Gay couples could be married in Scottish churches within a year after the Scottish Episcopal Church voted in favour of allowing its clergy to preside over same-sex weddings.
The historic decision, reached after an impassioned debate at the Church’s General Synod in Edinburgh, makes it the first mainstream Christian church in the UK to allow gay marriage.
It also means that gay Christians from any Anglican Church can now ask to be married in Scotland, giving many their first opportunity for a church wedding.
Members of the Church’s houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity were asked to vote on whether to replace Canon 31, the doctrinal clause stating that marriage is between a man and a woman.
All three houses were required to approve the motion by a two-thirds majority. It received the backing of 80 per cent of Bishops, 67 per cent of Clergy and 80 per cent of Laity.
Under the new rules, clergy who want to preside over gay weddings will have to put themselves forward for the role, allowing those who object to the decision to opt out.
Introducing the motion, the Bishop of Edinburgh Dr John Armes said the new definition of marriage would “protect the consciences both of those who believe that they must not – and of those who believe that they must – offer God’s blessing on a marriage of a same-sex couple”.
He added: “No one is being asked to change their theology of marriage. The change is that our church would officially recognise that it contains a diversity of viewpoints.
“If, for example, a cleric does not believe they can officiate at the marriage of a same-sex couple, they need do nothing.”
The decision puts the Church at odds with most of the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and some members condemned the proposed changes during the preceding debate.
Rev Canon Ian Ferguson, of the Aberdeen diocese, said that if the motion was passed it would be “one of the saddest and most painful days” in the history of the Church, describing it as a “broken” institution.
“I’m deeply concerned that in the passing of this Canon, the Scottish Episcopal Church will be disagreeing with the teachings of our Lord Jesus, who has made it clear that marriage is a union of one man and one woman,” he added.
“Changing our definition of marriage...is a schismatic move that will cause serious harm to our unity and future relationship with our sisters and brothers throughout the Anglican Communion.”
But other gay members of the Church spoke passionately about the importance of changing the doctrine. Victoria Stock, a lay representative from the diocese of Edinburgh, urged other members to “stand up for what is right”.
Speaking of her “deep hurt and pain” at being told that there was “something wrong” with her when she came out as gay, she added: “If Jesus was standing right here in this room today, he would be telling us just to get on with it.”
The Most Rev David Chillingworth, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, described the decision as “the end of a long journey” and called for members to come together in reconciliation.
He added: “This is a momentous step. By removing gender from our marriage canon, our church now affirms that a same sex couple are not just married but are married in the sight of God.”
WHERE OTHER CHURCHES STAND ON GAY MARRIAGE
Church of England
The Church’s teaching remains that marriage is only permitted between heterosexual couples, although gay clergy are permitted to live celibate lives in civil partnerships.
Earlier this year a report by the House of Bishops recommended that the Church should not change its opposition to same-sex marriage, but should adopt a “fresh tone and culture of welcome and support” for gay people.
However, in February the report was rejected at the General Synod, in what gay rights campaigners said was a victory for “love and equality”. What will happen next remains unclear.
The Church strongly believes that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Last year Pope Francis released a report on the importance of the family which affirmed the Church’s opposition to gay equality and same-sex marriage.
Although past Synods have heard proposals for the Church to water down its opposition, these have been disregarded. The Pope’s report argued that there were “absolutely no grounds” for considering the recognition of “homosexual unions”.
Church of Scotland
Despite opposing the legalisation of gay marriage in Scotland in 2014, last month the Kirk’s General Assembly backed a report which could lead to same-sex weddings being performed in churches. The Church’s legal questions committee is now examining the practicalities of the plan.
The document, which also called for the church to apologise for its past treatment of gay people, recommended that any decision on whether or not to carry out gay marriages should be left up to individual ministers.