No rejoicing here: Scottish Episcopal Church’s marriage guidance

By Savi Hensman
December 10, 2014

Many Christians regard their wedding day as one of the most joyful, and spiritually significant, in their lives. Those preparing to celebrate marriage are part of the body of the church, whose other members may wish to rejoice with and support them as they make a costly, as well as fulfilling, commitment.

In Scotland, for the first time same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples will be able to get legally married. The new law takes effect on 16 December 2014, with weddings booked from 31 December.

In many churches there, as elsewhere, opinion is divided and discussions are taking place on how best to honour different views of what conscience demands. Meanwhile institutional churches need to provide pastoral care to those who feel called to pledge their love publicly to their life-partner, as well as those opposed.

There is little sense of this in the Scottish Episcopal Church’s College of Bishops’ Guidance for Clergy and Lay Readers in the light of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014. This document is perhaps even more grim and threatening than the Church of England bishops’ February 2014 ‘pastoral’ guidance.

It begins by explaining that the guidance applies while the church is "currently in a period of discussion regarding its understanding of same-sex relationships" and, for the time being, marriage is regarded as “a physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman...”

What is more, within the new legal framework, “Pending any decision on the part of the SEC to ‘opt in’, our clergy are not able to solemnise same-sex marriages or register religious civil partnerships.” This is true enough.

The tone then descends from the factual to the dismal and doom-laden. If any priest holds a marriage ceremony for a same-sex couple which might lead them to believe they are legally married, this would be “a criminal offence.”

Grudging permission of sorts is given to clergy who wish to give an informal blessing to couples entering a marriage or civil partnership, provided they consult their bishop, though “The Church cannot give official sanction to informal blessings.”

But clergy and lay readers, and those who wish to apply or are training for such roles, are warned against getting married, and instructed to talk to their bishop if considering such a move.

The document then underlines the legal freedom “to hold and impart views, including opposition to marriage of same-sex couples” provided such “comments or behaviour do not incite hatred and are not intended to cause public disorder”. There is no mention of freedom of conscience within the church itself for those in favour of equal marriage.

Such a negative and forbidding tone might be understandable if almost all members of SEC believed that same-sex relationships were morally wrong. But in reality opinion has shifted, both among theologians and in the pews. Many Scottish Christians – Anglicans included – believe it would be wrong to discourage faithful, self-giving, lifelong relationships through which partners can better understand, and reflect, divine love.

The bishops could have issued a very different document recognising the variety of views and experiences within the church while highlighting the legal situation, and advising clergy that some congregations might react negatively if they were married. That they did not do so perhaps reflects a habit of fear of those most opposed to inclusion combined with pastoral insensitivity to those in favour.

Pouring a bucket of cold water over couples in love, their families and friends is not the best approach to mission and ministry. Once again, Christians seeking a more just and welcoming church will be left with the challenge of trying to limit the damage done by official statements.

* The College of Bishops' guidance can be found here: http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/uploads/College%20of%20Bishops%20Gui....

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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