ALEX Salmond’s plans to allow gay marriages in Scotland were dealt a fresh blow last night when they were condemned by the Church of Scotland in a statement that said the move could harm the “wellbeing” of families, communities and individuals.
The Church of Scotland said it could not agree with a change in the law to allow same-sex weddings, arguing that it would fundamentally alter the understanding of marriage in Scotland as the union of one man with one woman.
After much internal turmoil over how it should deal with homosexuality, the Kirk finally articulated its official stance on gay weddings last night when it published its response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the issue.
The uncompromising position of the church, which has an estimated 500,000 members, is a setback for the SNP government, which has signalled its intention to move with the times and legalise homosexual weddings.
The statement was also highly critical of the Scottish Government’s handling of the issue, saying that the views of ordinary people had been excluded.
“The Church of Scotland is concerned about the speed with which the Scottish Government is proceeding on this issue, and believes that the debate has so far been patchy, undeveloped and exclusive of both ordinary people and the religious community,” the church said.
“The government states that the purpose of this proposal to redefine marriage is to accommodate the wishes of some same-sex couples. The Church believes that much more measured consideration is required before the understanding of marriage, which is entrenched and valued within the culture of Scotland, both secular and religious, is surrendered to accommodate this wish.”
In the past, Mr Salmond has said he is personally in favour of gay marriage. The Scottish Government launched its “The Registration of Civil Partnerships, Same Sex Marriage” consultation in September.
The Catholic Church and evangelical denominations have been fervent critics of the proposed legislation, but Scotland’s largest Presbyterian church has been keeping its powder dry until now.
The Church of Scotland emphasised that it believed that homophobia was sinful and that it was its duty to minister to all, “regardless of sexual orientation and practice”.
But the statement, titled Church of Scotland Speaks Out – No to Same Sex Marriage, also outlined the difficulties with the plans, pointing out that the teachings of the Bible promoted heterosexual marriage.
“The government’s proposal fundamentally changes marriage as it is understood in our country and our culture – that it is a relationship between one man and one woman,” it said. “Scriptural references to marriage, whether literal or metaphorical, all operate under this understanding.”
It added: “To redefine marriage to include same-sex marriage may have significant and, as yet, inadequately considered repercussions for our country, for the wellbeing of families, communities and individuals.”
The Kirk said that it would not agree to same-sex marriages being celebrated in church, but acknowledged that other religious groups may feel differently.
The statement was met last night with disappointment within the SNP.
Pete Wishart, the SNP MP for Perth and North Perthshire, said: “This is a disappointing response from the Kirk. I had really hoped that they would fall into line with the views of the majority of people in Scotland.”
Mr Wishart, who had declared that Scottish Government ministers would bring forward the legislation at the recent SNP conference, added: “Churches have nothing to fear from the proposed legislation on same-sex marriage. This is extending marriage to more couples and nothing should stand in the way of couples who want to express their commitment to each other in this manner.”
Alyn Smith, the openly gay SNP MEP, said the church was entitled to its view. But in his own response to the consultation submitted yesterday, Mr Smith said: “No religious institution has a monopoly right on the definition of marriage. Nor indeed a right to seek to impose that view on the rest of society, composed of all faiths and none.
“There are a number of views on this issue and it is for us, as a society and as a nation, to come to a consensus on what marriage is. For me, marriage is a bond of love and commitment between two people. Their gender or sexuality simply do not enter into it.”
Although mainstream SNP opinion is behind homosexual marriages, there have been dissenting voices – most notably the former leader Gordon Wilson, who earlier this week addressed a pro-marriage rally and claimed that the issue could cost the Nationalists votes in the independence referendum.
John Mason, the Glasgow Shettleston MSP, and Bill Walker, the Dunfermline MSP, have said they believe that no person or organisation should be forced to be involved or to approve of same-sex marriage.
Homosexuality has proved divisive within the Church of Scotland. Damaging splits occurred in the Church with the ordination of Scott Rennie, an openly gay minister in a long-term relationship, to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen in 2009.
His appointment provoked a major dispute within the church about the status of gay clergy and same-sex marriages.
In the end, the General Assembly chose to endorse Mr Rennie’s appointment by allowing any gay minister who had declared their sexuality before 2009 to take up new posts in the church.
While effectively authorising gay clergy in the church, the assembly voted to postpone a formal decision on allowing gay people to train as ministers and be fully ordained until its special theological commission reported in 2013. It also prevented serving gay ministers who declared their sexuality after May 2009 from taking up new posts until at least 2013.
Last night there were signs that similar divisions could emerge over gay marriage.
The Rev Dr John Mann, the minister at St James’s Parish Church in Pollok, Glasgow, said: “I find myself in disagreement with the Church. They are against changing the law, but they don’t speak for everyone.
“They speak for the formal ecclesiastical, institutional structure, but it is a broad church. The Church is slow to change, but I would rather it said welcome to one and all. I would be happy to perform marriages between loving people, who happened to be of the same sex.”
The Rev Peter Johnston, spokesman for the progressive OneKirk group, said: “There may be many gay and lesbian people within the Church who will be disappointed at reading this response from the Church of Scotland. But this response presents what is currently the legal view within the Church, and the Church is on, has been, and will continue to be on a journey over these issues.”
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon indicated yesterday that Scottish Government ministers were in favour of same-sex marriage, but suggested it would not be forced on religious groups who disapprove of it.