The Scottish Episcopal Church has passed a historic motion that could lead it to commit its clergy to conduct same-sex marriage.
The church’s General Synod voted to start a process that will enable it to “decide whether to bring same-sex marriage into its life theologically and liturgically”.
The vote followed a lengthy and detailed discussion on the nature of marriage (theological doctrine committee) that examined the grounds for permitting same-sex weddings.
Leading the General Synod to vote in a proposal to change it’s Canon law’s defining marriage as “a union of one man and one woman” (Canon 31).
A spokeswoman for the General Synod said the vote “therefore instructed the Church’s Faith and Order Board to begin the two year process which may lead towards canonical change”.
“That change would potentially allow the marriage of same gendered couples in Church in late 2017.”
The Most Rev David Chillingworth, Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church said: “Our General Synod has taken two important steps forward today.
“We have decided that we wish to consider possible change to our Marriage Canon. We have identified one possible expression of that change.
“This potentially creates a situation in which same-sex marriages could be celebrated in churches of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
“That would also allow our clergy to enter into same-sex marriages. It is important to realise that at this point this is an indicative decision only.
“Any change to the Canon will require the normal two year process and two thirds majorities will be required. That process will begin at General Synod 2016 and cannot be complete until General Synod 2017″
Pamela Gordon, of the Diocese of Edinburgh, observed that “many of my generation grew up in complete ignorance as to the complexities of human sexuality…the law was against them, often leading to tragic deaths. … We cannot ignore the truths that we may have discovered… about the breadth and complexity and diversity of God’s creation.
“Love transcends sexuality and gender – we need to remove artificial man-made restrictions. We are enjoined to love one another, which like human nature is a splendid thing.”
Rev Christine Mylne, from Moray, asked how law is to be the servant of love and not its opponent. If we deny the opportunity, she argued, we fail to obey the commandment of Jesus “to love one another”. “Out of context reference to selected biblical references deflects us from God’s invitation to all men and women to form loving relationships.”
Howard Thompson spoke of his near-Pauline conversion. “There was a time,” he said, when he was implacably opposed to same-sex marriage. “I’m coming round to the fact that I was wrong to be so dogmatic. Not only would I embrace gay marriage…it’s taken me three marriages to realise that you need God in it to make it really work…
“I would hate that right to be denied to gay people who have the same right to have God rooting for them as me. In future, we need a world in which we’re all equal under God.”
Others raised objections: The Very Rev Dr Francis Bridger said that, theologically, “there is no distinction between love and law”. He added that “the decision we make today are not simply about the Scottish Episcopal Church but our place in the Anglican communion. What we do matters to our fellow Christians elsewhere. Changing Canon Law prematurely…could send out a signal that any change is a renunciation of truth.” Rev Canon Ian Ferguson, of the Aberdeen diocese, said “I don’t believe voting for this motion is the will of God…marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to express my deep sadness that the synod did not allow an amendment to debate something that we believe in.”
Rev Dr Andrew Swift, from Argyll, sought to address fears. He accepted that a decision may mean some people feel isolated, but pointed out that the LGBT community often feels this and that there are ways of respecting and maintaining diverse views within the church. “This synod should have the courage to begin the process” he urged.
In agreeing to debate the options for canonical change, the church made it clear that it has rejected the status quo on marriage. However, it considered three key options on how to proceed: for the Canon to be silent on the question of doctrine of marriage, for a gender-neutral definition of marriage, or for two expressions of marriage – “one that it is between two people of the opposite sex and one that it is between two people irrespective of gender”. The Synod also considered a “conscience clause”, to potentially preclude clerics from any obligation to solemnise a marriage against their consciences.
The Very Rev Kelvin Holdworth, the openly gay Rector of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow, stated: “if we are going to build a church in which everyone can thrive…we don’t settle on a definition of marriage that some people can’t agree with. Are there really only two definitions of marriage in this room? It isn’t something that you can define…that’s the end of the story…it’s lived, not defined. What I would like is a statement from the church that affirms the lives of people like me, as a gay man.
“I ask you to vote for a church where we do not try to define what each other believes about marriage.”
The Synod passed the motion with a significant majority in favour of change, and also supported the adoption of a conscience clause.
Using a transferable voting system, members supported the option of silence as opposed to the more “defining” alternatives.
The Church’s Committee on Canons will now prepare new canonical material in respect to conducting marriage to be considered by the 2016 General Synod.
Scottish legislators passed the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill in February, making Scotland the 17th country in the world to legalise same-sex ceremonies. The law enables faith based organisations, if they so wish, to conduct same-sex marriage.