The Scottish Episcopal Church is to vote next week on whether to set in motion a process for allowing its clergy to wed same-sex couples.
Legislation allowing for same-sex marriage came into effect on 31st December 2014, but to date the traditional church denominations have not revisited their own definitions of marriage. Both the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church remain – at this time – opposed to conducting same-sex marriages, while the Episcopal Church’s canon law unequivocally defines marriage as “between one man and one woman”.
A committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church plans to review and potentially change this point of canon law. The doctrine committee believes that there is no easy scriptural definition of marriage and that there exists a theological basis on which to bless same-sex unions. While not drawing firm conclusions, the committee’s report suggests that the purpose of marriage is “mutual comfort and support” and suggest that “complementarity speaks not of essential male or female characteristics but of a dynamic within couples that exists regardless of sexual identity”.
The church’s general synod, which will meet in St Paul’s and St George’s Church in Edinburgh, will be asked to vote on the proposed change on Friday.
This will be the first time that the Episcopal Church – or indeed, any mainstream denomination in Scotland – has voted specifically on the question of conducting same-sex marriages.
The vote will not be final, but instead will set in motion a process by which canon law can be changed. Further votes would be required, and it is estimated that the entire process may take two years, but there can be little doubting that a vote on Friday in support of change would be significant.
Equality campaigners have welcomed the news. Tim Hopkins, of the Equality Network, welcomed the fact that the church was even “considering the issue”. “We hope that the synod will move forward on it in a way that respects and supports the diversity of church members, including the diversity of their sexual orientations and gender identities”, he said.
Stuart Ryan, a gay Christian from Renfrewshire, echoed these sentiments. “It’s a brave thing for the church to do – they’re providing a lead on this and I strongly believe the momentum is with the progressives. We can’t pre-empt the outcome, but it’s very welcome that it’s looking at the issue of performing same-sex unions.”
The Bishop of St Andrews, the Most Rev David Chillingworth, said: “What is likely to attract most attention at this year’s General Synod is the beginning of a process through which the Church shall consider whether it wishes to consider change to its Canons on Marriage.
“During the last two years, our Church has committed itself to the Cascade Process of conversation across difference in the area of same sex relationships. People have been courageous and open in expressing and listening to the diversity of views which are held within the Scottish Episcopal Church. We have sat together as one Church and shared thoughtfully and prayerfully.
We now move to consider whether or not we should undertake a process of canonical change regarding marriage. It is my hope that here too we shall think and act as one Church. That doesn’t mean that we must,or that we shall, all agree. We are considering an issue which in our times is profoundly challenging for all churches.”
Members of the public will be able to watch the historic debate and vote from the public gallery. It will also be possible to listen to proceedings online via the Scottish Episcopal Church website.