Next week, the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church meets in Edinburgh to do its annual business. A significant chunk of our agenda this year is to talk about marriage: what we believe about it, what we say about it, and what steps (if any) we as a Church want to take to recognise the lives and loves of couples who happen to be of the same sex.
It is my view that we should be recognising those lives and loves in precisely the same way as we recognise those of couples within the Church who happen to be of opposite sexes – and it is not only my view. The most profound social change in the last decade has not been the rewriting of old laws and the enacting of new ones. It has been the basic truth that society no longer thinks I am being radical when I say that in life and law and linguistics there should be no difference between gay couples and straight couples.
But it is the truth and beauty of the Scottish Episcopal Church that we are not all of the same view, and that we are not all required to share a single view. It is right and proper that we have this conversation and that the matter is given due process in accordance with the procedures of the Church.
It is proposed that the Synodical debate this year will be based on six options drawn up by the Faith and Order Board for changing Canon 31, or a separate option for no change.
For avoidance of doubt, Section 1 of Canon 31 states:
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.
Also for the avoidance of doubt, Clause 1 was written into Canon Law for the express purpose of clarifying the Church’s position on the then newly enacted divorce laws.
The options laid out by the Faith and Order Board are:
- Removal of Section 1
- Removal of Section 1, with the addition of a conscience clause stating that no cleric is obliged to solemnise a marriage against their conscience.
- Alteration of Section 1 to render it non-gender specific, e.g. by replacing “one man and one woman” with “two persons”.
- Alteration of Section 1 as in (3), with the addition of a conscience clause.
- Alteration of Section 1 to include two expressions of marriage, i.e. to state that there are two expressions of marriage in the Scottish Episcopal Church: one between a man and a woman and one between two persons of either gender.
- Alteration of Section 1 as in (5), with the addition of a conscience clause.
We are told that in order to debate these options, a two-thirds majority of voting members will need to agree to do so. If the Synod agrees to the debate, the Faith and Order Board ask that the subsequent voting be conducted by a ballot and we are told that that voting mechanism will also need to be agreed to by a two-thirds majority of voting members.
I think that it needs to be understood that the requirement for one at this stage in the conversation means that Episcopalians who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender are being required to meet a higher standard just to get in the door. I am not scared of the requirement, but it must be distinctly understood that to require it at this point is not just.
The proposal for the voting mechanism is that representatives will be asked to give six points to their most preferred option, and five points to their second most preferred option, and so on. After the points are added together, Synod will be declared to have expressed a preference and will then be asked to vote on whether the Committee on Canons should be asked to prepare canonical material relating to that preference. That vote requires a simple majority of 51%, not voting in houses. The canonical material would be presented to the General Synod of 2016 for first reading.
The agenda and papers for General Synod 2015 have been made available on the Provincial website. The relevant points are the motions themselves on pages 1-10, and the process paper from the Faith and Order Board on pages 46-50. The Doctrine Committee have produced a paper on the theology of marriage, which is also available on the Provincial website and which I believe is intended to inform the debate.
In addition to the material on same-sex marriage, the Faith and Order Board have proposed a separate motion relating to whether the Scottish Episcopal Church wishes to undertake the registration of civil partnerships. There is an ongoing discussion about this on Kelvin’s blog, which is worth reading and joining in with. I have not been able to answer his question and I’m not convinced anyone knows the answer, including those who proposed the motion. I am against that motion, and I think it must be clear in everyone’s mind before we get to Synod that this should not be a question of either/or — I do not believe we are looking for religious civil partnerships, and as I said some weeks ago we are certainly not looking for them as a consolation prize.
I urge members of Synod to read and digest the material that is in the Synod papers — there is a lot of it. I also urge people within the Church who are not on Synod to read the material — if you have an opinion on this, talk to your clergy or your lay representative or any member of Synod and make your views known.