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. 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…”
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 :
“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, 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, 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, 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?
 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.
 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.
 Paragraphs 26 to 28 of the HoB Statement of 15th February 2014.
 Lay readers are not mentioned by the English bishops, who only refer to the “three orders of ministry”.
 The CofE bishops issued their Statement Regarding Clergy in a Civil Partnership as Candidates for the Episcopate on 4 January 2013.