Rewriting The Canons

The St Mary’s LGBT Group had a very interesting evening this week discussing the equal marriage legislation that is to be proposed in the Scottish Parliament.

I’m not done talking about this yet.

The part of the Bill that deals with civil marriage is likely to be reasonably straightforward, although it’s worth mentioning that the legislation has yet to actually be written and that there’s something to be said for not counting chickens. The part of the Bill that is of more interest to me at the moment is the part that will deal with religious marriage, and I think that that part is likely to be anything but straightforward.

The first thing to understand is that what is being proposed now is that a whole denomination will have to agree that it wishes to adopt the legislation. This is a difficult thing to understand. It does not mean that the individual ministers of an opted-in denomination will be compelled to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. Indeed, no religious minister can ever be compelled to perform a religious marriage ceremony for any two people for any reason. It is enshrined into current marriage law. The Scottish Government want to have this protection written into an amendment to the Equality Act 2010, which, for reasons that I’ll come to, I think will result in the Equality Act contradicting itself, and it also seems to me an awful lot of faffing about for no good reason. I can only assume that it is being done to appease the Roman Catholic hierarchy,  who will never opt into this anyway but who are terrified that they’ll be forced to marry the gays. It doesn’t mean that. It does mean that an individual minister of a denomination whose governing body has not opted in will not be allowed to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. It means that the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church has to agree that it as a whole wishes to be able to perform marriages between couples of the same sex before anyone in the Scottish Episcopal Church will be able to perform marriages between a couple of the same sex. And the same general thing for the Church of Scotland. And the same general thing for the Baptist Union of Scotland. And so on. There will be no protection for individual ministers whose opted-out denominations prevent them from performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, and this is where I think it will end up contradicting itself. There cannot be a clause in the original legislation that protects freedom of religious conscience and at the same time an amendment to it that very specifically protects only one kind of freedom of religious conscience. Not in something that calls itself the Equality Act, anyway.

So, you see? Not straightforward.

The next step for those of us in the Scottish Episcopal Church, then, is to get the representatives of the Church as a whole to agree that this is a change that the Church wants and to agree to make the option available for those priests within the Church who would wish to offer it. And in the SEC, the way we do that is by getting the Church to rewrite its Canons. In this whole debate, the thing that I have heard most often from people who are against religious equal marriage even if they agree in principal with its civil equivalent is, “But it’s against Canon Law.” It is indeed, as they currently stand, but the Canons are not holy writ handed down by God from atop a mountain. The Canons are the rule book of the Church. They are an organic and evolving thing. They grow and change and are rewritten and rewritten and rewritten again. It isn’t so very long ago that the ordination of women and the marriage of divorced people was entirely against Canon Law — and look how far we’ve come since then. A lot of our discussion was about Canon 31, which is the one about marriage. Isn’t it wonderful to go to church in a place where having nerdy conversations about the Canons (and Biblical punctuation and liberation theology and, once, the enteric nervous system) is a thing that we do?

I had planned to break down Canon 31 and write about each of its sections, but when I left work today it was to discover that I’ve been beaten to it by Kelvin. And as he knows several hundred times more about it than I do on my very best day and besides that had the advantage on Monday evening of not being rendered incoherent with post-on call weekend knackeredness, I suggest that you read his version.

But let me put Section 1 here for your due consideration:

The Doctrine of this Church is that Marriage is a physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman created by their mutual consent of heart, mind and will thereto, and is a holy and lifelong estate instituted of God.

It is Canon 31, Section 1 that people mean when they tell me that same-sex marriage goes against Canon Law. It is also Canon 31, Section 1 that the Faith and Order Board of the SEC developed remarkable tunnel vision about when they made their response to the Scottish Government’s original consultation last year, almost all of which I disagreed with at the time and disagree with still. The deletion of “of one man and one woman”, which was almost certainly not the important part of that definition at the time that it was written, would hardly be the most arduous piece of editing ever asked of General Synod.

The interesting thing about the rest of Canon 31, though, is that none of it is about the physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman etcetera etcetera. It is all about how we deal with those marriages that are not covered by Section 1. Granted, that mostly means between people who have been previously been divorced, mostly due to when these particular Canons were written, but this is important, because this means that the Church has for a long time recognised that Section 1 deals with a particular definition of marriage and that there are perfectly valid marriages that fall outside the constraints of that definition, and that not only has it recognised them, but it has had a canonical basis for celebrating them.

It takes three years, perhaps more, to rewrite the Code of Canons.

The day a few weeks ago when the Scottish Government announced that it would introduce equal marriage legislation into Parliament was a day for great rejoicing and great celebration, and I rejoiced and celebrated with the best of them. It isn’t the end of the story, though, and that’s why I’m not done talking about this. There are people still to convince and battles still to be won, and this is where the rest of our story starts.


  1. Indeedy. One of the big big obstacles is the fact some people see a huge gulf between being female and being male that seems to me to not really exist. As if ‘male’ and ‘female’ were different species altogether. As if all men were good at changing car tyres and no women could do it, or all women good at languages, and no men could speak anything but their mother tongue. Most objections are terrible logic and terrible psychology but our schools are NOT good at teaching people to think.

  2. Pingback: 2012 in Review | The Road Less Travelled

Leave A Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s