Bishop John introduces the Motion to change Canon 31

June 8, 2017

Canon 31

Motion 6
That the amended text for Canon 31 be read for the second time.

General Synod 2015 instructed the Faith & Order Board to work on a revised version of Canon 31, deleting section 1 and adding a conscience clause. This amendment to the Canon received its first reading last year and I present it now for a second reading. You will find the proposed amendments to the Canon set out on page 88 of your papers, and the reports from Diocesan Synods on these amendments on page 92.

We well know the context of this debate. Both in our church and in wider society many have long campaigned for the acceptance of, stronger protection for and openness towards LGBTI people. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act of 2014 made it possible for couples of the same gender to contract a marriage. This has been met with joy by some in our church and with sadness by others and it has led to long and careful conversations between us.

One of the consequences of the amendment before us would be that in certain circumstances our clergy will be permitted to officiate at the marriages of same-sex couples. At present the law allows our clergy to officiate at the marriage of opposite sex couples but none may officiate at the marriages of couples of the same gender unless and until our church agrees to opt in to the legislation.

Canon 31, Section 1 at present defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, hence the proposal to remove this section in its entirety. The old section 2 is subsumed into a new section 1. This new section 1, as you can see, acknowledges that there are differing understandings of marriage in our church. In context, clearly these differences concern whether marriage can only be solemnised between a woman and a man or whether a same-sex couple may also be married. But we should note that there are other differences in understanding too; for example, over whether marriage is a sacrament or whether someone may be married in church following their divorce. Or, for that matter, the prefaces to our modern marriage liturgies arguably express significantly different perspectives on marriage.

The new section 1 also underlines two things. The first is that no cleric will be obliged to solemnise any marriage against their conscience. The second is that only ‘nominated’ clergy (in terms of the Marriage Act) are permitted to solemnise the marriage of same-sex couples.

The draft Principles & Guidelines from the College of Bishops (page 780 in your papers) deal with some of the practical and pastoral issues around this nominating procedure and how we would expect them to be taken into account by clergy and Vestries. And Motion 8 on your papers, which will be considered should this amendment to Canon 31 be passed, also deals with this.

Clearly, the issue of the marriage of same-sex couples is something on which we do not have a common mind. The new Canon, should it be approved today, will protect the consciences both of those who believe that they must not and of those who believe that they must offer God’s blessing on a marriage of a same-sex couple. It will also continue to protect the conscience of those who, for example, believe that remarriage in church after divorce is wrong.

No one is being asked to change their theology of marriage. The change is that our church would officially recognize that it contains a diversity of viewpoints. If, for example, a cleric does not believe they can officiate at the marriage of a same-sex couple they need do nothing. They remain authorised to solemnise opposite sex marriages.

On the other hand, if a cleric does wish to officiate at the wedding of a same gender couple then he or she must seek nomination in order to do so. Without such nomination they may only officiate at opposite gender weddings.

Let’s be clear that we are not divided in this synod solely on the basis of either being passionately in favour of this proposed change or being passionately against. Neither is this an issue with all Evangelicals and Catholics ranged on one side and all liberals on the other.

And you may find many reasons to vote for or against the amendment. For example, you might vote for it even if you yourself are not in favour of the marriage of same-sex couples because you wish to protect the conscience of those who are in favour. And for you it is important that our church embodies honest diversity on this.

Equally, you might vote against this amendment even though you believe God would bless same-sex couples in faithful and covenanted relationships but hold dear that marriage per se is only for a man and a woman.

You may believe that physically expressed same-sex relationships are explicitly forbidden by scripture and therefore cannot possibly be permitted by our canons; that sexual celibacy is the only right and honourable option for someone who is same-sex attracted. Or, you may be equally convinced that a consenting, covenanted relationship between two persons of the same gender may witness to the faithfulness (and holiness) of God.

Those of us who have participated in a cascade conversation will be well aware of this diversity of viewpoint and I hope we have learned that those who disagree with us, whether we take a conservative or progressive view, disagree with integrity. They read the same bible as us but interpret it differently; they worship the same Trinitarian God but come to different understandings of what God might bless in human relationships. They too seek to love the Lord their God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength and their neighbour as themselves.

The amended Canon is intended to affirm and honour this diversity. It is permissive, not directive. It does not deny disagreement but it does invite us to be a church which is large-hearted enough to contain this disagreement. That in seeking to be faithful disciples of Jesus, amidst the messiness and confusions of all that make us human, our disagreements should not mean that we cease to walk together in the Way.