In 2017, The Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) concluded a long process that allowed for marriage equality in the church. The decision put the decision on same sex marriage upon the conscience of individual congregations and clerics. It was designed to allow space for disagreement on the issue, while hopefully holding the church together.
Some conservative congregations and clerics though, have found that compromise unbearable and have opted to leave the church anyway. Last week, Westhill Community Church, a parish in the northern city of Aberdeen voted, 83% in favor, to leave the Scottish Episcopal Church.
Speaking to The Press and Journal, Westhill’s Rector, the Rev. Ian Ferguson said: “I’m deeply sad that this stage as arrived it breaks my heart. I have been in the SEC for a number of decades and I certainly didn’t want to be in this position.”
He added: “It’s too early to say at the moment what’s going to happen next. We’ll continue to be Orthodox Anglicans and we will not be creating another denomination.
We are just trying to get our heads around the vote because it’s still very fresh.”
Ferguson, one of the more vocal opponents of same-sex marriage within the church, stressed there were multiple issues behind the decision.
He said: “People have different kinds of concerns about all kinds of things, and it’s not just one thing.
“This has been an ongoing matter where a number of us throughout Scotland have been concerned about the direction the SEC has been going in.”
Ferguson had also opposed the 2018 appointment of Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney Anne Dyer, who is the church’s first female bishop and a supporter of equal marriage.
Ferguson said that the congregation was committed to remaining “Anglican,” but did not elaborate on how they intended to honor that commitment. He did call out the the support they had been given by GAFCON affiliated bishops, especially the archbishops of Nigeria, Uganda and Sydney, Australia.
Speaking exclusively to the local paper, the Press and Journal, the Rt Rev Anne Dyer, the Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney called the decision to leave the SEC by Westhill Community Church “a tragedy.”
She said: “It’s tragic when there is any kind of division in the church.
“For a congregation to decide to leave – something that rarely happens – is very saddening.
“There is a way forward but it is really complicated and there are obstacles that have to be overcome along the way.
“I did say when I visited that I hoped that they would stay and that I and their many, many friends in the diocese wanted them to stay.
“But I also told them that if they decided to go that I would honour that decision.
“I knew that they would want to take their building with them.
“I’m not going to block it.
“For me this is a church that is much loved in its community and serves its community really well, so although they would no longer be part of us as far as I can see they are part of the body of Christ and I would want them to function as well as they can in the place that they are.
“I think the decision the congregation of Westhill have come to is that the breadth of the SEC) is too broad for them now.
“That doesn’t relate to doctrinal issues – it doesn’t relate to what we think about God and Jesus are like – it’s about how we live in the modern world and about gender and sexuality.
“We will set off into a process where we are imagining the end is separation but if at any point during that journey they were to have a change of heart then I would say “hallelujah”.
The Primus of Scotland, Bishop Mark Strange, said: “I have been informed that Westhill Community Church, Aberdeen has voted to prepare to leave the Scottish Episcopal Church, and therefore the Anglican Communion. I have received that news with great sadness and will pray that, painful though this process will be for the Church and for the local Diocese and wider community, we will all remember that we are all striving to serve as disciples of Christ.
“Being a member of the Anglican Communion is important to the Scottish Episcopal Church and we are working hard to strengthen our role in it. Our bishops are preparing to attend the Lambeth Conference in 2020 and have begun inviting bishops from around the Communion to join us in Scotland for pre-conference hospitality.
“We will continue to pray for unity and understanding as we strive to further the mission of God to our nation and around the world.”