Scottish Bishops on Marriage and Civil Partnership

Few outwith Scotland have commented on the guidance issued by the College of Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church in relation to the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014: the provisions that come into force 16 December 2014 will permit same-sex marriage ceremonies to take place after 31 December 2014, i.e. after the current 14-day period of notice[1]. The Act also allows for the possibility of civil partnerships being registered in the context of a religious ceremony.  There has been strong condemnation in some quarters of approach taken by the Bishops’ document and its apparent disregard for earlier conversations within the Church: these comments are summarized by Changing Attitude Scotland, here and here; other pertinent comments have been made on the Thinking Anglicans site.

The Bishops’ Guidance

The Guidance sets out the context as:

“[t]he Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) is currently in a period of discussion regarding its understanding of same-sex relationships and pending the conclusion of that period of discussion, the College of Bishops has produced the guidance contained in this note to support and inform clergy and lay readers, as public representatives of the Church, in the exercise of their ministries and in their provision of pastoral care.

As part of this process for discussing same sex relationships throughout the Church, a Cascade Conversation – Listening across the Spectrum – took place in Atholl Palace Hotel, Pitlochry on 29-30 April.  The Guidance continues, [our emphasis, here & seq]

“[s]ome churches and other religious bodies have an explicit doctrinal understanding of marriage and the passing of the new legislation, therefore, potentially gives rise to a number of issues for such bodies. The doctrine of marriage of the SEC, as currently expressed in Canon 31 of the Code of Canons, is that marriage is “a physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman…”[2]

The 2014 Act makes changes not only to enable marriage between two people of the same-sex, but also to certain procedures regarding marriage between opposite sex couples. The ability of a body such as the SEC to undertake same-sex marriages or religious civil partnerships is subject to the Church, as a denomination, “opting in” to that facility. Pending any decision on the part of the SEC to “opt in”, our clergy are not able to solemnise same-sex marriages or register religious civil partnerships.”

With regard to the authority to solemnise marriages between opposite sex couples,

“[a]t present, clergy of the SEC are entitled to solemnise (opposite sex) marriages because, as a denomination, we are specifically prescribed by the State in statutory regulations. Under the new legislation, we expect to continue to be so prescribed, but there is a possibility that, as a condition of being so prescribed, a number of new requirements will need to be met. The Scottish Government is intending to consult on such requirements during 2015 and it is expected that a response will be made on behalf of the SEC by the provincial Faith and Order Board. Once the nature of any new conditions is clarified, clergy will be notified”.

Solemnization of marriages, registration of civil partnerships

The forthcoming legislation does not grant SEC ministers authority to solemnise marriages between same sex couple or to register civil partnerships, and the Guidance stresses that changes to the ecclesiastical and statutory provisions would be required before the Church could “opt-in”.  The Guidance stresses that SEC clergy would not be legally permitted to solemnise same-sex marriages and “if they conduct a ceremony in such a manner as to lead the parties concerned to believe that they are solemnising a valid marriage they would be committing a criminal offence.” A similar warning is given regarding civil partnerships, and depending upon one’s point of view these could be taken as being helpful and advisory (for the benefit of the clergy) or heavy-handed and somewhat threatening (for the maintenance of the status quo).

These comments refer to a civil criminal offence and not any associated ecclesiastical offence: with regard to preventing an authorised celebrant (for example, of another denomination) from conduct these ceremonies, however, reliance is placed upon the ecclesiastical provision of Canon 15.


With regard to the blessing of same-sex marriages and civil partnerships, the views of the College appear to be more restrictive that those of the Church of England, and state:

  • any such informal blessing should be kept separate from the civil ceremony and, accordingly, should not be conducted in the same location as the ceremony.  Instead, if such a blessing is to be public, it should take place in church and should be done in a context outwith the normal pattern of regular services;
  • the SEC has no liturgical rites for the blessing of a same-sex civil partnership or marriage and . . . it would not be appropriate to use SEC marriage liturgies for this purpose;
  • the Church cannot give official sanction to informal blessings but, without intending to pre-empt the outcome of ongoing discussions within the Church about same-sex marriage, each Bishop would nevertheless expect to be consulted by clergy prior to the carrying out of any informal blessing of a same-sex marriage or civil partnership in his diocese.

This last point contrasts with that of the CofE’s HoB Statement of Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage of 15th February 2014 which states [20]:

“The [HoB Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships] of 25th July 2005 said that it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships and that clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who registered civil partnerships. The House did not wish, however, to interfere with the clergy’s pastoral discretion about when more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances. The College made clear on 27 January that, just as the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage remains the same, so its pastoral and liturgical practice also remains unchanged.”

Clergy and Ordinands

Here the position of the Scottish Bishops aligns more closely with that of those in England[3], and states:

“[a]t the time of their ordination and upon any subsequent appointment, clergy promise to render due obedience to the Code of Canons. Lay readers also undertake to adhere to the SEC’s doctrine and act under the direction of their Bishop.

As things stand, a clergyperson or lay reader who chooses to enter a same-sex marriage will put themselves in a position outwith the SEC’s doctrinal understanding of marriage as expressed in Canon 31. While the SEC’s doctrinal understanding remains as currently expressed, the expectation of the Bishops is that clergy and lay readers will not enter into a same-sex marriage and that anyone considering such a step will consult their diocesan Bishop.


Similarly, a candidate in the recruitment and selection process for ordination or lay readership who has entered, or is intending to enter, a same-sex marriage would be unable to promise obedience to the Canons.  The Bishops likewise expect candidates not to enter into a same-sex marriage in the current situation and that any candidate considering such a step will consult their diocesan Bishop.”


As observed in the Thinking Anglicans’ post, the substance of the Scottish guidance is very similar to that of the Church of England House of Bishops which was issued in February this year: it is more prescriptive than the CofE Declaration and appears to take a stronger line on blessings after marriage and civil partnerships, an area on which the CofE’s position has been less than clear; although some issues of detail are different[4], both take a very similar approach to clergy entering into same-sex marriage and to the position on ordinands.  Likewise, both have a relaxed approach to clergy within civil partnerships, although in May 2013 Kelvin Holdsworth noted:

“[t]he Scottish Episcopal Church already has plenty of people in Civil Partnerships who serve as ordained clergy. Unlike in England[5], they don’t have to pretend that they are living lives of celibate friendship either.”

Nevertheless, important questions remain: how the Declaration and Guidance currently play out in practice; what action, if any, will the churches take when clergy in civil partnerships convert these to marriages; and how long before the churches clarify their respective positions on human sexuality?


[1] As a result of government concerns regarding “sham marriage”, in England and Wales this period will be extended from 14 days to 29 days from 2 March 2015.  Different rules where one or both parties is a foreign national; and also in relation to religious ceremonies.

[2] The SEC’s Code of Canons is to be found here: The General Synod can also pass resolutions to provide for operation of the Canons and internal regulation, and the Digest of Resolutions is to be found here.

[3] Paragraphs 26 to 28 of the HoB Statement of 15th February 2014.

[4] Lay readers are not mentioned by the English bishops, who only refer to the “three orders of ministry”.

[5] The CofE bishops issued their Statement Regarding Clergy in a Civil Partnership as Candidates for the Episcopate on 4 January 2013.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Scottish Bishops on Marriage and Civil Partnership" in Law & Religion UK, 15 December 2014,

5 thoughts on “Scottish Bishops on Marriage and Civil Partnership

  1. Do you have any view about the Guidance encouraging clergy to conduct public “informal” blessings in church whilst the bishops require clergy and lay readers are required to assent as follows:

    “I assent to the Scottish Book of Common Prayer and of the Ordering of
    Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, and to the other authorised liturgical formularies of this Church. I believe the doctrine of the Church as therein set forth to be agreeable to the Word of God, and in public prayer and administration of the Sacraments I will use the form in the said Book and formularies prescribed and none other except so far as shall be allowed by lawful authority in this Church.

    I find myself puzzled by the idea of what an “informal” service is when it commended by Guidelines drawn up by bishops who expect such services to be held in church.

    People wanting to become bishops must make this declaration:
    Furthermore, I do solemnly declare that I assent to the Scottish Book of Common Prayer and of the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, and to the other authorised liturgical formularies of said Church, that I believe the doctrine of the Church as therein set forth to be agreeable to the Word of God, and, should I be elected as Bishop of said Diocese, I hereby solemnly promise that in public prayer and administration of the Sacraments I will use the form in said Book and formularies prescribed and none
    other except so far as shall be allowed by lawful authority in the said Church.

    I can’t really understand what lawful authority there can be for a service except for an authorised liturgy.

  2. Apologies for the delay in my response, but I share your puzzlement in the meaning of the Bishops’ provision: on first reading of the Guidance, the option of a blessing being “public” struck me as quite different from the current CofE position.

    The exact wording is: “some form of informal blessing or prayers for same-sex couples following a civil ceremony” which “if [it] is to be public . . . should take place in church and should be done in a context outwith the normal pattern of regular services..”

    The CofE tends to tie itself in knots with what is and is not a blessing under these circumstances, but here the Scottish Bishops accept the need, but do not authorize, “some form of informal blessing or prayers”. Furthermore, they accept that this might be “in public” and the caveat that if in church this is “done in a context outwith the normal pattern of regular services” appears to emphasize the fact that the Bishops will not authorize the format and (possibly) that they would not regard this as a “service”.

    The point I have difficulty in understanding is: if the blessing is informal and not considered as a service, what is point of stating that it may, or may not, be “in public”. If this constituted part of the formalization of a marriage or civil partnership, an “in public” requirement would be understandable, but this is not the case.

    With regard to the position in the CofE, the House of Bishops’ Statement of Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage of 15 February 2014 refers to its unwillingness to produce an “authorized public liturgy”: in relation to the recent “service of thanksgiving and commitment”, after the civil partnership of the Team Rector of the Market Bosworth Benefice and his partner, this had been discussed with the Bishop of Leicester and it was stressed that the service would be celebrated with family and friends, i.e. not a public service. Although CofE clergy are granted a high degree of discretion in the services they conduct, Canon B 5, this is in the conduct of “public prayer”.

    Recommendation 16 of the Pilling Report states:

    “16. We believe that there can be circumstances where a priest, with the agreement of the relevant PCC, should be free to mark the formation of a permanent same sex relationship in a public service but should be under no obligation to do so. Some of us do not believe that this can be extended to same sex marriage.”

    although this is followed by the caveat:

    “17. While the Church abides by its traditional teaching such public services would be of the nature of a pastoral accommodation and so the Church of England should not authorize a formal liturgy for use for this purpose. The House of Bishops should consider whether guidance should be issued.”

    Are the Scottish Bishops’ “public informal blessings” intended to equate to “such public services . . . of the nature of a pastoral accommodation”? These particular Pilling recommendations are not being pursued during the CofE’s current process of facilitated conversations, and reiterating its 2005 statement, the February Statement said: “Services of blessing should not be provided. Clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively in other ways“.

  3. There is a bit of a history to this, of course. The Bishops in Scotland first spoke of blessings in 2005

    “The Scottish Episcopal Church has, even before the 1998 Lambeth Conference, sought to be welcoming and open to persons of homosexual orientation in our congregations, and to listen to their experiences. This has on occasion led clergy to respond to requests to give a blessing to persons who were struggling with elements in their relationship, and who asked for such a prayer.”


    The tone has changed over the years.

    At one stage they then declared that bishops themselves would not attend blessings. Then they decided that bishops themselves might chose for themselves whether to go to blessings or not.

    Now we are speaking of them being in church and getting guidelines for how they are to be done.

    It is a bit of a struggle to understand what “informal” means in this context.

    Another obvious thing to note in looking at the difference between England and Scotland is that there isn’t and hasn’t been any requirement for Scottish clergy in Civil Partnerships to make any declaration about celibacy either in selection, training or ministry.

  4. Pingback: Law and Religion UK - Changing Attitude Scotland

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