Marriage equality is the law of the land in the United Kingdom. But not in the church. And that gap is causing problems.
Clergy and lay leaders in the Scottish Episcopal Church have written an open letter to their bishops challenging the tone and content of recent pastoral directions “to be unrepresentative of the generous and communal characteristics of the Scottish Episcopal Church.”
The Church Times reports on the implications of the gap between civil and church law relative to marriage in the Church of England.
The Revd Richard Haggis and Ricardo Gonçalves, already in a civil union, received a marriage license in Oxford and by doing so is directly challenging the current policy of the Church of England.
…Ordained priest in 1986, he was, until 2006, assistant curate of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, in Chelsea. Today, he is without an appointment in the C of E, and has “absolutely nothing to lose”, he says, in speaking openly.
“I don’t believe in civil partnerships as anything but an interim measure, and marriage is allowed, so that is the thing to have, not sitting tight in a bunker and waiting for things to be all right,” he said.
He was referring to the current House of Bishops guidelines for the clergy, which state that they should not enter a same-sex marriage. It is guidance that, some feel, prevents other clergy who are planning to convert their civil partnerships to marriage from speaking out.
The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, said on Monday that those he knew of “don’t feel safe telling their bishops. . . Many of my gay friends feel far more vulnerable than in the past. . . The most vulnerable – ordinands and chaplains – are being actively picked off.”
The Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church have stated that gay clergy who marry will have committed an offense that will be punished. The Church Times writes:
The Scottish Episcopal Church’s clergy have been warned by its College of Bishops that to solemnise a same-sex marriage will be a criminal offence. The Bishops also said that the Church “cannot give official sanction” to informal blessings of same-sex marriages of civil partnerships, and that bishops would expect to be consulted by clergy before any such blessing were carried out.
It is the “expectation” of the Bishops that clergy and lay leaders will not enter into a same-sex marriage, and those who confound this expectation “will put themselves in a position outwith the SEC’s doctrinal understanding of marriage”. The same applies to candidates for ordination or Readership, who have been told that, if they enter or plan to enter into such a marriage, they will be “unable to promise obedience to the Canons”. They, too, must consult the bishop.
The guidance was issued last week in the expectation that the first same-sex weddings in Scotland will take place on 31 December. The Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Act came into force on Tuesday, and couples who gave notice of their intention to marry will be able to do so after 15 days. Those already in a civil partnership were able to convert it to marriage from Tuesday. The first couple to do so were Douglas Pretsell and Peter Gloster, who did so at the British Consulate in Melbourne, Australia, early on Tuesday morning.
Changing Attitude Scotland expressed sadness last week at the “threatening tone” of the statement from the Bishops. The Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth, wrote on his blog that it had “seriously disrupted the peace and unity of the Church”. He has said that couples who convert their civil partnership can bring the marriage certificate to the cathedral, where it can be “laid on the altar at a Eucharist in thanksgiving”.
In their open letter to the Bishops, clergy and licensed lay readers in the Scottish Episcopal Church say that the implicit threat to ordinands, licensed lay ministers and clergy who are in civil unions and seek to have their marriages blessed in church is a step backwards for the Church:
We appreciate that we are bound by the law, and that until our canons are changed, we cannot legally perform same-sex marriages. However, we are disappointed by both the timing and the tone of the document. We have been urged by you to enter into ‘cascade conversations’ in a spirit of open and sensitive listening with people of all views on this matter. This document only makes this process much harder for us, even impossible for some. Far from acknowledging the reality of differing experience and views in the church, it gives the impression of a definitive answer to the question we have yet to discuss or debate. The document ought to make it clear that the restrictions it describes may be temporary, if the church decides to change its canons. Because of the confusion created by this document, we now believe that such canonical change should be decided in Synod as soon as possible.
But we were especially dismayed by the section of the document which refers to clergy, lay readers, and ordinands, should they be in a same-sex relationship and wish to be married. In particular, we find the warnings to ordinands, both currently training and those who might be training in the future, to be unrepresentative of the generous and communal characteristics of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Even though our church has not yet agreed to solemnise same-sex marriages, they will nevertheless become a civil institution which we will recognise like everyone else under the law. It is our firm belief therefore that any prohibition on obtaining a civil marriage is outwith the moral and canonical authority of a bishop.
We acknowledge that this process is one which creates anxiety for all church leaders, and bishops in particular. We empathise with the difficult situation that you as bishops are in, and reaffirm our desire to support you in your leadership of our church, and as fellow members of it.
Some clergy may decide to refrain from solemnizing any marriage until this is sorted out. In any event, the signers say that all feel that the current situation morally compromises their ministries and the SEC.
Nevertheless, some of us are now uncomfortable about solemnising marriages at all until such time as all can be treated equally, and all of us will continue to feel morally compromised in our ministries, and wish to make clear our continuing commitment to affirm and support all people in our church, and to recognise and rejoice in all marriages, of whatever sexual orientation, as true signs of the love of God in Christ.
Posted by Andrew Gerns.