Nine Church of England Bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, this week voted for Lord Dear’s amendment attempting to derail the government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Five abstained. Ten chose not to attend. The amendment was passed by a 390-148 majority.
There has been speculation in the press that the Church of England had made a deal with government over trading abstentions for later amendments and that pressure had been put on bishops by church officials to suggest they abstain so as not to evoke a government backlash against the church.
However this has been firmly denied by the church’s parliamentary and political advisors.
Now that the bill has passed its second reading in the House of Lords the leader of the ‘Lords Spiritual’, Bishop of Leicester Tim Stevens, has issued a statement on behalf of the church about its strategy for the days and weeks ahead.
In this he says that ‘it is now the duty and responsibility of the Bishops who sit in the House of Lords to recognise the implications of this decision and to join with other Members in the task of considering how this legislation can be put into better shape’.
He adds that ‘the issue now is not primarily one of protections and exemptions for people of faith’ but rather ‘improvement (of the bill) in a number of other key respects, including in its approach to the question of fidelity in marriage and the rights of children’.
As a result it has been reported widely in the press, perhaps not surprisingly, that ‘the Church of England has effectively accepted defeat over gay marriage signalling that it will no longer fight against a change in the law’.
The words and actions of bishops in the coming weeks and days will no doubt undergo careful scrutiny, but my purpose in this blogpost is rather to comment on the speech that the Archbishop of Canterbury gave before supporting the Dear amendment last Monday, because I suspect I am not alone in finding it rather disappointing.
I have reproduced his speech below (in italics) from his own website and placed my own comments after each section in non-italicised script (marked >>). The speech is 864 words and runs to ten paragraphs. It has been quoted widely but selectively and I think it is therefore important to consider it as a whole.
Archbishop Justin's speech to the Lords on the government's gay marriage Bill
Monday 3rd June 2013
My Lords, this Bill has arrived in your Lordship's House at great speed. The initial Proposals, when published at the end of the autumn, have needed much work to get them into today's form. Much of that work has been done through detailed legal effort and discussion, and I am deeply grateful to the DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) teams – and especially to the Secretary of State for the thoughtful way in which she has listened and the degree to which she has been willing to make changes in order to arrive at the stage we’ve reached today.
>> It is part of House of Lords tradition to be polite even to those with whom you strongly disagree. But the Archbishop has gone much further than this in complimenting the government for their handling of this bill. And yet the bill was launched with no democratic mandate, seeks to redefine the biblical concept of marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman enshrined in British law and poses a serious threat to civil liberties. To commend the Secretary of State for the ‘thoughtful way she has listened’ and ‘the degree to which she has been willing to make changes’, given that the government ignored half a million public submissions to its consultation and then sought to block every amendment put forward to make the bill more safe during its passage through the House of Commons, is curious to say the very least. Not only are the Archbishop’s commendations inappropriate and unnecessary; they are actually a slap in the face to those many Christians, MPs and others who in good conscience have stood against the bill in the face of great opposition.
We all know, and it’s been said, that this is a divisive issue. In general the majority of faith groups remain very strongly against the Bill, and have expressed that view in a large number of public statements. The House of Bishops of the Church of England has also expressed a very clear majority view – although not unanimous, as has been seen by the strong and welcome contribution by the Bishop of Salisbury.
>> Why does Welby consider it necessary to single out Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salibury, for commendation and call his contribution ‘strong and welcome’ when in fact Holtam takes a position diametrically opposed to what the Scriptures teach and has also likened opponents of gay marriage to those who used the Bible to justify slavery and apartheid? Should he not rather be saying that Holtam does not represent the church’s view or, at very least, not dignifying his words and actions with a comment? How does Welby’s approach to Holtam square with the Apostle Paul urging his co-workers to ‘command certain men not to teach false doctrines’ (1 Timothy 1:3), to ‘gently instruct in the hope that God will grant repentance’ (2 Timothy 2:25) and to insist that false teachers ‘must be silenced’ (Titus 1:11)?
The so-called Quadruple Lock may have some chance of withstanding legal scrutiny in Europe, and we are grateful for it, although other faith groups and Christian denominations who’ve written to me remain very hesitant. There have been useful discussions about the position of schools with a religious character and issues of freedom of conscience. And I’ve noted the undertaking of the Noble Baroness the Minister on those subjects, and I’m grateful for what she has said. The Noble Baroness the Minister has also put forward all her views today with great courtesy and persuasive effect, and I join in the remarks of the Noble Baroness, Baroness Royall, in appreciation of that.
>> Why is it necessary to thank the government for the ‘quadruple lock’ when there is considerable doubt about how legally robust it is and when it is a government’s primary duty to protect its citizens anyway? Why has he identified with the Labour leader Baroness Royall in commending the Minister for ‘useful discussions’ about religious schools and freedom of conscience when all attempts to obtain legal protection for teachers and conscience have been so far been blocked by the government working in tandem with the Labour Party?
And I have to say that personally I regret the necessity of having to deal with the possibility of a division at this stage, on a bill passed by a free vote in the other place.
>> Why does Welby ‘personally regret’ having to vote against a bill which undermines the Christian definition of marriage? Is it not his Christian duty (and joy) to stand up for Christian truth? And why does he need to say so?
I was particularly grateful to hear the speech of the Noble Baroness, Baroness Royall, and agreed with the proud record that was established by the last government during the years in which it held office in this area. I also, if I may, will pass on her comments with gratitude to my colleague the Most Revd Prelate the Archbishop of York.
>> Why is it necessary for Welby to commend the previous Labour government and what does he mean by its ‘proud record’? How is this even relevant?
It is clearly essential that stable and faithful same sex relationships should, where those involved want it, be recognised and supported with as much dignity and the same legal effect as marriage. Although the majority of Bishops who voted during the whole passage of the Civil Partnerships Act through your Lordships' House were in favour of civil partnerships a few years ago, it is also absolutely true that the church has often not served the LGBT communities in the way it should. I must express my sadness and sorrow for that considerable failure. There have been notable exceptions, such as my predecessor Archbishop Ramsey who vigorously supported decriminalisation in the 1960s.
>> On what basis is Welby saying that ‘faithful same sex relationships’ should ‘be recognised and supported with as much dignity and the same legal effect as marriage’? What biblical or church teaching supports this view? And is he suggesting that the church should have served the LGBT community by endorsing and blessing same sex civil partnerships? This is certainly the most natural reading of his speech and yet it is not even the position of the church which he leads.
It is also necessary to express, as has been done already, total rejection of homophobic language, which is wrong – and more than that, sickening.
>> What does the archbishop actually mean by ‘homophobic language’? And why, if so many people have already mentioned this, does he feel it necessary to mention it again? Welby has now used 516 of his 864 words and seven of his ten paragraphs. Thus far he has commended the government, the Labour opposition and a bishop that many regard as a heretic, given his blessing to same sex partnerships and apologised both for the church’s past record and also for having to vote against the bill. Not a good start and the clock is steadily ticking.
However, I and many of my colleagues remain with considerable hesitations about this Bill. My predecessor Lord Williams of Oystermouth showed clearly last summer, in evidence during the consultation period, that it has within it a series of category errors. It confuses marriage and weddings. It assumes that the rightful desire for equality – to which I’ve referred supportively – must mean uniformity, failing to understand that two things may be equal but different. And as a result it does not do what it sets out to do, my Lords. Schedule 4 distinguishes clearly between same gender and opposite gender marriage, thus not achieving true equality.
>> Now at last we see some arguments against the bill and it is this paragraph that has been most quoted in the media. Welby is absolutely right that the bill contains ‘category errors’, ‘confuses marriages and weddings’ and misunderstands the difference between ‘equality’ and ‘uniformity’. But why didn’t he leave himself more time to unpack these arguments and why does his opposition amount to nothing more than ‘considerable hesitations’. If he rejects the underlying principle of the bill, why does he not say so?
The result is confusion. Marriage is abolished, redefined and recreated, being different and unequal for different categories. The new marriage of the Bill is an awkward shape with same gender and different gender categories scrunched into it, neither fitting well. The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as covenant is diminished. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society – as we’ve already heard – is weakened. These points will be expanded on by others in the debate, I’m sure, including those from these benches.
>> Again some good strong words, but could he not have expanded on some of these points rather than confining them to two paragraphs totalling 204 words – the length of a short letter to the Times? Why has he spent more than twice as many words already on unnecessary commendations and apologies that have actually served to undermine his position? And should he not, as Archbishop of Canterbury and Head of the Church of England, be saying something about what a distinctively Christian understanding of marriage actually is?
For these and many other reasons, those of us in the churches and faith groups who are extremely hesitant about the Bill in many cases hold that view because we think that traditional marriage is a corner stone of society, and rather than adding a new and valued institution alongside it for same gender relationships, which I would personally strongly support to strengthen us all, this Bill weakens what exists and replaces it with a less good option that is neither equal nor effective. This is not a faith issue, although we are grateful for the attention that government and the other place have paid to issues of religious freedom – deeply grateful. But it is not, at heart, a faith issue; it is about the general social good. And so with much regret but entire conviction, I cannot support the Bill as it stands.
>> If there are ‘many other reasons’ why has he not outlined what some of them are in his first seven paragraphs? Why, as head of the Church of England, does Welby see legal same sex homoerotic partnerships as a ‘valued institution alongside (marriage)’ which he ‘would personally strongly support to strengthen us all’? How does he believe that legalising same sex partnerships ‘strengthens us all’? And why is this ‘not at heart a faith issue’ when the teaching of both the Bible and the church on the matter is so clear and when our current law on marriage was historically based on this biblical definition? Why does he say that he cannot support the bill ‘as it stands’? Does he not oppose its underlying principle? Or is he saying that he would actually support it with various amendments?
It is notable that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech does not mention God, Jesus Christ, the Bible or even the historic position on the Church of England. Nor does it explain how the Christian concept of complimentary heterosexual marriage is a creation ordinance for all mankind supposed to mirror Christ’s own relationship with his bride the church.
You might argue that parliament would not have been convinced by such arguments. Quite probably not. But the Archbishop of Canterbury has a responsibility to bear witness to Christian truth in the public square. He should also not be granting needless and unbiblical concessions. He is after all the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Welby’s speech was a wonderful opportunity to speak for Christ and Christians and to explain why Christians believe that marriage is so precious and should not be redefined.
Sadly, for both church and society, it was an opportunity he largely missed and some of the concessions he has made are very worrying indeed.