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Scottish Synod clears the way for same-sex marriage

19 June 2015

by Pat Ashworth in Edinburgh


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

The Synod, meeting in St Paul's and 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.

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 personal. One bishop acknowledged the journey that he had made as a result of the Church's listening process, the Cascade Conversations; and another declared 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."

The Synod was presented with six options. 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. Supporters of that amendment said that it would enable Synod members who could not vote to redefine marriage to take part in the debate, but to vote for no change.

This no-change option, considered to be a red line for Evangelicals, was supported by the Primus, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, but had very little other support.

The amendment was lost, but three others were carried: voting by single transferable vote (STV), which, the Primus 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-cent support. The options were reduced to three - A, C, and E - by dealing collectively 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, and the Church had disagreed on the Bible before: there had been "creative rediscovery of scripture" in the first century, specifically in the Council of Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts.

The Revd David Mumford (Brechin) was concerned that a paper by the Doctrine Committee showed a "wilfully confused" defin-ition of marriage that was "too cultural and not sufficiently ontological". The Revd David Mills (St Andrews) drew the Synod's attention to recently published research on the beneficial outcomes for the children of same-sex partnerships.

The Bishop of Glasgow & Galloway, the Rt Revd Gregor Duncan, said that 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 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."

Dr Beth Routledge (Glasgow & Galloway) said: "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 St Paul's and 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."

The Revd Willie Shaw (Edinburgh) wanted the cost to ecumenical relations of going further down the road to be recognised.

Canon Ian Ferguson (Aberdeen & Orkney) said 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."

The Dean of Brechin, the Very Revd 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.

Christine Mackintosh (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: 103 for, 17 against, and 3 abstentions. There was a strong feeling that the Synod wanted to do more at this meeting than simply debate 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".


THE 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, 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."

Canon Round was bitter about the "total lack of understanding of Evangelicals". The "much-lauded inclusivity of the Scottish Episcopal Church is shown to be a bit of a myth." 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 that 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 that 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."

Mr Mumford said that there had to be occasions when the Church said no. "I am still not persuaded that we can move to redefine marriage in this way."

Howard Thompson (Edinburgh), an Anglican for 60 years, and three times married, 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".

The Revd David Richards (Edinburgh) said that the doctrine paper "had no soul. It never really defined what marriage really is. . . 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."

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." He reminded the Synod that, were the motion to pass, there would be two more years of open debate.

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


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

Dr Beth Routledge (Glasgow & Galloway) said that 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."

Bishop Armes thought Option E "the most honest, indicating that there are clearly two ways in our Church of understanding marriage . . . E would be an honest if slightly messy solution. Option A perhaps obscures disagreement."

Professor David Atkinson (Aberdeen & Orkney) urged the 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 Provost of St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth (Glasgow & Galloway), argued: "We simply have to stop forcing one another into saying things some of us don't agree with . . . 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."

The Primus 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."

He expressed his lack of enthusiasm for the way in which the Church of England had dealt with differences of view in its life by institutionalising the practice of alternative episcopal oversight. That had had the effect of diminishing episcopal authority by allowing people to choose bishops according to their views.

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) saw the "fudge" offered by Option A as "rather wholesome".

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."

After further debate, 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.

The campaigning group Inclusive Church welcomed the decision. The Dean of Guildford, the Very Revd Dianna Gwilliams, who chairs it, said: "Inclusive Church welcomes the gentle and careful approach being taken towards equal marriage in the Scottish Episcopal Church. We hope that, when the time comes, we will find it possible to move, in a similar measured way, to allow equal marriages to occur in the Church of England."


'We are seen as a somewhat feisty Church', says Primus

THE Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), the Most Revd David Chillingworth, described the Synod's meeting as having been remarkable, "full of energy, intensity, and involvement".

There did, indeed, seem to be a new spirit about it - something perhaps to do with the "changing and emerging Scotland" referred to by the new convener of the information and communications board, the Revd Chris Mayo. Part of the future work of that board would be to ensure consistent and constant engagement with Scotland, Mr Mayo said.

The Primus was also eager to continue engaging fully with the Anglican Communion, where the small size of the province, with its 33,000 members, was never a question. "They see us and welcome us and respect us as a somewhat feisty Church that can be relied on to be independently minded," he said.

He spoke of being in Dublin, his home city, in the immediate aftermath of the constitutional referendum on gay marriage, telling The Herald newspaper, "One of the most conservative and [Roman] Catholic countries in Europe voted decisively in favour of this change. No wonder the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin called for a reality check among the Churches."

The RC Bishop of Dunkeld, Dr Stephen Robson, an ecumenical delegate, told the Synod that his Church was going through "the same kinds of difficulties and traumas around the theology of marriage and the family . . . a very divisive thing for us."

There was plenty of meat in some of the other motions. A lay Scottish Episcopalian, Emily Aldritt, reported on her attendance at the recent UN-NGO Convention on the Status of Women. There had been life-affirming changes for women, "but the power of their voice is still a breath, a sigh," she said. She urged the SEC to "dare to be ambitious. Dare to stand up for the right to be heard. We can do a great deal because of our size, not despite it."

The Synod agreed to encourage congregation members to join the Scottish ecumenical initiative, promoted by Christian Aid, in praying for Israel/Palestine on the 24th day of every month, after a presentation by the Revd Kate Reynolds.

All congregations were urged to pay the Living Wage by 2016. The Synod welcomed the establishment in February of the Churches Mutual Credit Union (CMCU), and said that members should support its work and the work of local credit unions.

The convener of the Church in Society committee, the Revd Professor David Atkinson, said that credit unions had been successful, but were perhaps looked on as "something other people are involved in". He praised the CMCU for wanting to show that "these are for everybody: those who can get to normal banks, and those who cannot."

The retiring chairman of the Pension Fund Trustees, Andrew November, was able to report a small surplus of £1.3 million - a recovery from a deficit position of £3 million in 2011. This has been achieved by an agreed reduction in pension benefits, with the normal pensionable age raised to 67, and future pensionable stipend growth limited to no more than increases in the RPI.

The Synod agreed to the new block-grant system that is an integral part of the Church's Whole Church Policy. The effect, "within an appropriate frame of accountability", will be to "place financial resource in the hands of the dioceses so that it can be used by them in what they regard as the most effective manner locally".

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