The Church of Scotland has voted to allow the ordination of clergy in same-sex marriages – but only if its presbyteries agree.
Representatives at the Kirk’s General Assembly in Edinburgh, who voted on Saturday to give congregations the opportunity to appoint gay clergy in civil partnerships, made a decision to only extend this to those in same-sex marriages if a vote of the church’s 45 presbyteries accepts this outcome.
In essence, the General Assembly decision means that, for the time being, “the matter of ministers in same-sex marriage is as yet undecided” and any decision has been delayed.
In effect this vote allows for continued discrimination against ministers who are in a same-sex marriage, as the Church will not need to offer them any pension or other benefits that they provide for marriage heterosexuals. This policy will only change if the Church votes supports the move at next year’s General Assembly.
However, ministers who are in same-sex civil partnerships will, paradoxically, receive the same treatment as ministers who are in heterosexual marriages.
The Church of Scotland, along with other faith based organisations are exempt form anti-discrimination measures in the Equality Act 2010.
The Assembly heard evidence from the Theological Forum and the Church’s Legal Questions Committee, which recommended that the Act on ministers in civil partnerships is extended to ministers in same-sex marriage.
Professor Iain Torrance, the convenor of the Theological Forum and a former moderator who famously admitted he was “untroubled” by the potential ordination of gay clergy, argued that “fundamentally, the issue is not a theological one…but whether we are selfish with important benefits”. He stressed the importance of inclusion, and of being non-discriminatory. “The question is whether we deny benefit to others”.
Rev Elijah Smith admitted to being “ashamed of the lack of love shared from one side to the other” and urged for greater tolerance and understanding. He then explained that while theology is central to the debate, this should not be constricted around the narrow view of marriage expressed by some others: “this particular issue will inevitably have a theological bent – the theology of care and justice is at the heart of this. This is a civil issue…scripture does not have a clear-cut prescription for Christian marriage…if we are to be prescribed by the examples in scripture I would have several wives! Our understanding of marriage has evolved over time, and civil constructs can be made to glorify God.”
Concern was expressed that the church has not yet “undertaken work” on same-sex marriage, and that reflection and consultation within wider church was required, for which the outcome could not be pre-empted. The Church’s definition of marriage has not yet been reconsidered to reflect the new legal reality, and some ministers felt that it was premature to make decisions without having even begun this process.
The Very Rev Albert Bogle, a former moderator, explained that he hoped the Church would “journey together in consensus and understanding”. “We have travelled a huge way”, he stated and, referring to civil partnerships, insisted that “we cannot say that one kind of relationship is better than another.” However, he moved a counter-motion to defer consideration of the issue until 2017, allowing the Theological Forum to compile a report.
However, the Rev Paraic Reamonn rejected this suggestion. He called the proposal “a tidying-up operation” but admitted that “it doesn’t feel like a small issue because of the word ‘marriage’. We are using it not as a Christian term but as a Scottish civil and legal term” just as is the case of civil partnerships. He said it was clear from the report that a distinction is being made between civil and religious marriage. The church is not yet wrestling with the wider issue of affirming same-sex marriage as a Christian institution, he insisted, but simply accepting a newly-minted term in Scots law.
Rev Lezley Stewart, from Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Church, rejected calls for deferring the decision. She asked how long it will be before the church can “afford respect” to all those in marriages that have been recognised by law. “Extend[ing] the overture to persons in same-sex marriage [is] a practical response to a new reality in civil law. To me, it is commonsense to do so. Otherwise we leave behind some ministers of this church who have already converted their civil partnerships to marriages…if we pass this act today it is a very small step to recognising the relationships of love that are represented in our congregations and among our minsters. Faith, hope and love remain – but we all know which is the greatest.”
Rev David McLachlan pointed to the human dimension. “On Saturday we asked the question about people. We asked what kind of person can be eligible to be a minister, and we agreed to allow congregations to make their own decisions. We did that with civil partnerships. If we don’t pass this [today], we’re saying that someone in a civil partnership can be eligible to be a minister, but if you’re in a marriage you’re snookered. We’re creating two types of people. The logical thing to do is treat people in the same way.”
Stephanie Fowler, a youth representative, urged the Assembly “not to be fearful of legal challenge. Our persecuted others and sisters around the world would not share that view.”
In summating his counter-motion, Mr Bogle expressed concern that if his arguments were not accepted, the likely outcome would be that a church procedure, known as the Barrier Act, would come into play – effectively meaning that each of the Church’s 45 presbyteries would have to be consulted and the dialogue would be unnecessarily prolonged and painful.
Prof Torrance, closing, reflected on the Church of Scotland’s history of being shaped by dispute. He admitted that the Church was in “a difficult place” and stressed that much of the debate has been characterised by “ambivalence”. He added that the church should take longer to consider its position on same-sex marriage, but that this was distinct from the issue of the civil definition of marriage. All he was planning to do, he explained, was to allow the accommodation of Scots law. “Our society is in transition and we are seeing new types of laws…but let’s not be afraid of the arguments.”
Mr Bogle’s counter-motion fell, by 213 votes to 205. A proposed amendment to refer the issue to the Church’s presbyteries under the Barrier Act was carried by 215 votes to 195. However, a proposal by the Very Rev John Chalmers allowed for clergy appointed prior to May 2009 who are already in same-sex marriages to be “given the same status as any other minister”.
Ms Stewart asked about the position of those in same-sex marriages wishing to enter the ministry, and was advised that it is “impossible to engage them in a process that currently has no end”.
This decision represents a tentative move towards the ordination of clergy in same-sex marriages, and potentially also towards the Kirk adjusting its policy on same-sex marriages more generally, but the final verdict may not be known for some time.