Sunday, 12 July 2009

A breaking storm..or "That's news?"

No doubt there will be a fluttering in the online hen coops of Piskydom (and beyond) after this mornings' interview in Scotland on Sunday with Kelvin Holdsworth, the Provost of St Mary's Cathedral Glasgow. Senior cleric backs gay marriage etc and the Press promptly say we're gonna split. No, not really, boys and girls of the 4th Estate. Kelvin is not the 1st to say this in the SEC and it has been being discussed in a quiet, respectful way within the Church for as long as I can recall. People disagree but throughout the discussion in the Edinburgh Diocese there has being a bilateral commitment to continuing to walk together rather than apart. Like the man says, we act a bit more grown up on this north of the Tweed.

This really has been a discussion that has framed my own adult journey of faith and ministry over the last 20 odd years. Back in the late 80's, I was Senior Vice Convener of the Scottish Young Liberal Democrats. The Convener (Willie Rennie, now MP for Dunfermline West) decided we would produce 3 policy documents: he took racism and Green issues, I was asked to head up the team on Sexuality and the Law. My group argued for 3 changes: equality in the age of consent, an anti-discrimination act and legal recognition of same sex relationships. Remember that in 1990 the age of consent for gay men was 21 years of age (and had only been that since 1980, when Scotland came into line with England and Wales) with the possibility of 2 years in the nick for making love, a hater crime meant only racism and the term "civil partnership" was unknown. But I remember putting a very specific rider into the section of legally recognised relationships. I insisted that a change in the law would not require religious bodies to conduct wedding ceremonies, unless they decided to offer such ceremonies themselves. And it was me, not the other members of the group who insisted on that (they humoured the Divinity student). I felt strongly, as a heir of the Tractarians, who argued that the Church was a divinely inspired body, we ought not to be compelled by civil (secular) law to provide certain religious services to certain groups, but should retain our absolute autonomy. We could say yes, but we had to be the ones who said yes through Synod, not forced into it by a parliament of Presbyterians, Moslem's, atheists and Jedi Knights!

And now? Well, the legal changes that have been brought through since 1997 have met with my complete approval. But I'd go as far as Gay marriage now. Mainly because the State says we can't! If the Church decides to offer its blessing, who is the State to stop it? See us Tractarians!! That said, I am not these days convinced that clergy ought to be able to act as Registrars even in the limited way in which they do in Scotland. I think the French actually got it right after the Revolution. Of course you can have a religious ceremony if you so wish, but all the legal stuff is contracted separately at the Maire. The current set up is the remnant of a medieval pseudo-theocracy which the Reformers tinkered (more or less unsuccessfully) with in the 16th century.

My Tractarian soul has seriously evolved in a quite republican direction over 20 years. Theocracies have never been a good idea for minorities, be they religious, ethnic, political or social. The dominant religious group always claims to be building the Kingdom of God on earth in which all are made welcome but it is difficult to think of a theocratic state in history or today which does not persecute its own minorities. In Scotland, Piskies beat up on Covenanters and the Presbyterian theocracy with Melville and his heirs envisaged was both anti Episcopalian and anti-Catholic. Iran? No thanks! Calvin's Geneva- just ask Sadoleto! And in Holy Spain, the Holy Inquisition had a parade and a sermon before handing Jews, heretics et al over to the secular arm with a pious request not to spill blood (burning doesn't). Holy Russia of the Orthodox? Home of the Pogrom. No, I personally think it is time to make the State firmly secular and allow the religious communities internal autonomy on their approach to matters of who and what they bless, from two men or two women to nuclear submarines.
Oh dear, I sound very American Episcopalian! Such is life!

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