The following letter was received shortly before Christmas from the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend David Chillingworth. This was in response to the letter of concern which was signed by over fifty clergy and lay readers in the Province following the publication of the College of Bishops’ guidelines on same-sex marriage.
I have an exam tomorrow and so I will most likely have more to say about this at another time, but for now I think it probably goes without saying that this is not a satisfactory response to the concerns that were expressed.
22 December 2014
I am responding to your letter which has been passed to me by our Secretary General. My response has been agreed with the other members of the College of Bishops. I would be grateful if you would circulate this response to the other signatories of your letter.
The situation in which we and other churches find ourselves is one of considerable challenge and we are grateful to you for your recognition of that and your support for us in our ministry. It is not within the experience of any of us that we find our church out of step with the provisions of Civil Law with respect to marriage. We are aware that a substantial section of our church would wish to bring the practice of our church into line with the Civil Law as soon as possible. Others, of course, wish to continue to uphold a more traditional position.
As bishops, we are acutely aware that the issues which are part of the wider discussion of human sexuality and are touched on in the Guidance issued by the College are not abstract matters of policy. They affect deeply the lives and relationships of members of our church, both clergy and laity. It is regrettable, therefore, that some have been upset by the style and tone of our Guidance document; this was not our intention. We are aware that what we say should be expressed in a way which is compassionate and which honours the depth of the feelings involved.
The Guidance offered by the College of Bishops was not intended to pre-empt any future discussion or synodical decision. It was issued at this point because of the need to bring clarity as the new Marriage Act becomes effective in Scotland. This is where we are at the moment. Our document is not seeking to defend the status quo but rather to preserve a space in which both the Cascade and Synodical processes might be allowed to work themselves through to a point where we can discern the mind of the church on this matter. We feel that for a diversity of practice to arise before we have done this will neither contribute to the unity of our church nor ultimately will it assist us as we try to move forward together.
I know that many who signed your letter are committed to the Cascade process. It is a process which, in a number of forms, has been followed by many churches. It seeks to provide an opportunity for honest conversation across difference and to foster a sense of belonging to one another in Christ. Whilst it did not achieve universal acceptance, we were greatly encouraged by the Pitlochry Conference and by expressions of the process at other levels. The purpose of the Cascade process has not been primarily to seek a resolution of these issues – rather it offers a way in which we can respond to our diversity and thereby create an environment in which resolution may be possible.
Ultimately, this resolution must come through General Synod. The process for doing so in 2015 will be the subject of debate by the Faith and Order Board at its meeting in March. This may lead to a full debate at General Synod in 2015 on the Theology of Marriage in response to a paper to be prepared by our Doctrine Committee. We also expect a debate which gives General Synod members the opportunity of expressing a considered view on a number of options for canonical and other changes. The College trusts that our Cascade Conversations will mean that votes on the floor of General Synod – when they come – will give expression to a deeper unity and catholicity which our church has sought in honest conversation, mutual respect for diversity and prayer.
The question of the authority of the Canons is of particular difficulty. It affects clergy and all who hold a licence for ministry in our church. Whether or not a priest or a deacon can promise obedience to the Canons is ultimately a matter of personal and ministerial integrity. But, because we are an episcopal church, it also involves the bishop before whom such declarations are made.
There are of course wider issues involved here – about the nature of the Scottish Episcopal Church and its place in Scotland today. Many people in and beyond our church would recognize that we have, over the years, bravely represented and advocated gospel-inspired positions on social, moral and justice issues. We honour that history and our tradition of openness and compassion. The challenge we now face is to be open and courageous about engaging with our own theological diversity – honourably resolving difficult questions in a way that strengthens and deepens our oneness in Christ. I believe that we are not only capable of doing this for ourselves but of offering it as an example to others.
Thank you again for your letter. I know that it arises from the deeply held feelings of many people within our church and I hope that this response helps to answer some of their concerns.
With kind regards,
The Most Rev’d David Chillingworth