THE Scottish Episcopal Church reaches a landmark moment this week as its General Synod prepares to vote on whether to allow clergy to conduct marriages for same-sex couples in church.
While welcoming same-sex marriage may be the “easier” option, the Church will face challenges whatever the result, the Primus, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, has warned.
“If the vote is approved, we face all the challenges of operating the guidelines which we have drawn up to manage the diversity [of views on marriage],” he said on Monday. “If the vote doesn’t go through, there will be deep distress on the side of those who have been strong advocates of the change.”
Bishop Chillingworth was speaking ahead of the Synod, which is due to gather in St Paul’s & St George’s, Edinburgh, on Thursday. The first session will centre on a second reading of a revised Canon 31 on the solemnisation of holy matrimony, which was produced two years ago by the Faith and Order Board at the request of the Synod (News, 13 June 2015).
The motion, to be presented by the Bishop of Edinburgh, the Rt Revd John Armes, proposes to remove 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”. This section would be replaced with a single conscience clause to ensure that no cleric would be obliged to solemnise a marriage against his or her conscience.
A two-thirds majority is required in the houses of bishops, clergy, and laity for a second reading of the motion to be passed and the law changed.
“From the point of view of the life of the Church, it is probably easier for the vote to proceed and be approved,” Bishop Chillingworth said. “But it is a matter for Synod, and it is not a foregone conclusion.”
A first reading was passed by the Synod last year, but required only a 50-per-cent majority. In March, six of the seven diocesan synods of the Scottish Episcopal Church voted in favour of the proposal. Only the diocesan synod of Aberdeen & Orkney voted against the change.
“If you had applied a two-thirds requirement to the vote last year, it would have been very narrowly approved in the House of Clergy, and with changes in personnel, it is not to be assumed that it will automatically pass,” the Scottish Primus said.
“There is a groundswell of support which is to do with the make-up of our Church. But the votes that come from the dioceses are from a different group of people, and only inform the General Synod.”
The support expressed for the amendment was one of the reasons given by the GAFCON Primates when they agreed to provide a “missionary bishop” for conservative Evangelicals in the UK, in their communiqué, during a meeting in Lagos, early last month (News, 5 May). Scottish Anglican leaders were not consulted.
Bishop Chillingworth said that he was disappointed with the decision. “The GAFCON primates were part of the last Primates’ Meeting in January last year, which I was present at as well, and we committed ourselves to walking together — and I am not quite sure where this leads us now,” he said. “But my primary concern, as it has been throughout, is with members of our own Church who will find whatever we decide very difficult to accept and to live with.”
GAFCON has also chosen to hold a press conference in Edinburgh immediately after the vote on Thursday, at which the missionary bishop is to be announced.
“It doesn’t altogether surprise me, but it disappoints me,” the Bishop said. “The way in which the issue is being experienced across the Anglican Communion, with people like GAFCON in the mix, is in a binary ‘for and against’ way.
“But that isn’t classic Anglicanism, which is about unity and diversity; and that is why we have attempted to find our own solution, within our own Church, with the people in our own Church who are most opposed to this change.”
A document of guidelines and principles on marriage canon has been produced by the College of Bishops, to be adopted should the motion be passed into law. It includes details of the 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.
“The Bishop will only nominate clerics if there is evidence that there has been a significant consultation with the vestry, as well as the organist and others who would be involved.”
It comes after the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill (Scotland) was given Royal Assent in 2014. The Scottish Government wanted faith communities to be involved with the legislation, Bishop Chillingworth said, recognising that those who did become involved were likely to be divided.
The revised Canon 31 does not include any definition of marriage. If accepted, in future, the doctrine of marriage would be found only in the liturgy. Therefore, a revised Canon 22 on divine worship and the administering of sacraments — which would ensure that marriage liturgy would be subject to the normal two-stage canonical process — is also to be debated, before the vote, to “protect the unity” of the Church. Modern Scottish liturgies place increasing emphasis on marriage as revealing the love and character of God. Currently, a single resolution with a simple majority of the Synod is required to make liturgical changes.
“To change back to a full two-year canonical process means that it becomes much harder for our Church — should it wish to do so — to sweep away those marriage services which express the traditionalist view.”
Again, if the amended Canon 31 is approved, two further motions will be debated by the Synod: the simplification of Appendix 26 of canon law, which lists unions forbidden by the Church; and a resolution to ensure that the diocesan bishop or dean would be responsible for nominating a cleric to the Registrar General.
Other items on the Synod agenda this year include a report from the Church in Society and Investment committees on the responsibility of the Church to address climate change.
“We are all very aware that we are living in a very changed political climate,” Bishop Chillingworth said. “President Trump has just withdrawn from the Paris agreement, and therefore issues on which we thought there was a growing consensus are suddenly contested again. The Scottish Episcopal Church tends to be very positive on issues like this.”
It is to be the Primus’s last Synod before his retirement, later this month. “This will be my 13th Synod in Scotland, and I have seen considerable development in those years. There are many positive things underlying the work of the Synod, some of which will be seen in the report of the Scottish Episcopal Institute, our training institute.
“I am positive as I come to retirement. The Church has been making significant progress, and I am content with that.”