THERE was a feeling of inevitability about the vote on Motion 14 — something of a lack of fervour compared with last year, when the doctrinal issues were debated and feelings ran high. It was a complex and demanding voting process, too, in 2015: an array of options offered choices in deciding the way forward.
This was a First Reading of the motion that the amended text of Canon 31, “Of the Solemnisation of Holy Matrimony”, be read for the first time. Section 1 previously included a doctrinal definition of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman. The Synod voted last year for that to be replaced with a new section, adding a conscience clause.
The revised Canon now reads: “In the light of the fact that there are differing understandings of the nature of marriage in this Church, no cleric of this Church shall be obliged to conduct any marriage against their conscience. Any marriage which is to be conducted by a cleric shall be solemnised strictly in accordance with the civil law of Scotland for the time being in force and provided said cleric is satisfied, after appropriate enquiries, that the parties have complied with the necessary preliminaries as set forth in the civil law.
“No cleric shall perform the Marriage Service, nor permit it to be performed in Church, for parties who are within the forbidden degrees as specified in Appendix 26. No cleric shall solemnise a marriage between persons of the same sex unless said cleric shall have been nominated on behalf of the Church to the Registrar General for Scotland.”
The Bishop of Glasgow & Galloway, Dr Gregor Duncan, Acting Convener of the Faith and Order Board, said as an introduction that the text deliberately made no attempt to define “differing understandings”. It also laid down the nominating procedure in the Canon itself as the SEC’s means of opting in to the law of Scotland.
Acutely aware of “the pain and unhappiness in what I might call the Evangelical constituency in our Church produced by the outcomes of that Synod”, the rationale had been simple, he said, “to offer General Synod a way of implementing the decision made in 2015 with the best possible chance of maintaining the unity of our Church, given the differing understandings of marriage that do exist and will continue to exist . . . to keep us all together in one Church.”
The revised text, Dr Duncan said, “provides the best possible protection for the consciences of those who will not wish to solemnise marriages between people of the same gender: if they are not nominated, it would, quite simply, be unlawful for them to do so. And that none of this in any way compromises the direction of travel set by last year’s General Synod.”
Members of the Synod responded to the tone of respect and generosity called for from the chair. Most responded to the plea not to re-run last year’s debate on the doctrine. Among those speaking against the motion, the Revd Alastair Macdonald (Aberdeen & Orkney) described the previous year’s process as “upsetting to many of us. We have never been asked as a matter of principle to vote on whether marriage was between one man and one woman — always asked to vote on a procedural thing rather than as a straight question. The Canon does create a safe space for all views of marriage, but it still remains that it is the only way to act on a vote of principle.”
Howard Thompson (Edinburgh) had been left “feeling confused and ill-informed”. The Anglican Communion had “fudged the problem instead of grasping it by the horns; Evangelicals sat on their hands and argued that scripture was clear; the Primates Meeting has continued that fudge, with the Episcopal Church put on the naughty step for three years. One [doctrinal] paper pulls one way; another, another.”
Dr Chris Johnston (Edinburgh), asked the Synod to draw back. “This doesn’t say what marriage is: surely we must put something back. It’s meaningless . . . it’s a path of self-destruction that is putting ourselves outside the rest of the Catholic Church universal.”
Speakers in favour of the motion pointed out that the SEC would not explicitly be changing its teaching, and would not therefore be doing the same thing as the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Dr Anthony Birch (St Andrews) believed that the Church had to accept that scientific understanding of nature as it was, had moved forward since the writers of the scriptures wrote with the understanding of their times. It was well proven that sexual preference was formed well before any element of conscious choice was involved, he said.
Canon Malcom Round (Edinburgh) said that he appreciated the work that had gone into the new Section 1. But the redefinition of the Canon away from marriage being between one man and one woman meant that he was worried about the consequences for the Scottish Episcopal Church, and unity with the Anglican Communion, and he believed that it would have an impact on numbers, mission, and discipleship.
Sacraments and practice changed, other speakers said: looking at the world through God’s eyes was different in every generation. Dr Beth Routledge (Glasgow & Galloway) said that the world’s media “think we are voting whether a gay couple should be able to walk down an aisle. . . It’s a little bit about that, but bigger; about the kind of Church we want to be, where there is room for everyone; and where, when we say all are welcome, we really mean it. . . The motion represents a great deal of work, and represents who we are in this Church.”
The Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth (Glasgow & Galloway), said that an immense amount of work had been put into the Canon. “It’s the best chance we’ve got. Something that does not lead us to one side winning: if one side wins, another has to lose. This is our best chance of staying together — let us grasp that chance. Now is the time to walk together, say yes to this, and be respectful and kind to one another, and to move on.”
Dr Julia House (Aberdeen), considered that the “naughty step” on which the US Episcopal Church found itself might be the answer: “Maybe we are the grit in the oyster that will help people to think, inside and outside the Church.”
The Primus described it as “a measured and mature decision. . . I am encouraged to hear what I hoped I would hear: that the work has been honoured, and is sufficient to allow those with differing views to remain in the integrity of the Church. They are not being asked to unbelieve, or deny, or live in any way against their conscience. Is our unity generous enough to allow people to vote as conscience dictates at the moment? Could this just possibly be a model for the Anglican Communion, which must walk the same path, and is having difficulty doing that?”
Dr Duncan thanked the Synod for all the perspectives offered, and the range of opinions, but above all for “the manner, content, graciousness, honesty, and conviction of the debate.”
The vote by ballot was:
Bishops 5 in favour: 2 against
Clergy 43 in favour: 19 against
Laity 49 in favour: 12 against.
As requested, the result was received in silence. The BBC filmed the announcement of the result, but not the debate itself, which was streamed live worldwide from the SEC website.
The Canon will have a Second Reading next year, when a two-thirds majority will be needed in each House. There is little doubt that it will go through in 2017, although some were surprised by the number of clergy voting against. There are likely to be only six out of seven bishops in post at the time of that Synod, after the retirement of Bishop Robert Gillies next year. Evangelicals — who have two of the biggest churches in Edinburgh, where combined Sunday attendance can outnumber the whole of a small far-flung diocese elsewhere in Scotland — have acknowledged the care that has been taken over the matter, and the pains taken to keep everyone on board, but remain unhappy at the outcome.