Today, the Scottish Episcopal Church’s General Synod voted to approve a proposal to change the Church’s Canon on Marriage.
The motion proposed removing a doctrinal clause stating that “marriage is between a man and a woman” and adding a “conscience clause” for clergy whose views on marriage meant that they would not wish to conduct a same-sex marriage.
The motion was carried by comfortable majorities. The House of Bishops supported the motion by a majority of 5 to 2. The House of Clergy voted in favour by a margin of 43 to 19, while the House of Laity voted 49 to 12 in support.
Following the vote, further debate will be required in which a two-thirds majority in each of the houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity would be needed to implement the changes
In advance of the debate, the Bishop of St Andrews and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal, the Most Rev David Chillingworth, said: “We are considering an issue which is profoundly challenging for all churches. Over the past two years we have been engaged in a series of discussions in our province, dioceses and congregations. People have been courageous and open in expressing and listening to the diversity of views on same sex marriage which are held within the Scottish Episcopal Church.
“We now come to the point where we must make a decision about the way forward for our church. We do that in all humility seeking the will of God and attempting always to sustain our unity in the midst of our diversity.”
The discussion was clearly being had against the backdrop of the reported threat made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Rev Justin Welby, to personally remove Bishop Chillingworth from his leadership of the World Anglican-Reformed Dialogue – a series of international ecumenical conferences – if the Scottish Episcopal Church made the change.
One contributor to the debate, evidently concerned by this, warned that there was a danger of the vote setting the Scottish church on a collision course with the Church of England and other Anglicans worldwide. Advising caution, he said: “If we as a province decide to change the definition of marriage, we do so in the knowledge that we are at odds with the rest of the Anglican Communion. I don’t want us…to be put out of the communion for a time”.
The fear of sanctions was perceptible, but others were also concerned about theological issues and finding a way forward that could keep the church united. Rev Dr David Greenwood, from the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney, said: “As Anglicans, we deliberately build our theology from scripture, tradition and reason…the church from the apostles onwards taught that marriage is between man and woman.” Rev Canon Malcolm Round, from Edinburgh, explained that his difficulties with the motion lay not with same-sex relationships but with the “redefinition” of marriage. He said: “I cannot personally redefine marriage…I feel obliged to vote against. Reluctantly I will be voting against the motion because of what has been taken out, not what has been put in.”
Others wholeheartedly embraced to proposal for change. Dr Anthony Birch, from the Diocese of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane, urged the synod to accept the fullness of God’s creation in including same-sex couples: “To deny that is to show contempt for the glorious diversity of God’s creation”.
Another contributor, Beth Routledge from Glasgow, added: “When I meet the perfect woman…I hope to be able to marry her in a church in which there is room for everyone. This motion is about our attitude towards minorities within the church…our attitude towards LGBT people but also other minorities…including people of diverse gender identity. It’s about whether we’re willing to help dismantle systems that help keep the oppressed oppressed.
“I don’t believe in its amended form the motion leaves out people who disagree with me. We have the ability to accept more than one idea. Don’t let yourself think that sticking with the status quo means sticking with comfort and familiarity. If we leave here today as people of diversity…we’ll be saying that we can be leaders, brave, and models for fellowship and love to the Anglican Communion throughout the world.”
Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow and an advocate for reform, recognised the arguments for unity but stressed the motion represented the best vehicle for achieving it. He said: “This is our best chance to work together. An enormous amount of work has been put in to enable us to walk together as one church. Last year’s synod decided to produce something that would not lead us towards one side ‘winning’. If marriage is defined in one [specific] way then some people are going to be losers in our church.
“I would prefer if the media were coming here to hear what we had to say about the refugee crisis, about poverty. But we cannot do that if we are to fight to the death about this. It’s time to say yes to this, and to be respectful and kind to one another. “
Dr Julia House, from Aberdeen, took a similar view: “I see our sons and daughters able to express who they are without exclusion.” In an apparent reference to the threats of sanctions from the Archbishop of Canterbury, she added: “I feel our calling to be salt and light to be important…it’s better to speak up and sometimes the naughty step may be the answer.”
A woman who had been married for 42 years asked “how can I deny this joy to anyone else – a man or a woman? Human sexuality exists on a continuum and it seems sensible to me that we allow our legislation to develop in recognition of this.”
Bishop Mark Strange of the Diocese of Moray, Ross and Caithness told the synod: “I have the privilege of conducting weddings all over Scotland, except for those who still turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile but love someone of the same gender.”
The synod will debate the issue again next year, with the possibility of the Church conducting same-sex marriages in late 2017.
The General Synod is also discussing Scotland’s role in the worldwide Anglican Communion, the wider role of the Church in tackling climate change and poverty, and a motion calling on the UK government to cancel the renewal of Trident.