The Kirk’s 45 presbyteries have been voting on whether to allow individual congregations to appoint clergy in same-sex marriages and, with only two results to come in, 25 have voted for the Church’s “overture” with 18 against.
This contrasts with the previous vote on ordaining ministers in civil partnerships, for which 31 presbyteries voted in support.
The vote brings the possibility of Churches ordaining minister in same-sex marriages a step closer. However, the result is not binding and the final vote will be held at the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly at May 2016.
In May, the General Assembly agreed to allow congregations to “depart” from the Church’s established position and appoint ministers in civil partnerships if they so wished. It also actually voted in support of extending the principle to clergy in same-sex marriages, but it was also proposed that this should be subject to a full vote of all the presbyteries under the Barrier Act. Some within the Church felt this would strengthen the General Assembly’s decision, but others were concerned that – having already voted to extend the right of those in civil partnerships to those in marriages – the General Assembly was risking its decision being overturned, as the result of the vote could not possibly be pre-empted.
Some were also concerned that the decision would inevitably result in further fractious and emotive conversations about the nature of marriage, and which might undermine relations between “progressives” and “traditionalists”.
The more “traditional” presbyteries such as Lewis, Inverness and Caithness predictably rejected the overture, while those seen as more “progressive” strongly voted for it. Glasgow voted for the amendment by 115 to 72. Edinburgh voted by 122 to 42 in favour – an even more decisive margin than the civil partnership vote, for which it had voted by a majority of 115 to 59.
While the focus of the media in recent weeks has been on the ultra-traditionalists, the real battleground has been in presbyteries such as Dumbarton and Midlothian, both of which supported welcoming ministers in civil partnerships but which would take more convincing of the case for ministers in same-sex marriages. Dumbarton voted 36 to 26 against, while the Lothian presbytery rejected the amendment by 47 to 28. The latter result was particularly surprising, given that Lothian had overwhelmingly supported appointing ministers in civil partnerships, with 52 voting for compared to 26 against.
The church’s “overture”, which seeks to allows congregations to “depart” from the official position of the church and appoint ministers in same-sex marriages is essentially a compromise position aimed at facilitating a loose unity within the Kirk on the issue. The overture does not aim to change the Church’s understanding of the nature of marriage; neither will it, if passed, allow ministers to conduct same-sex marriages – which will be subject of a seperate discussion at a later date.
A Church insider, speaking to the Edinburgh Evening News, said: “The vote by presbyteries is closer than last year because of the sensitivity around the church’s understanding of marriage. On a number of occasions Assemblies have, on the second reading, abandoned legislation which has been approved by a previous Assembly and a majority of presbyteries.
“It can depend on the make-up of the Assembly, which changes every year. Or the closeness of the result can sometimes have the Assembly saying there is ‘not enough’ support for this to go through.”
Stuart Ryan, a Church of Scotland member in Renfrewshire, told KaleidoScot: “Obviously marriage is a very sensitive issue and unfortunately while it’s a logical step to allow people in same-sex marriages the same opportunities as those in civil partnership there are many who seem to think the vote will change the way the church sees marriage.
“This has had an effect on the way the presbyteries have voted, and we’ve seen some highly emotive language used within the discussion the church is having – much of it sadly unhelpful from the perspective of an inclusive approach.
“While there’s a majority in favour unfortunately it is a small majority and I think it would be very unwise to make predictions about how the General Aseembly will vote next year.”
Mr Ryan added: “I think we need to be realistic about what this vote is about. It is not about gay rights or same-sex marriage more generally, simply about clergy and the right of local congregations to act independently. There are a lot of difficult discussions the Kirk needs to have in the next few years if it is to get to grips with the real issues of acceptance and inclusion.” The full results of the presbyteries’ vote will be announced later this month.