Church, state and the secular society

In the Scottish Episcopal Church, we’re thinking about our response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on same-sex marriage and other related issues. It’s a difficult issue for us – as it is for all churches and faith groups. We have among our membership people who feel passionately that this is the direction in which we need to go – and those who feel passionately that we should not. The consultation period is very short . Among the things we shall say will be that if – and it’s a big ‘if’ – we were to consider changing our canonical definition of marriage, that would require a two-year process in our General Synod, the outcome of which could not be predicted with any certainty.

We haven’t got involved in public debate about this. We’ve been asked for our view and we shall give that in a considered manner – believing that the time for public debate comes after.
However it seems to me that some of the comments from our ecumenical partners in the Catholic Church raise significant issues about how we understand the relationship between church and state – particularly when they suggest that there are certain issues on which a government doesn’t actually have the right to legislate.

If the Scottish Government was proposing to legislate to enshrine in law discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, colour or race, I would publicly oppose them. But that is not what is being proposed. I have often said that I am a supporter of the secular state. If you have experienced a confessional state, you will know why. A secular state should defend religious freedom – but it will not make any assumptions about religious faith nor will it defer to it. We may regret the ‘privatised’ status for religious practice which that implies but that is the society in which we live.

If, following the consultation period, the Scottish Government and Parliament feel that they should legislate in this way, I believe that this is their right. The proposals on which we are being consulted make clear that there would be an ‘opt-out’ protection for those who cannot accept this. In practice this means that churches would have to decide whether or not they wished to use or to stand outside the provisions of such legislation.

For a fuller discussion, you’ll find this article from me in today’s Scotsman

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