The Most Rev David Chillingworth: A secular state should be prepared to defend religious freedom

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The same-sex marriage issue requires considered thought

IN THE Scottish Episcopal Church, we’re thinking about our response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on same-sex marriage and other related issues. The definition of marriage set out in our Canons is that, “marriage is a physical, spiritual and mystical union of one man and one woman”. That is the position of our church. It’s a difficult issue for us – as it is for all churches and faith groups. We have among our membership people who feel passionately that change is needed – and those who feel equally strongly that we should resist any attempt to broaden society’s understanding of marriage. The consultation period is very short. Among the things we shall say will be that if – and it’s a big “if” – we were to consider changing our canonical definition of marriage, that would require a two-year process in our General Synod, the outcome of which could not be predicted with any certainty.

We haven’t got involved in public debate about this. We’ve been asked for our view and we shall give it in a considered manner – believing that the time for public debate comes later. However, it seems to me that some of the points being made – particularly comments from our ecumenical partners in the Catholic Church – raise significant issues about how we understand the relationship between church and state. They also raise important questions about the nature of the church itself.

The suggestion has been made that the Scottish Government does not have a mandate to introduce legislation which is of such fundamental significance for our society. The implication is that these are “non-negotiable” areas. If the Scottish Government was proposing to legislate to enshrine in law discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, colour or race, I would publicly oppose their moral right to do so. But that is not the nature of these consultation proposals.

So what does this say about the relationship of church and state in modern society? I have often said that I am a supporter of the secular state because it sustains a proper separation between legislature, judiciary and church.

In my Irish background, I have experienced both the confessional state which was the Irish Republic in my childhood and the Northern Irish mirror image – the sabbatarian “lock up the playgrounds on Sunday” society. Neither was healthy. A secular state should defend religious freedom – but it will not make any assumptions about religious faith nor defer to it.

If, following the consultation period, the Scottish Government and parliament feel that they should legislate in this way, I believe that it is their right to do so. It is clear that there would be an “opt-out” protection for those who cannot accept this. Churches and faith groups would have to decide whether they wished to use or to stand outside the provisions of such legislation.

But there is a further issue here which is about the very nature of the church. I believe that the church must and should be an unequivocal supporter of marriage and family life.

But Jesus did not call the church into being as a citadel of orthodoxy. He was constantly criticised because he spent time with people who didn’t fit the conventional patterns and were deemed unacceptable by others. He told stories about nets and fishing, about lost sheep and banquets where the guests were to be gathered from the highways and byways.

The Scottish Government’s consultation challenges us to think seriously about our society, its values and its patterns of family life. It challenges churches to reflect on what it means in today’s secular society to call people to uphold marriage and family life. And if there is a mandate for us in the churches, it is to try and build communities of faith which honour the way in which we believe Jesus responded to people in their diversity.

• The Most Rev David Chillingworth is Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Read the bishop’s full statement on his blog