In a week in which the Church of Scotland convenes in Edinburgh for its General Assembly, it’s more than appropriate that a positive story of a religious nature should be making headlines.
Unfortunately, those headlines do not centre on anything the Kirk has said or done – or even on the pending vote on whether to allow individual congregations to appoint clergy in same-sex marriages (the General Assembly agreed this in principle last year, subject to a vote of its prebyteries – which proved closer than many predicted). Instead, social media has gone into a frenzy over something quite different – a claim in The Times that “a Scottish church looks set to become the first in the UK to allow its clergy to conduct gay weddings in church.”
That The Times journalist sees fit to use the term “gay marriage” rather than “same-sex marriage” perhaps hints at how well informed they are on the relevant issues. The story has generated a predictable reaction, with a lot of Scots obviously seeing this as further evidence of how “progressive Scotland” is leading the way. Several LGBTI activists have of course welcomed the pioneering efforts of the church in question – the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC). There’s been a fair bit of self-congratulation from Scots, which would be entirely understandable if the story was correct.
It’s always good to see people who don’t usually engage with faith issues celebrating decisions being made by the church. It’s also no bad thing to take pride in Scotland. As someone who has been following the progress the various Scottish denominations are making on same-sex marriage, I am delighted that the SEC could be making a final decision on this as early as June 2017. I am also pleased that someone as senior in that church as the Bishop of St Andrews can not only affirm that change is likely, but that he’s already looking beyond the potential vote to ensure the church “has space” for people who find such change difficult to adapt to.
Tim Hopkins, director of the Equality Network, told The Times that the SEC conducting same-sex marriages “would really demonstrate how much the world has changed”. He’s right, of course. Yes, this is good news. But I’m struggling to see the basis for the sensationalist headline. The SEC set in motion a process some time ago that won’t be concluded for at least another year. And it’s far from the only church having this kind of discussion.
The SEC deserves credit for bold leadership on the question of same-sex marriages. Its approach has been primarily aimed at creating an inclusive church, something that’s more easily said than done. Meanwhile the Church of Scotland, stirred into action by the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie as minister of Queen’s Cross Church in 2009, has so far occupied itself predominantly with the issue of clergy. Last year’s General Assembly allowed individual congregations to appoint clergy in civil partnerships and may well extend this to those in same-sex marriages. However, the much wider issue of same-sex marriage hasn’t really begun to be discussed – the Theological Forum, under the oversight of former moderator Professor Iain Torrance, is to make recommendations prior to potential future discussion. The Roman Catholic Church, in spite of positive sounds from the Vatican, is moving nowhere quickly in facilitating change. The Free Church of Scotland frequently raises its well-known (and well publicised) objections to same-sex marriage at every opportunity. So, against this backdrop, what the SEC has done is remarkable.
But other churches have already made decisions to allow their celebrants to conduct same-sex marriages. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), which has for a long time affirmed same-sex relationships, have married same-sex couples (the Quakers don’t have clergy as such). So too has the Unitarian Church, which has allowed for its churches and chapels to “opt-in” to conduct same-sex marriages. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) , another church which has advocated equality for LGBTI people for several years, conducted its first marriage in April 2014. The Baptist Union of Great Britain, while affirming its traditional perspective in 2014, also changed its rules to “uphold the liberty of a local church to determine its own mind on this matter, in accordance with our Declaration of Principle”. The Union effectively allowed its ministers to conduct same-sex marriages, if they wanted to, “where their conscience permits, without breach of disciplinary guidelines”.
Perhaps The Times doesn’t consider either of these to be mainstream UK denominations. Perhaps. But their journalist also seems ignorant of a much more significant development. The United Reformed Church (URC), which has more congregations than the Church of Scotland and the SEC combined, is to have a final vote on this matter very soon. In seven weeks’ time, to be precise. If, as expected, the vote to allow clergy to conduct same-sex marriages is passed the URC will become the largest UK denomination by some distance to marry same-sex couples.
The URC will decide at its General Assembly in Southport whether to allow local churches to conduct same-sex marriages. Last year a majority of representatives agreed to change, but also overwhelmingly supported a time for consultation with the synods. On this occasion, all that is needed is a two-thirds majority. It looks likely – very likely – that the URC will be conducting its first same-sex marriage later this year, perhaps even by the end of the summer.
So no, a Scottish Church won’t be the first in UK to conduct same-sex weddings – it already happened two years ago and, in any case, a larger denomination is poised to approve same-sex unions a year before them. In some respects, that doesn’t matter – but sensational and misleading headlines, underpinned by poor research and a lack of knowledge about the issues, do. Wilfully ignoring the work of other churches certainly should be of concern as it diminshes the powerful contribution they’ve made. You have to wonder why The Times saw fit to overlook the URC: does the reality not fit its pre-conceived headline?
Instead of focusing (as many have) on the dishonest “Scotland leads the way” headline, it’s better to congratulate the efforts of those in all denominations and faiths who have been consistent in advocating LGBTI equality, and who have worked to make their places of worship more inclusive. The SEC deserve real credit for what they have done in a short time. The Quakers and the Unitarians, while hardly large denominations, have fearlessly pointed to the inherent goodness of same-sex relationships for some time – as too have the MCC. They have done a great deal to reach out to, and accept, LGBTI people and their supporters. The URC, which looks almost certain to shortly become the largest denomination to conduct same-sex marriages, also deserves recognition for the way in which it has sought to facilitate equality. It should not be shamefully overlooked by journalists who have their own agendas, or who are unable to do their homework.
The bigger picture is one of various Christian denominations at different stages in their decision making processes. Of course, those listed above have made more progress than most – but they don’t tell the full story. From Open Table groups in the Church of England, to the work of Affirmation Scotland within the Church of Scotland, to the Liberal Jews and the Muslim Safra Project, people of faith are making the case for same-sex marriage and often supporting LGBTI religious people in difficult situations. These people are proving instrumental in changing attitudes and shaping understandings.
There is a real feel-good story here – but it’s not the one The Times has created. When churches make historic decisions to extend marriage to same-sex couples, it’s not a question of nationalist pride – it’s one of human rights. We should celebrate the achievements of those churches who have succeeded in placing LGBTI equality firmly on their agendas – whether The Times recognises it or not.