Same-sex marriage is now legal in Scotland with the passing of the Marriage and Civil Partnership [Scotland] Act. Many members of the Scottish Episcopal Church will welcome that – and many will not. And some who don’t welcome it will recognise that our society needs to make provision for same-sex marriage.
But it produces an interesting situation for churches and faith groups who, like the Scottish Episcopal Church, have a historic position expressed in our Canons – or church law – that marriage is between one man and one woman for life. That is our position. We expect our clergy and our members to acknowledge and respect it – even if in some cases they do not agree with it and aspire to change it. To change it would need a significant process over two years in our General Synod and would require two thirds majorities.
I think that there are two main consequences of this new situation.
Firstly, many churches and faith groups now find themselves out of step with the direction which our lawmakers and civic society have been taking. That does not make our position illegitimate or untenable. It certainly does not make it homophobic – as some would suggest. The new legislation respects and protects that historic position. Nevertheless it represents a significant change in the relationship between many faith communities and the state.
Secondly, we are increasingly aware that major shifts in public opinion have taken place. Recent research shows that the views of many church members are indistinguishable from those of members of the population at large. It is also clear that many younger people are almost entirely out of sympathy with the historic position of faith groups and churches. This is therefore a missional issue – it stands between us and the possibility of relationship with many people in our society.
Churches like the Scottish Episcopal Church are on a journey. We need to examine time-hallowed positions in the context of our understanding of scripture. To change simply because society is changing would lack integrity. But neither can we be unmindful of the reality of what is happening around us. We are open and compassionate people who believe that we are called to serve the world in our time.
We are establishing a dialogue about these issues at every level of our church. We are a very diverse community. We celebrate that diversity and we are enriched by it. Yet that same diversity means that it is not easy to discuss these issues or to arrive at a consensus about our future direction. We are also aware that we are part of a world-wide church – in our case we are members of the global Anglican Communion. What we do in Scotland is part of a much wider dialogue which stretches everywhere from the more liberal parts of America to the conservatism of sub-Saharan Africa.
I think that some of the criticism directed at churches is less than fair. We carry forward time-hallowed teaching about marriage and relationships. That is part of what has provided cohesion in our society for generations. The present situation challenges us to ask what today’s teaching should be. My view is that the shape of that teaching should be formed not by public opinion but by our understanding of what the gospel and the teaching of Jesus Christ means in our times.