by Alexander Taylor
You could be forgiven for thinking that Thursday 8th June 2017 witnessed only one major decision in the UK; that is, the General Election that saw the Conservative Party lose its majority in Parliament. However, on the same day, another quite momentous election took place in Edinburgh. The General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church voted in favour of same-sex marriage, making it the first Anglican Church in the UK, and one of only a handful worldwide, to solemnise marriages between two people despite their sexual orientation.
The last two decades have seen the worldwide Anglican Communion bitterly riven by questions of human sexuality and identity. Whilst to those of us formed in a modern, liberal society these ongoing debates seem nonsensical at best, they are the natural result of the genuinely broad church that is the Anglican legacy. The Communion has always been a rather shaky tent; born of the muddled attempts of the Church of England and its contemporaries to navigate between Catholic and Reformed Christianity. The result is an extremely wide and varied spectrum of Anglican belief. In any given diocese, there will be congregations that identify as Anglo-Catholic (which emphasise church tradition and ritual), evangelical (which emphasise scripture and personal salvation), and progressive (which emphasise reason and experience over authority); as well as a great many more that exist in between. The only thing they have in common is that they are all Anglican churches, under the guidance of the same bishop and part of the same Communion. With such fundamentally different approaches to the Christian life, friction is bound to occur – whether between congregations, clergy, dioceses or entire provinces.
Human sexuality is perhaps the most fractious question that the Anglican Communion has had to discuss. It is a matter that requires more nuance than I can provide in this paper, but it largely boils down to questions of authority and experience. The traditional sources of Christian authority – the Bible and Church teaching – have a very negative opinion of sexual attraction between people of the same gender (indeed, one might say of sexuality in general). However, the reality of human experience is that a significant number of people are either partly or predominantly attracted to people of the same biological gender; and that embracing, rather than denying, their sexual identity enables them to live full, joyful and love-filled lives. This creates a dichotomy that is very difficult – and some would say impossible – to overcome. As has been described, the Anglican Communion is composed of a multitude of different traditions. The debate over sexuality has forced these traditions into an open confrontation. Evangelical Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics, who emphasise the authority of scripture or tradition, hold that marriage cannot be redefined to include same-sex unions. LGBTQ+ Christians are encouraged to either be celibate, or to suppress their sexuality and embrace a heterosexual life (although for several reasons Anglo-Catholics tend to be more tolerant than evangelicals of covert same-sex relationships; the general rule being more don’t ask, don’t tell). Progressives, on the other hand, who emphasise human experience over authority, believe that traditional Christianity is wrong to condemn same-sex identity and relationships. LGBTQ+ people are quite as capable of generous, self-giving love as heterosexual people, and to deny them full expression of their love because it deviates from traditionally accepted gender roles is inconsistent with Christ’s overarching message of love. Therefore, the debate in the Anglican Communion is not simply about the single issue of sexuality; it is also about the larger clash of movements that have radically different ideas about what it means to be authentically Christian.
However, the controversial decision of the Scottish Episcopal Church to make the final move towards solemnising same-sex marriage should not come as any particular surprise. The Scottish Church is widely considered to be predominantly liberal catholic in its worship and theology, with an openness towards interpreting the Christian faith through the lens of human experience. There is also a tendency towards a somewhat subversive streak within the denomination. Unlike the majority of its siblings in the Anglican Communion, the Scottish Episcopal Church has no historical allegiance to the Church of England; being the offspring of the Scottish Reformation rather than the English Reformation. Its history as a nonconformist church has given it a rather eccentric flavour; the former Primus Richard Holloway once described his Church as ‘the embarrassing wee drunk uncle at the Anglican dinner party’.1 This slightly subversive nature, combined with a general inclination towards liberal Anglo-Catholicism, has led to the Scottish Episcopal Church making the massive decision to bless same-sex marriages as being equal in the eyes of God to marriages between people of different biological genders. By doing so, it is demonstrating that it is a Church that is open to change and re-interpretation whilst still drawing on the traditions of the past; as well as a Church that – in the spirit of the parable of the Good Samaritan – is prepared to place human need before religious dogmatism.
In the weeks since the General Synod voted to amend the marriage canons to include same-sex unions, there has already been an outcry from conservative Anglicans across the globe. Interestingly, little of this has come from conservatives (whether evangelical or catholic) within the Scottish Episcopal Church itself; perhaps a sign that Episcopalians north of the border have had more practice at good disagreement than the bitterly divided provinces elsewhere? Certainly, the nature of the amendment has helped – no Episcopalian priest or congregation will be required to perform a same-sex marriage service against their will. Room has been made for the genuine disagreements that Christians have, to be lived out in the practice of the Church. Scottish Episcopalians are waiting to see if their Church will face the same sanctions as the Episcopal Church of the United States of America, who were reprimanded by the leaders of the Anglican Communion when they made a similar decision in January 2016. It is likely that it will, but even this cannot take away from the widespread sense of having achieved something beautiful in the General Synod in June. For many Episcopal churches across Scotland, the opportunity to bless the union of two people, regardless of their gender or their sexuality, is an opportunity to respond to the ever-present challenge of the human condition in a new, and more inclusive way, than before.
1 Richard Holloway, Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd., 2012), pg. 329.
‘Marriage Equality‘ by Suzette Franck is licenced under CC by 2.0