Yesterday the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church (URC) voted in favour of giving its local churches the right to conduct and register same-sex marriages.
The motion, which required a two-thirds majority, was passed by a majority of 240 to 21, with 4 abstentions.
This means that the URC is now the largest UK denomination to freely permit the celebration and registration of marriages of same-sex couples in its churches. Although the larger Baptist Union voted in 2014 to allow its ministers to conduct same-sex marriages if they wished, it retained the “traditional” understanding of marriage for the church.
The URC’s first same-sex weddings are expected to take place later this year. United Reformed churches in England and Wales wishing to register their buildings for the marriage of same-sex couples are now able to start that process immediately. In Scotland the legal framework is rather different, but the effects of the Church’s decision will be broadly similar.
It was not so much a case of the General Assembly “allowing” local churches to marry same-sex couples, as an example of the Assembly accepting that ultimately the decision belongs to – and should be taken by – individual churches rather than the Church as a whole.
The vote brings to an end a lengthy process in which votes were held at General Assembly in 2014 and at a special single-issue Assembly last year. The special Assembly observed that as “it [was] not possible for the denomination to express a single view on the issue of same-sex marriage” the decision on whether to perform same-sex marriages should lie with local churches. The motion was carried by Assembly a majority of 205 votes to 14, but the issue was also returned to the Church’s thirteen regional and national synods to allow them to consider the resolution more fully prior to a final vote of the General Assembly. If five synods had objected, the motion could not have proceeded. No such objections were forthcoming.
Speaking of the process and yesterday’s vote, the Revd John Proctor, General Secretary of the URC said: “The URC has made an important decision – at which some will rejoice and with which others will be uncomfortable. Those of our churches who now wish to offer full marriage services to same-sex couples are free to do just that – and those churches who do not wish to are not compelled to. All are part of this denomination. This has been a sensitive issue for many in our churches. It has been important to take our time over the decision process, and to listen as carefully as we can to one another along the way.”
During the discussion preceding the vote, it was apparent that the church was “not of one mind” on the issue. Many felt that the resolution, allowing individual churches to act according to their own consciences, was the best way to maintain church unity – one contributor described the diversity of views as being “part of our difference and unity at the same time”.
A number of speakers were opposed to same-sex marriage and advised the church not to support the motion. The opening speaker, appealing to the ultimate authority of scripture, said: “This discussion is not about loving people, whatever their gender, but a Christian definition of marriage…the highest authority for what we believe and do is God’s word, the Bible. Is this listening to God or taking the easy way out? What is the Spirit saying to the churches? I question whether there is a clear message? On what grounds do we ignore Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:4?” An attempted procedural motion that the substantive motion be withdrawn fell, after some confusion, with only three in the hall supporting the proposal.
Another speaker added: “The effect of this resolution is that the URC will become a denomination which is endorsing something that is contrary to Scripture.” A young man added: “I am not for same-sex marriage…I am concerned that we need to be respectful about the parts of the church that are in disagreement with each other.”
However, others were eager to emphasise that the motion made no attempt at defining marriage and was only empowering local churches to make their own decisions on a complex matter. Charis Ollerenshaw spoke in support of the motion, saying: “What we are voting on is democracy in our church. We are giving local churches the opportunity to make a decision. I’m all for the democracy in our church.”
Responding to a speaker focusing on the references to homosexuality in the book of Leviticus, Rev Jake Tatton, the minister of Giffnock United Reformed Church, said: “Jesus also said he came to fulfil the law; of the 613 laws in the Hebrew scriptures we actively choose not to follow most of them. We don’t stone children, for example…I could go on and on. That’s a really crucial thing. Some people have concerns we’re being swept along by [public opinion] but this is actually an opportunity.”
Referring to the high rate of suicide among LGBTI teens, she added: “Hundreds of people die every year, often by suicide… too often young [LGBTI] Christians need a message of God’s love and God’s inclusion.”
She also referred to her own sexuality, and said she believed it was God-given. She told the hall: “I believe God made me gay for a reason. My partner believes she was chosen for good to come from it. The reality is that things of the flesh will perish but God’s love is eternal…some of the things you do with your flesh will gross me out as well!”
Another minister said: “We should register as soon as we are able to register to allow all people to marry, irrespective of sexual orientation. This is an opportunity to say something inclusive to our broken society. Jesus is a saviour who opens the door and invites all of us in. He who said ‘I am the way’ also said ‘I will draw all people to me’.”
A gay youth leader talked about how he was able to reach out to young people. He said: “this is not just a justice issue but a missional issue. We’re not just talking about LGBTI people but their children, their family and their friends. If we say we welcome everybody then we have to welcome them.
“There is sometimes a spiritual arrogance in the church that we think God is only speaking to us. We should have the humility to listen to and serve our society.”
Summating the debate, outgoing moderator Rev David Grosch-Miller said: “It is incumbent on all of us to recognise we are not of one mind. But we must treat each other with dignity and respect…those different opinions are sincerely held. What this resolution does is to emphasise that we cannot come to an opinion – it affirms that the right place for these decisions to be made is with local churches.”
While the motion had been expected to pass given previous votes during the process, the size of the majority surprised many. A counted vote had been ordered as it was envisaged the vote would have been much tighter.
An out bi URC member told KaleidoScot that they were pleased with the decision, even if the debate had been “a little frustrating”. They said: “It’s the right result for a few reasons, but mainly because it recognises differences of opinion and in addressing that affirms local decision making. As someone said in the debate, it’s about church democracy.”
It is not known how many local churches will act on the freedom General Assembly has given them, but it was clear that a number have been waiting for some time for the green light to extend their ability to perform marriages to same-sex couples.
Lee Battle, a URC member, spoke to BBC Radio 4 this morning about what the vote means for her. She said: “I was pleased, both as a person wishing to get married in the church, but also as a Christian. I think that we took a really important first step yesterday into acknowledging marriage equality in this country.” She added that she and her partner have held off being married until the vote was passed and now hope to be among the first to take advantage of the change.
She also said that she hoped that “by the URC taking such a positive step forward other churches will think about doing the same – or at least open conversations.”
The United Reformed Church was formed in 1972 and today comprises approximately 80,000 adults and 45,000 children in 1,500 congregations. Its formation brought together English Presbyterians, English, Welsh and Scottish Congregationalists and members of the Churches of Christ. Worldwide, more than 80 million Christians are members of the Reformed family of churches, the largest Protestant tradition.