It is tempting to say that the decision of the Scottish Episcopal Church to allow its clergy to preside over same-sex weddings, the first mainstream Christian church to confirm this step, will be widely welcomed. The reaction will indeed be positive, but it must be remembered that within the church, reaching the decision has been painful. At yesterday’s General Synod, one objector described the development as “one of the saddest and most painful days” in the history of the Church.
This is not a decision that has been arrived at easily, and when it came to the crunch, it was a close call. While the Bishops and Laity showed strong support for presiding over gay marriage, at 80 per cent, the Clergy only just achieved the required two-thirds majority support, at 67 per cent. There could be difficult times ahead, if any members feel they cannot continue under the new doctrine.
The Church of Scotland has been going through a similar process, with a proposal for same-sex weddings in church given backing at the General Assembly last month. This backing is expected to be given full approval next year if the legal practicalities of the plan present no serious difficulties. In addition, as if to demonstrate that this is no token gesture, it was agreed that an apology would be made to the gay community over a “long history of discrimination”.
And yet, the Church of Scotland has lost congregations during its debate over gay ministers and gay marriage. At a time when membership and attendance is in decline, these losses are painful for the Kirk.
The passing of the Scottish Episcopal Church motion yesterday represented, as was said at the Synod, “the end of a long journey”. That is a journey the Church had to embark on, wherever it would take it and whatever the consequences would be. To move forward, it was unavoidable that some could be lost on that journey, and an organised split is a possibility in the months ahead. But if the churches want to remain relevant in the 21st century, they have to acknowledge that their faith draws followers from an increasingly diverse society, and obstacles to inclusion have to be overcome.
These difficult and historic moves by two of our mainstream churches represent defining moments for both organisations. Both are now better equipped than before to face the challenges of the future, and to continue to support the whole community each seeks to reach out to.