canon 31

It’s Time – Marriage Equality and the Scottish Episcopal Church

In eight days time, I will be in Edinburgh at the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

A significant piece of business that will be done at this Synod will be to vote on proposed changes to Canon 31, the law that governs marriage within the Church.

I am aware that I have been banging on about this for — well, for a very long time now. It is truly my great hope that I will return to the General Synod of 2018 and get up to make a speech about refugee welfare or clergy education or the budget or anything at all that isn’t about marriage, but this is what we’re doing next week.

There is a lot of detail that I could go into about what exactly it is that we’re doing. If your memory does need refreshing, I’d start with the equal marriage tag on this blog.

A few specific starting points:

The main thing to say about the proposed change is that this is the vote that, if passed, would make marriage equality a reality in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

The main thing you need to know, though, is that, if passed, this vote will enact something that is written in such a way as to be the thing that will enable the Scottish Episcopal Church to be kept together: all of us. Those of us who are straight and those of us who are LGBTQI. Those of us who are single and those of us who are married. The most conservative traditionalists and the most liberal progressives, together in a Church where we will be able to finally sing with truth that all are welcome in this place.  

We will need a two-thirds majority — 66.7% — in each of the houses of Bishops, Clergy, and Laity.

I am a child who grew up under Section 28. In the last thirteen years since the Civil Partnerships Act, I have seen the most astonishing seismic shifts in the way LGBTQI people are spoken of and viewed by society, and in the civil rights legislation that has followed, and never more so than in the way things have changed in my last four General Synods.

I am hopeful that we will do the same thing in eight days time in Edinburgh, but, make no mistake, I am taking nothing for granted.

Yes, I have been talking about this for a very long time and I will continue to talk about it and I will not minimise how important it is.

Because — it is important.

To me, on a personal level.

To the Church, because I truly believe this is something that will be good for the whole Church and the whole Communion.

To the world, because when I got into this in the first place it was because I wanted to be in the business of making a better world — and make no mistake, if we do this in our little corner of the globe, our little corner of the Church, then a better world is what we will have made.

I remember that day, that wonderful day in 2014, when marriage equality became the law of the land in Scotland, when an impossible dream came true, and surely, surely, we can do it again.

It’s time, I think, to give this one a dusting off:

Into The Light Of Morning

Yesterday, the Scottish Episcopal Church voted to pass the first reading of our amended Canon 31, the canon that governs marriage within our Church and that in its amended form would allow us the possibility of marriage between couples of the same sex.

The result was 71% in favour from the House of Bishops, 69% from the House of Clergy, and 80% with three abstentions from the House of Laity. The goal for this year had been a simple majority in each house.

I think the media would have liked us to schism over it, for a Diocese to renounce our Episcopal oversight or a Bishop to storm out — after all, that makes for a better headline. Instead, the media got a reasonable, respectful, measured conversation among a room full of adults who weren’t interested in creating drama but whose priority was to find common ground. The manner in which we did our business and the way we modelled that to the world was almost more important than what that business was.

As recently as two years ago, we could not have had that debate in the way we have had it.

I told Synod two years ago that it talked about LGBT people as if we weren’t there in the room, and I believe that that was true. It isn’t true anymore. The people who stand up at Synod these days in the belief that they are talking to a room full of straight people are vanishingly few. There has been a seismic shift in the way the Church thinks about these issues and the way in which we talk to each other about them.

In our two most recent General Synods, I have witnessed a ministry of healing and reconciliation that has happened right there on the Synod floor.

I will never forget the man who, in the middle of our debate in 2015, got up to bear witness to the extraordinary transformation that had taken place in him during that very debate. He had come to Synod with the belief that marriage between people of the same sex was wrong, and he had been prepared to vote against a process for canonical change, but, that very day, as he listened to the discussion whirling around about, his heart and mind were changed by the people whose testimonies had been given and whose truths he had heard.

And this week I have watched in awe as person after person from the evangelical tradition has come to the podium to tell us that while they believe as a point of principle that marriage is between a man and a woman, they do not disagree entirely with the proposed changes to canon law. The Scottish Episcopal Church are a diverse people, and my evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ say that the amended Canon 31 contains a way of expressing our difference of opinion that they might be able to live with. Even for those who did not feel able to vote for it, they recognised that this had been done in a way that allowed them not to walk away from the Church.

It is not always easy to discern the hand of God in the business of General Synod, but in these conversations the work of the Holy Spirit has been a real presence.

This has always been about how we meet in the middle to create a church where we live out the Gospel truth that we are all all blessed. I have the sense now that that is a place we are moving towards.

As we prayed together as a whole people after the results of the vote were announced, I wept. I wept tears of joy, and of relief, and of pride in my belonging to a place that can do its business with such compassion.

God most holy, we give you thanks for bringing us out of the shadow of night into the light of morning…

Of course, there is work still to be done. There are voices on both sides of the issues who have not yet been heard. There is hurt in people on both sides of the conversation that has not yet been healed. There is a second vote next year that will require a two thirds majority in each House before the amended canon is ultimately accepted into canon law. Yesterday, pacing around my hotel room at five in the morning and even during morning coffee as we waited for votes to be counted, I did not know if we were going to succeed in what we were trying to do. There is work to be done before Synod comes back together in a year’s time to vote on this again.

I stood yesterday outside the General Synod with a friend, both of us trying to absorb all that we had seen and heard — not only in the past few days, but in all the work that had brought us to this place and this day and this defining moment.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked.

I’m thinking about what’s next.

Reforming Canon 31 – What Kind of Church Do We Want To Be?

This is what my speech to General Synod said this morning. It was curtailed slightly in its delivery due to reduction of the time limit for speakers.

Chair, Members of Synod.

The world’s media thinks that we are voting today on whether a gay couple in Glasgow, or Aberdeen, or Dumfries, or Edinburgh, or Stornoway should be able to walk down the aisle in their Episcopal church. That this is a vote on whether, when I meet the perfect woman, the one who will share all my laughter, wipe away every tear, empty the litter tray, and not mind too much sharing me with a cathedral, that I will be able to marry her in the sight of the God who I truly love.

And it is a little bit about that.

But it is also about things that are bigger than that.

This is about the kind of church that we want to be. It is about whether we are a Church where there is room for everyone, a Church where the words “all are welcome in this place” are true. It is about whether we believe that we really are all God’s children. It is about our attitude towards minorities in the Church, to people who are a little different from ourselves — our attitude towards gay and bisexual people, yes, but also our attitude towards ethnic minorities, to refugees, to the poor, to single parents, to single people, and to people of diverse gender identity. It is about how we behave when faced with issues of social justice, and whether we are willing to play our part in dismantling systems that have traditionally kept the oppressed oppressed.

He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives.

We have before us a motion that represents a great deal of work by the Committee on Canons, and that I think really does represent who we are as a Church. I don’t actually believe that it says anything radical. I think it says that we are a church where there is space, and respect, and love, and love, and love, and that because we have that we have the ability to accept more than one idea. And here’s the thing: that is all already true.

We are not a homogenous people. We do not speak with one voice. How dull would that be? And the Scottish Episcopal Church is lots of things, but you couldn’t call it dull.

We are not doing anything radical.

But it feels like we are doing a big scary thing.

Because change always feels like the big scary thing. Synod, I beg you: do you not fall into the trap of believing that the path of least change is the one that will do the least harm. Do not let yourself think that sticking with the status quo means sticking with comfort and familiarity. The status quo will not mean that there is no pain. There is already pain. Do not underestimate the pain and hurt and confusion that will be felt. If this motion is rejected, we will be saying that perhaps there isn’t room for everyone after all — perhaps there isn’t room for people like me.

We have heard from the Primus and the Acting Convenor of the Faith and Order Board about the steps that have been taken during the last year to try to hold us all together as a church, to soothe and heal the pain and hurt and confusion that has been felt in the last twelve months by people who hold a different view to my own. Those are efforts that I applaud, and I hope that the measures taken will bring comfort and acceptance to people in this room and people out there in the world. I want this Church to be a place that can hold everyone together.

And it feels like we are doing a big scary thing because the eyes of the world are upon us. In light of revelations made yesterday, perhaps more specifically the eyes of the Communion are upon us.

What do we want to say to them?

Go, make disciples of all nations, Jesus said. We heard that in our opening Eucharist yesterday morning.

If we leave here today as people of diversity, as people of respectful difference of opinion, as a body of Christ for whom more than one idea can be accepted and honoured, I believe we will indeed have said something to the world. I believe we will be saying that we can be leaders, that we can be brave, that we can be models for Anglican fellowship and love to the Anglican Communion throughout the world, and if we say that then that is something of which I will be very proud.

Marriage and the General Synod

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:

  1. Removal of Section 1
  2. Removal of Section 1, with the addition of a conscience clause stating that no cleric is obliged to solemnise a marriage against their conscience.
  3. Alteration of Section 1 to render it non-gender specific, e.g. by replacing “one man and one woman” with “two persons”.
  4. Alteration of Section 1 as in (3), with the addition of a conscience clause.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.