Routledge (Glasgow and Galloway) observed: "We insist on seeing marriage between people of the opposite sex as intrinsically different. There is no difference." The Revd David Richards (Edinburgh), who leads the large Evangelical Church of St Paul's & St George's, where the Synod was being held, was disappointed in the report. Evangelicals and liberals alike "do not find our experience echoed in this report. . . We had hoped for more than we have."

Mr Brendan Grimley (St Andrews) was pleasantly surprised to find "nothing in the report to support any of my prejudices.. I had looked for vestiges of some of the things I hold so dearly. . . I came away incredibly challenged. . . The report has moved us into a different place."

The Revd Wilie Shaw (Edinburgh) wanted the cost to ecumenical relations of going further down the road to be recognised. Canon Ian Ferguson (Aberdeen and Orkney) observed that when Canon 31 was put together, "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us. . . I'm asking for the opportunity to argue that the Canon was right, to us and to the Holy Spirit."

Dr Francis Bridger (Brechin) found a "glaring omission" in the paper. The question had not properly been asked, what was the significance of gender differentiation? "Is there any connection between the theology of creation in seeing humanity in terms of male and female? What do we do with that presumption of the Church about embodiment and complementarity and differentiation?" The paper was "woefully short" on that.

Canon Malcolm Round (Edinburgh) did not recognise a conservative perspective in the paper. "There is nothing I can resonate with." He felt the report "glossed over the importance of spiritual thinking. . . Hermeneutics are the battlefield. . . We just find ourselves disenfranchised." Mrs Christine McIntosh (Argyll & the Isles) reflected that what made "one flesh" was not sexual union but familiarity with one another in a long and faithful relationship - "something any gay couple could experience in their life together."

The vote on Motion 9 was carried overwhelmingly, with 103 for, 17 against, and 3 abstentions. There was a strong feeling that the Synod wanted to do more at this meeting than simply debating the options for canonical change. Bishop Duncan said that the Synod was at "a major point of decision" after members had been "praying, conversing, debating, arguing, hoping, and hurting, and much more than I can put into words." Motion 20 was clearly intended as "the gateway to detailed discussion of the options." He stressed that this was "the point at which, if Synod wishes to maintain the status quo without further debate, it can do so now."


SYNOD voted by ballot before lunch on Friday to debate the options for canonical change. This was enshrined in Motion 23: "That this Synod instruct the Faith and Order Board to instruct the Committee on Canons to prepare canonical material, reflecting the preference as to canonical options expressed by this Synod so that such canonical material can be considered by General Synod 2016."

In that debate, Mrs Pamela Gordon (Edinburgh) described some of her own older generation as having been "on a longer journey than others", moving to enlightenment about gay relationships from "a state of complete ignorance".

"We can't ignore truths we have discovered. We have learned the breadth and complexity of God's creation far beyond what was known before," she said. "Yet we have baulked at embracing the diversity of the wide spectrum of human sexuality. . . We have fed our prejudices by daring to judge what we ourselves felt uncomfortable with. We have withheld public blessing of same-sex unions, denied the validity of experience that is other than our own."

Canon Malcolm Round (Edinburgh) was bitter about "a planned set of motions and discussions which show a total lack of understanding of Evangelicals." The "much lauded inclusivity of the Scottish Episcopal Church is shown to be a bit of a myth. . . The Evangelicals are not included in these major changes. This is a yes or no option that many of us do not want."

The numerical strength of the big Evangelical churches was being ignored: "We have been disenfranchised by the system." He warned that churches that went down the road of going with the culture declined in number and influence much faster than those that did not.

The Revd Alistair MacDonald (Aberdeen & Orkney) said all three options were contrary to God's word. He hoped people who believed that would be brave enough to vote no.

The Bishop of Moray, Ross & Caithness, the Rt Revd Mark Strange, said he could now say what he felt: that he could speak about love. Married for 34 years, he described his own sexuality as "ambiguous": before that marriage he could, he said, "have just as easily" had another life.

"I am completely aware of the ambiguity that goes on in people's lives. . . I talk of love. I just want to have a Church that recognises that love in all. I am convinced that Christ himself would understand it. Please vote for it," he said.

The Revd David Mumford (Brechin) said that there had to be occasions when the Church said no. He described "a split position where we struggle with being part of a worldwide Church, and how far we take our views on the teaching of Jesus and scripture to be normative. I am still not persuaded that we can move to redefine marriage in this way."

Mr Howard Thompson (Edinburgh), thrice married, and an Anglican for 60 years, said that experience had shown him that a marriage worked only if it had God in it. Gay people had "just as much right to have God rooting for them in their marriage as me".

Dr Francis Bridger (Brechin) was concerned that the decisions Synod made that day were not simply about the Scottish Church, but its place within the Anglican Communion. Having lived and worked in Los Angeles, he had observed "the damage done to the American Episcopal Church and its relations with the wider Communion by its failure, in electing Bishop Gene Robinson, to take account of its place in the wider Communion. . . We have the right to adapt canon law, but we don't have the right to say what we do doesn't matter to our fellow Christians elsewhere."

Canon Ian Ferguson (Aberdeen & Orkney) declared himself confused by the theological arguments, and saddened that there had been no option of keeping the canon as it was, something "quite unfair and undemocratic. I don't believe that voting for this motion is the will of God."

The Very Revd Andrew Swift (Argyll & the Isles) said that change was coming; "but we fear the negative consequences, the dislocation feels worrying. But we should have the courage to begin the process and the grace and integrity to start it. . . People will feel distanced and isolated from the Church . . . but we can work to keep our Scottish Episcopal Church with its wonderful diversity without fracture and division."

The Revd David Richards (Edinburgh) said that the doctrine paper had "lacked heart, was coldly forensic, and had no soul. It never really defined what marriage really is: it is not defined by theology or liturgy. It lacked a high view of marriage. Marriage is established in creation. The state is perfectly entitled to define marriage exactly as it wants, but it cannot ask the Church to perform these services in its name. The option for no change does not appear because yesterday's amendment fell."

The Revd Simon Mackenzie (Argyll & the Isles) believed: "We can only vote according to our own consciences, not in fear or anxiety of what the consequences might be for others."

Bishop Duncan, said that the content and manner of the contributions in the debate had "spoken volumes for our Church. I have been moved by the passion and the measure by which they have expressed that passion. This is about the discernment of truth, and we should not forget that. If Synod were to pass this motion, there will still be further debate today, and two more years of open debate."

Voting to proceed to canonical changes yielded the result: for 92; against 35.


HAVING agreed that a conscience clause would be added to whatever option - A, C or E - was approved, the Synod went on to debate the options themselves.

Dr Beth Routledge (Glasgow & Galloway) said voting for Option A as the first preference was the only way forward. "We have heard a lot about the pain and heartache of those feeling the Church is leaving them behind. I could live with C but I know there are people who couldn't."

The Bishop of Edinburgh, the Rt Revd John Armes, though Option E "the most honest, indicating that there are clearly two ways in our Church of understanding marriage. I believe that what I believe about marriage is guided by God. A lot of people who feel equally guided by God take a position quite different from mine. E would be an honest if slightly messy solution. Option A perhaps obscures disagreement."

Prof. David Atkinson (Aberdeen & Orkney) urged Synod to "seriously consider voting for E. This thinking about marriage and what it means and who can contract it, is an issue about time.

"Option E expresses that, says there are two clear views in the Church. In five or ten years time, we may be in a different situation."

The Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth (Glasgow & Galloway) believed that, if a church were to be built in which everyone would thrive, "we simply have to stop forcing one another into saying things some of us don't agree with. Don't settle on a definition of marriage that some people can't agree with but a statement that affirms the life of people like me, a gay man.

"I care about those with a different view. Support Option A. Silence can be a space for us where God can speak. Vote for a Church where we do not try to define what others think about marriage."

Canon Ian Paton (Edinburgh) believed Option A was "the only option that can keep us talking".

The Primus, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, said: "We think as you all do about the unity of the Church, seeking a way forward in truth and integrity that strengthens the unity." He acknowledged the difficulty of finding agreement by vote: "People hold their views because they believe the authority for them lies outside themselves and are in that sense not negotiable."

In appointing a conservative Evangelical bishop to give alternative episcopal oversight to congregations, the Church of England had "institutionalised different points of view, which has been entirely unhelpful." The single transferable vote, in effect, gave members more than one vote, allowing them to live with options that might not be their first preference. "Use the process to speak across diversity," he urged.

Canon Dominic Ind (St Andrews) wanted "a word about fudge". He saw the "fudge" offered by Option A as "rather wholesome . . . about getting the door open and carrying on the dialogue.

The Bishop of Brechin, the Rt Revd Nigel Peyton, had chaired the Cascade conversations. The process had been "a discomfiting experience. I'm not sure whether no expression of doctrine is really preferable to two. I want to keep us together in one room, a family in one house. I won't vote for anything with a hint of second-classness or fudge. How will this go down in the public square? I'm drawn to A. But doing nothing is not an option."

Bishop Duncan confirmed to Synod that it was within the law to express two definitions of marriage.

Canon Cliff Piper (Moray ) believed marriage to be the union of two people living in monogamous loving relationship. Option A allowed two people to enter into that. Canon Alison Peden (St Andrews) chose Option A on grounds of vocation. "Marriage is a vocation. Option A opens that to all to be able to respond to a call from God to live in love with the person you love." Mrs Helen Hood (Edinburgh) was "not sure canons are the place to enshrine messy provisionality." The Revd Nick Green (St Andrews) was concerned that Option A could open up marriage to all kinds of other unions, even siblings maybe. "None of the other options are scripturally supported," he said.

Bishop Duncan finally reminded Synod, "Any of these options will allow us to marry people of the same gender."

Motion 20A, the amended motion allowing Synod to vote on the preferences, was now put to the vote. Result: for 110; against 12; abstentions 2. It could then proceed to vote on 20B, the use of STV, and the inclusion of a conscience clause so that any of these options were voted for, the matter of conscience would be beyond any reasonable doubt and would offer succour to people. That was passed: for 119; against 5; abstentions 1.

In the final vote on the options, 88 people voted for Option A, the clear winner. Eight voted for Option C, and 23 for Option E.

Synod then had to debate Motion 24, for the instruction to prepare canonical materials to enable the registration of civil partnerships in the Scottish Episcopal Church. But this was less straightforward. Speakers expressed confusion as to why civil partnerships were continuing when marriage was open to everyone. An understanding was needed as to how they fitted in.

A request for a new canon must not be "nodded through", because no one really had any idea what a religious civil partnership would look like. This was not about a rite for same-sex blessings: it was about registering civil partnerships in church. The Scottish government was set to consult on opening up civil partnerships to straight couples: it remained an open question until then.

The motion was lost: for 30; against 82; abstentions 4.

In the end, the Synod voted to instruct the Faith and Order Board to oversee the preparation of new canonical legislation for first reading next year by 110 votes in favour and 9 against.

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