The Church of Scotland‘s General Assembly has today voted to allow individual congregations to call ministers and deacons in same-sex marriages.
The General Assembly voted last year to permit individual congregations to “depart” from the church’s official position, which upholds a traditional view of matrimony, and appoint ministers in civil partnerships. It also agreed to extend this to clergy in same-sex marriages – but only subject to a vote of the church’s forty-five presbyteries under a piece of church law known as the Barrier Act.
In a vote that was closer than many predicted, the presbyteries decided by a majority of 26 to 18 (with one tied) to refer the matter back to the General Assembly for a final vote.
Today, commissioners decided by 339 votes to 215 to update Church law to keep pace with Scots Law.
However, today’s decision does not affect the Church’s traditional understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Neither does the decision permit clergy to solemnise same-sex unions themselves.
Speaking at a press conference, the Very Rev John Chalmers, Principal Clerk to the General Assembly, said: “We had a debate which made very clear that we were not interfering with our theological definition of marriage and were not going to the place where ministers or deacons could themselves conducting same sex marriages.
“It is an entirely different discussion.
“Today’s decision means it will be possible for kirk sessions and congregations to depart from the traditional understanding of marriage to call not only potentially a minister in a civil partnership but one who is in a same-sex marriage.
“In some ways we crossed the Rubicon last year when it was agreed that kirk sessions could call someone in a civil partnership and for many people what today was about was simply tidying up and making the law of the church consistent with Scots law.”
Mr Chalmers added that a report on Christian understanding of marriage would be presented to the General Assembly next year. he stressed that it was far from inevitable that commissioners would endorse same-sex marriage ceremonies being held in churches as each General Assembly is unique and has a mind of its own.
He said: “Today I think people came to this decision with their minds on law and practice and not on theology and future practice. I hope we have now put this issue to one side and we can now get on with what I believe are important issues – developing our vision for the church, increasing membership and developing our work around mission.”
Reacting to the developments, Stonewall Scotland director Colin Macfarlane said: “Today’s result is great news for the Kirk and a progressive move forward. Empowering ministers to live their lives with honesty and integrity sends a powerful signal to faith communities and society as a whole.”
While welcoming the news, other campaigners have pointed to the fact that the Church’s stance on marriage remains unchanged and that the official position to same-sex marriage is opposition. Stuart Ryan, a member of the church, told KaleidoScot: “It’s good news and no doubt there’ll be a lot of excitement about this, but it doesn’t fundamentally change anything for most of us. [My partner and I] now find ourselves in the odd position of not being able to marry in our own church but, if we marry elsewhere, we will be allowed to serve as ministers.”
The Church is likely to consider the broader theological aspects of same-sex marriage next year once the Theological Forum, under the oversight of former moderator Professor Iain Torrance, publishes its recommendations. At this moment it is unclear what those recommendations may be.