An Aberdeenshire church has broken away from the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) following a dispute over same-sex marriage.
Members of Westhill Community Church voted overwhelmingly to leave the denomination over concerns about its ‘future trajectory’.
The move comes after Rev. Ian Ferguson of the Westhill church expressed concern about the Episcopal church’s acceptance of same-sex marriages.
The split also comes less than a year after the consecration of the Right Rev. Anne Dyer, Scotland’s first female bishop and a supporter of same-sex marriage.
Rev. Ferguson described the appointment of the Right Rev. Dyer as ‘insensitive and disrespectful’.
But the church leader also said that marriage equality was just one part of the decision to leave, the Press and Journal report.
‘People have different kinds of concerns about all kinds of things, and it’s not just one thing,’ Fergurson said.
‘This has been an ongoing matter where a number of us throughout Scotland have been concerned about the direction the SEC has been going in.’
The split was heavily supported by the members of Westhill Community Church, with 87% voting to secede from the SEC on Thursday (17 January).
Allowing same-sex weddings since 2017
The SEC voted to allow same-sex weddings in June 2017, becoming the first mainstream Christian faith in the UK to open marriage to all of its members.
Then-Primus the Most Rev. David Chillingworth described the decision as ‘momentous’.
The move was condemned by Global Anglican church leaders, who went on to impose sanctions on the SEC for allowing same-sex weddings, according to the BBC.
Later in the year, tensions were further heightened following the appointment of the Rt. Rev. Anne Dyer, a vocal supporter of marriage equality.
Two senior clergy members, including Rev. Ferguson, resigned from the Cathedral Chapter in protest.
In his resignation letter, Rev. Ferguson wrote: ‘Our Bishop at the time publicly stated his opposition to such a revisionist agenda, which reflected not only his own personal view but that of our Diocese.
‘Yet, despite all of that, you have put into position a new bishop who not only supports same-sex marriage but has conducted same-sex weddings.’
Westhill is not the first church to secede from the SEC because of a dispute over same-sex marriage.
In August 2018, one of the largest churches in Edinburgh, St Thomas’, announced that they would be splitting from the SEC for the same reason, the Telegraph reported.
‘It breaks my heart’
Rev. Ferguson spoke of his anguish in breaking from the SEC. ‘I’m deeply sad that this stage has arrived, it breaks my heart,’ Rev. Ferguson said.
‘I have been in the SEC for a number of decades and I certainly didn’t want to be in this position. It’s too early to say at the moment what’s going to happen next,’ he added.
In response to the secession, Rt. Rev. Dyer said: ‘The congregation of Westhill Community Church is a much-loved and valued part of our diocese, and I am deeply saddened that they have indicated that they want to pursue potential separation from the SEC.
‘I will continue to work with Westhill as we begin discussions to enable this potential separation, and will continue to pray for the rector, vestry and congregation members in the weeks and months ahead,’ Rt. Rev. Dyer added.
The Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness and Primus of the SEC, the Most Rev. Mark Strange, also spoke of his regret at the Westhill church’s split.
‘I will pray that, painful though this process will be for the church and for the local diocese and wider community, we will all remember that we are all striving to serve as disciples of Christ,’ he said.
Not the first split
This is not the first instance of LGBTI issues causing a split among Scottish church groups in recent years.
In February 2013, Rev. Dominic Smart of Gilcomston South Church announced his resignation in protest at the Church of Scotland moving to allow gay people in leadership roles.
This followed the appointment of Rev. Scott Rennie to Queen’s Cross Church in 2009, who was at the time the only openly gay minister in Scotland.
In June of the same year, more than 200 members of the Stornoway High Church left the Church of Scotland due to a row over gay clergy. The members cited the denomination’s ‘continuing departure from Biblical teaching on various issues’.
In 2011, Trinity Church in Aberdeen left the Church of Scotland, going on to join the International Presbyterian Church, in what was reportedly another row over allowing gay clergy.