Seconds after the Scottish Episcopal Church’s historic vote in favour of allowing same-sex marriage ceremonies, there was a flurry of excited tweeting as couples began to plan their long-awaited nuptials.
One of those posting was Dr Peter Matthews, whose partner Alistair Dinnie had made an impassioned speech before the General Synod on Thursday. Matthews is not a believer, but goes to evensong at the Church of St John the Evangelist in Edinburgh with Dinnie, who is. Dinnie (aka @tenorlead) sings with the choir and a religious wedding was important to him. Having placed their faith in a yes vote, the pair had gone ahead and booked a date in September. “Brought up as an atheist, I am quite surprised by the fact that this does matter to me lots,” says Matthews. “To be able to celebrate our love for one another in a place that is so important to us means so much.”
Meanwhile, St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow – whose provost Kelvin Holdsworth has been at the centre of the campaign for change – announced simply: “Wedding bookings now being taken for all couples, gay and straight alike.”
This euphoria was contagious, but it was born of the enduring pain church-going LGBT couples have suffered in the face of unyielding conservatism and a belief that some unions are more valid than others. Even after the legitimacy of gay marriage was acknowledged and enshrined by all UK governments, the Christian Churches continued to ostracise their own members for loving someone of their own gender.
For all Pope Francis’s putative “liberalism”, the Catholic Church seems unlikely to embrace gay marriages within the next 25 years. And though the Church of Scotland last month apologised for historical discrimination against lesbian and gay people – and has instructed officials to consider changes to church law that would allow ministers to preside over same-sex marriage ceremonies – it will be several years before any such service is actually conducted.
The Scottish Episcopal Church’s vote was simultaneously emphatic and narrow; a two-thirds majority was required at all three houses of the General Synod, and while 80 per cent of the bishops and 80.6 per cent of the laity voted in favour, only 67.7 per cent of the clergy agreed.
However narrowly delivered, the result was a landmark moment in LGBT equality across the UK. Not only is the Scottish Episcopal Church – which has 90,000 worshippers – the first mainstream Christian denomination in Scotland to allow its clergy to perform same-sex marriages (the Quakers have been doing so since they were legalised), but it is also one of the first of the Anglican Churches to do so. Its decision will intensify pressure on the Church of Scotland, and cause possible clashes with the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion.
Much of the credit for the result is down to individual campaigners who have fought relentlessly for progress. Back in the 1990s, the then Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, officiated at the anniversary of two men whose union he had blessed 25 years earlier. When the international Bishops at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 upheld a ban on the ordination of gay priests and the blessing of same-sex marriages, Holloway described the event as a “hatefest”.
Since 2009, the baton has been picked up by Holdsworth, and more recently by the current, but retiring, Primus, the Rev David Chillingworth.
In the Church of Scotland too it has fallen to pioneers such as Scott Rennie – the Kirk’s first openly gay minister – to take on the cause, sometimes at a considerable cost to themselves. Rennie’s election to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen by a congregation aware of his circumstances was initially challenged by a small group of ministers and elders within the presbytery and referred back to the General Assembly (although it was finally endorsed); and Rennie is now legally married to his husband David Smith.
Many recent campaigners have drawn on their own experiences to highlight the distress caused by the Churches’ marginalising of gay members. At the General Assembly, the Rev Peter Johnstone spoke of his anguish at being able to officiate at the weddings of his three straight children, but not of his lesbian daughter.
At the Episcopal General Synod, lay representative Victoria Stock told of her struggle “to feel accepted for who I am”.
In a bid to preserve unity, there has been an acknowledgment that those who cannot accept gay marriage are also deeply upset by the sense that the Church is moving away from them; no priest will be forced to conduct services against his or her conscience and there was much talk at the General Synod of unity and reconciliation .
How realistic this is remains to be seen. Some congregations have already left the Church of Scotland as it moves towards conducting gay marriage services, and more are likely to follow if, as expected, it pushes ahead with changes to Church law.
The 90-million-member Anglican Communion – which takes in most of Britain’s former colonies – embraces a wide spectrum of views, with some countries still very conservative. Last year, the US Episcopal Church was barred from any decision-making role in the over-arching body for three years for allowing same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Yet the Church’s losses are likely to be compensated by its gains: the knowledge it is on the right side of history, the happiness and well-being of its members and even – potentially – bums on seats. Young people who have drifted away from religious organisations that do not reflect their values, may well be tempted back.
While Episcopalians, and to a lesser extent members of the Kirk, celebrate hard-won victories, the fight goes on for those of other faiths.
A week before the vote, Chris Creegan, the chief executive of the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability, wrote movingly about his recent wedding to his long-term male partner. Creegan is a Catholic whose faith continues to be important to him, but a church wedding was never a possibility. Instead, the pair had enjoyed an idyllic day which began with a civil ceremony at Lothian Chambers.
As it happens, Creegan’s husband is agnostic, so there’s every chance this is the choice they would have made regardless. “But if the church option had been there, we would at least have been able to have a conversation about it, just as straight couples with different beliefs have been doing for a long time,” says Creegan.
In our increasingly secular society, religious ceremonies may seem to be of decreasing relevance, but the idea they should be available to straight couples and not to gay ones shows how out of step the various Churches have fallen with modern values.
The Scottish Episcopalians have forged a path other Christian denominations should follow. Then, instead of gatekeeping human relationships, they will be free to focus their energy on tackling the issues that should be at the heart of all religions: loneliness, poverty, inequality and injustice.