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Scottish Episcopalians revise canon law to permit gay marriage, but with conscience provision

08 June 2017


THE Scottish Episcopal Church’s General Synod voted on Thursday to allow its clergy to solemnise marriages for same-sex couples in church. After two hours of respectful and emotional debate in St Paul’s and St George’s, Edinburgh, the Synod gave final approval to a revised Canon 31 on the solemnisation of holy matrimony.

The first two clauses of Canon 31 — containing the doctrinal statement that marriage is to be understood as a “physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman” — were deleted, and replaced with a single conscience clause to ensure that no cleric would be obliged to officiate against his or her conscience.

A special majority of two-thirds was required in each House for the second and final reading to be passed, and the Synod agreed (Motion 4) to conduct the vote by ballot. A two-thirds majority was obtained in all three Houses: Bishops 4 to 1; Clergy 42 to 20; and Laity 50 to 12.

Tears were shed after the result was announced. Presenting the motion on behalf of the Faith and Order Board, the Bishop of Edinburgh, the Rt Revd John Armes, said that the proposal had been received with “joy and sadness” and had led to “much conversation” within the Church.

“The issue of marriage on same-sex couples is something on which we clearly do not have a common mind; but the change would keep the conscience of both sides, and protect the conscience of those who think marriage after divorce is wrong. No one is asking you to change your theology. We are neither passionately in favour, nor passionately against.”

But impassioned speeches were heard from 25 member of the Synod, many of whom drew on their own experiences.

Canon Ian Ferguson (Aberdeen & Orkney) described the Church as “broken”, and expressed his deep concern that the motion would contradict the teaching of Jesus. It would be “the most sad and painful days for many of us” if the motion was passed, he said, and would distress clerics and congregations, such as his own, who believed in an “orthodox” tradition of marriage.

Victoria Stock (Edinburgh) spoke of the pain and struggle of being accepted as a gay member of the Church. “But this vote is greater than allowing clerics to marry same-sex couples in church,” she said. “It is about reaching out to one another, and the wider world, with compassion.”

The Revd David Greenwood (Aberdeen & Orkney) warned that some members of the Church would feel “compelled by conscience to leave” should the motion be passed, because marriage was understood as a holy sacrament, which could not be altered or replaced, any more than the sacrament of holy communion.

And Alistair Dinnie (ACC representative) said that he believed that God had been with him and his partner in their darkest hour, and longed for the day on which they could affirm their relationship in the eyes of God.

The revised text of Canon 31 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 Canon does not include any definition of marriage. In future, the doctrine of marriage will be found only in the liturgy. Therefore, a revised Canon 22 on divine worship and the administering of the sacraments — ensuring that matrimonial liturgy would be subject to the normal two-stage canonical process — was debated and accepted by the Synod, before the vote, to “protect the unity” of the Church.

The debate was chaired by the Revd Professor Trevor Hart, who thanked members of  the Synod for their mutual respect and conduct.

After the approval of Canon 31, two further motions were debated and carried by the Synod: the simplification of Appendix 26 of canon law, which lists the marriages forbidden by the Church (Motion 7); and a resolution to ensure that the diocesan bishop or dean would be responsible for nominating a cleric to the Registrar General (Motion 8).

A document of guidelines and principles, produced by the College of Bishops, should the motion be carried, was also adopted. It includes details of the nominating procedure by which a cleric wishing to conduct a same-sex marriage in church should seek approval from the Registrar General, who is responsible for the registration of births, deaths, and marriages in Scotland.

It also addresses the “conscience of lay people” — including, but not limited to, any verger, flower arrangers, or choristers — which, it says, must be considered by clerics before a same-sex wedding is conducted. If a cleric does not want to solemnise a same-sex marriage, the application must be referred to the Bishop.

A first reading of the amended Canon 31 was carried last year, and, in March, six of the seven diocesan synods voted in favour. Only the diocesan synod of Aberdeen & Orkney voted against the change (News, 17 March).

But the Primus, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, warned on Monday that the Church would face challenges, whatever the outcome (News, 6 June).

Speaking after the result, he said: “End-points are often starting-points. It is a momentous decision; it affirms a position that same-sex couples are married in the sight of God. A new chapter opens up . . . but this same decision is difficult and hurtful for others who say this decision is unscriptural and profoundly wrong.”

The Church must embark on a journey of reconciliation, he said, not least with the Anglican Communion, which would have to explore whether its “historic commitment to unity and diversity can embrace change”.

The Anglican Communion Office issued a statement from its Secretary General, the Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon. “The Churches of the Anglican Communion are autonomous and free to make their own decisions on canon law. Today’s decision by the SEC to approve changes to canon law on marriage is not a surprise, given the outcome of the vote at its Synod a year ago.

“There are differing views about same-sex marriage within the Anglican Communion but this puts the Scottish Episcopal Church at odds with the majority stance that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman. This is a departure from the faith and teaching upheld by the overwhelming majority of Anglican provinces on the doctrine of marriage. The Anglican Communion’s position on human sexuality is set out very clearly in Resolution 1.10 agreed at the Lambeth Conference of 1998 and will remain so unless it is revoked.

“As Secretary General, I want the Churches within the Anglican Communion to remain committed to walking together in the love of Christ and to working out how we can maintain our unity and uphold the value of every individual in spite of deeply-held differences. It is important to stress the Communion’s strong opposition to the criminalisation of LGBTIQ+ people.”

In a press conference immediately after the vote on Thursday afternoon, GAFCON announced the appointment of Canon Andy Lines as its missionary bishop — specifically for conservative Evangelicals in Scotland, not all of the UK, as previously stated. Canon Lines currently chairs the GAFCON UK Task Force, and the Anglican Mission in England. He is also the chief executive of the mission agency Crosslinks (formerly BCMS).

The move, first announced in the communiqué from the GAFCON Primates meeting in Lagos last month, was thought to have been prompted by support for the amendment to Canon 31. Scottish Episcopalian leaders were not consulted.

The Archbishop and Primate of the Anglican Church in North America (which was appointed by GAFCON to provide a missionary bishop), Dr Foley Beach, said: “We continue to have a crisis in the Anglican Communion as the virus of revisionist theology and practice continues to spread to various Provinces.

“Rather than correcting and disciplining those who have departed from the biblical faith and practice which has been handed down to us from the Apostles, some church leaders are embracing false teaching, and then going even further by promoting it around the world.”

The consecration of Canon Lines would take place on 30 June in Wheaton, Illinois, he said. “It is my hope that the missionary bishop will lead an effort to plant dynamic churches all over Scotland which are Jesus-centred.”

A spokesperson for the Church of England said that the decision had been noted. While it was a matter for the Scottish Episcopal Church, it was also a matter of “real and profound disagreement” in the C of E.

“We are seeking to find ways forward rooted in scripture and the Christian faith as we have received it and which values everyone, without exception, not as a ‘problem’ or an ‘issue’, but as a person loved and made in the image of God.”

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