This year was my first General Synod and on Thursday 11th June I joined about 130 other Scottish Episcopalians at St Paul’s and St George’s Church on York Place, Edinburgh. General Synod is the ‘Parliament’ of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) and is organised in ‘houses’ of bishops, clergy and laity. We sat as one body at round tables but from time to time voted with colour coded cards (the clergy were pink); some radicals spoke of electronic voting. Synod began with a ‘freshers’ meeting’ where new members were told how it would all work. At Synod I met lots of old friends from all over Scotland and made some new ones. It was good to meet Alison Simpson whom I had last seen in 1984 when she was training for the Church of Scotland ministry at St Andrews University and I was a real fresher or bejant (first year student); she is now Dean of Moray, Ross and Caithness.
The business of Synod was done in eleven sessions over three days. Much of the business was of a routine administrative type – reports, accounts and the tidying up canons (church law) – but there was a fine presentation on the situation in Palestine by the Revd Kate Reynolds of our diocese who is off to work with the Church of Scotland in Israel later this year. There were also some interesting changes to the way people are prepared for ministry. In a recent inspection the old Theological Institute (TISEC) was found to be unfit for purpose and the Church has been trying to draw up a new programme for ministry which gives a deeper theological, spiritual and practical formation. I was pleased to see it includes an option for full time training as I know a number of good Scottish candidates who have gone to English dioceses to enable them to study at a proper theological college. The Synod also approved a new liturgy for a Service of the Word (a non-Eucharistic Sunday service for when a priest is not available).
What made this Synod unique, however, was the series of votes and debates on marriage. With the opening of marriage to same-sex couples in Scotland and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality as normal in our society, the Church has been discussing what this means for the doctrine of Christian marriage in a series of ‘Cascade Conversations’. My experience of three of these had been good and the same was true of the Synod debate; there was passionate and personal argument on all sides but also a concern not to drive out those who hold different opinions. Cascade had revealed that this was not a simple division, pro- or anti- ‘gay marriage’, but there was a whole spectrum of views and many people were gradually changing their opinions. As at Cascade, I was struck by the lack of a coherent case being presented for the traditional view. I know it can be made and it is a position I once held but, with a few exceptions, the argument against change was of the simplistic ‘the Bible says’ type. There was also a simplistic acceptance that this was the Evangelical view, whereas there is a diversity of views on marriage among Scottish Evangelicals. On the other side some of the liberal arguments sounded distinctly secular and there was an annoyingly sloppy tendency to say that there was no Christian doctrine of marriage. In general, though, there was a strong sense that we need to recognise the presence of God in same-sex relationships and that this probably involves a development of our theology of marriage. It was good to hear some of the bishops, including our own Bishop John, speaking their mind. The most moving intervention was by Bishop Mark of Moray who told us that while he was married to a woman he had previously been in love with a man. Some said this was ‘personal’ but it was much more than that: it reminded us of reality. In our Christian mission we are dealing with real people and their complicated lives and loves and we have to decide if God is found in the complexity of creation or in some abstract ideal to which real people have to conform themselves or suffer condemnation. There is something incoherent about a Church which allows contraception and remarriage after divorce for heterosexual couples but refuses to bless gay and lesbian couples to help them live virtuous Christian lives.
Our discussions in Synod were aided by a fine paper from the doctrine committee (available on the SEC website) setting out the theology of marriage from the perspective of those who want no change, those who want equal marriage and those who want a blessing of same-sex relationships but not equal marriage. The decisions were made by a series of votes in which we decided that we wished to develop our doctrine of marriage, that no one would be forced to act against their conscience and that we desired to delete the definition of marriage from Canon 31. This may sound a bit odd but the definition was only added in 1980 during the debates about divorce and it was argued that our canons are not doctrinal (I am not convinced by this argument – there is doctrine in the canons e.g. on baptism, holy orders and the church). With a final vote of 110 to 9 we have now started a two-year process of changing the canons so that same-sex couples may be able to be married in our churches from 2017. It would seem that we would then be the first Province in the Anglican Communion to canonically allow this, in advance of our North American friends. This is an important development of doctrine, not a ‘re-definition of marriage’. It is also a great thing for our Christian mission to Scotland; it removes an obstacle to hearing the gospel because, as Archbishop Justin Welby has noted, younger people in Britain view the exclusion of gay people as akin to racism. It is significant because we have decided to move forward in a collegial way which leaves a valued place in the Scottish Church for those who cannot accept this development.
I was pleased to be part of this process and proud to be a priest in a Church where we can discuss these controversial things openly in a respectful, prayerful manner and come to a clear decision on what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today. As Bishop John of Edinburgh said, we can say with the first Christians, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us‘ (Acts 15:28). As a church historian I know that this is all quite normal, even the somewhat messy nature of the debate, because this is exactly what Church Councils have been doing since the Council of Jerusalem in 50AD (Acts 15).