Church of England evidence to Same Sex Marriage Bill committee

Yesterday the Right Rev. Graham James, the Bishop of Norwich, William Fittall, secretary-general of the General Synod of the Church of England and Alexander McGregor, deputy legal adviser to the General Synod and the Archbishops Council, gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee of the House of Commons.

I have edited the Hansard report, rearranged the order in some cases and deleted words, phrases and sections that are less relevant to Changing Attitude’s prime concerns. I was struck by the Bishop of Norwich, referring to Sir Joseph Pilling’s review group, when he said he thinks it is possible that the House of Bishops’ understanding of the status of same-sex relationships and how we treat them will change.

I have retained the majority of the evidence because the way questions were phrased and the content of many answers is very revealing.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich’s opening statement:

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

The Church of England’s understanding of marriage is rather unambiguously set out in Canon B30, which says, according to Christ’s teaching, marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life to the exclusion of all others. Since canon law is part of the law of the land, clearly there has been a need for the sort of legislation before us which acknowledges two understandings of marriage, one which will be gender neutral and one which will be more traditional.

Our concern has not been simply to ensure rights and freedoms for the Church of England, but is Overall, we are broadly content with the way the Bill has developed, although there is more work to be done. Our regret is that until now there has been a single understanding of marriage across Church and state, and between the world faiths. We regret there will not be the same unanimity and we think that there may well be consequences for this which none of us has fully identified as yet.

Is homosexuality curable?

Chris Bryant:

Is homosexuality curable?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

I do not think myself it is. There are Christians who believe it to be curable, but that is not the view that I take.

Reasons for marriage

Chris Bryant:

The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 lays down three reasons for marriage. First of all, procreation, which does not apply to many who get married because they either have no intention or no ability to have children, and we do not consider theirs not to be proper marriages. Secondly, to prevent fornication. The third reason was for mutual society. The bit I do not understand about the Church of England’s position is why—and that is reaffirmed in the 1928 prayer book, not passed by Parliament, but passed by the Church of England—if you do not believe homosexuality is a moral disorder or you do not believe it is incurable, why you would be opposed to homosexual couples being able to have that mutual society?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

I think the mutual society, help and comfort one may have of the other is affordable in civil partnerships. When the Church of England marries someone, the preface in the Book of Common Prayer is recited even when the woman is past child-bearing age. There is a distinction between idealism in relation to what the purposes are for marriage and realism about the couple who stand before you. I have married a couple who are both in their 80s and I have said the first purpose of marriage is for the procreation of children and they have understood it. It does not apply in its fullness to them, but it is a purpose for which marriage exists.

Other views within the Church of England

Stephen Gilbert:

Do you accept that there are other views within the Church, with vicars in different parishes in different places, and that the Church of England does not have one stable view across the country shared by every member?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

The Church of England has doctrine which is expressed in its canons which it believes to be consistent across time and with the teaching of Jesus Christ. I think that I have been ordained in the Church of England long enough to know that unanimity of view on anything is impossible to find, on this as on everything else. So no, certainly there is no unanimity of view, but there is a distinction between the doctrine of the Church of England and what people who belong to it think. One of the glories of the Church of England is that we recognise conscientious dissent.

Should civil partnerships be extended to heterosexual couples?

 

Jonathan Reynolds:

If this Bill is passed, same-sex couples will have the choice of a marriage or a civil partnership; heterosexual couples will just have marriage. Do you believe civil partnerships should be extended to heterosexual couples?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

I am here supposedly speaking on behalf on this variegated body of the Church of England, and it does not have any official position on equal civil partnerships. I can tell you, from my own point of view, it seems a strange anomaly that heterosexual couples cannot register a civil partnership. It may well be that heterosexual civil partnerships might fulfil a need for them. That is not something over which the Church of England generally would have an opinion.

Ben Bradshaw:

Do you not accept, Bishop Graham, that the Church of England’s opposition—not yours, because you have an honourable position on this—to this has been blunted by its failure to welcome, support and celebrate civil partnerships?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

The Church of England had a varied view in relation to civil partnerships. There were a good many people in the Church who were very glad that civil partnerships were introduced and supported them. There was a big distinction between how we were to regard civil partnerships in relation to lay people within the Church of England and the clergy. The relative ambiguity about civil partnerships in comparison with marriage and the fact that vows did not have to be made and that it was simply a registration caused us some puzzlement in trying to work all that out, which I am quite happy to recognise. You only have to read the pastoral statement on civil partnerships to know how anguished that debate was in preparation for civil partnerships. I recognise why you ask that question, and I would love the whole of the Church of England to take the view that I take, but I recognise that that is not entirely the case.

Legality of C of E clergyperson performing same-sex marriage elsewhere

Tim Loughton:

I have a vicar in my own constituency who, I am sure, would like this to happen. If after this legislation goes through, a Church of England licensed vicar performs a wedding of a same-sex couple on licensed premises, be it Quaker or otherwise, within that parish, will that marriage be illegal after it has happened? Does it therefore effectively have to be annulled by the Church?

Rev. Alexander McGregor:

The Bill, as you know, does not extend to marriages according to the rites of the Church of England. The marriage, therefore, could not take place as a lawfully effective marriage using the rites of the Church of England. The scenario you have put forward is where a clergyman or woman of the Church of England went to another denomination and did some work there. The general ecclesiastical principle rules that the clergy of the Church of England can use only Church of England rites and forms of services. There is a special exception to that in relation to Churches with which we have formal ecumenical relations. As far as I am aware, none of the Churches with which we have formal ecumenical relations is proposing to opt in to same-sex marriage.

Tim Loughton:

But on civil premises—if they did it in an hotel?

Rev. Alexander McGregor:

As far as I am aware, no clergy of the Church of England are employed by local authorities as marriage registrars. In hotels, they can only be civil ceremonies.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

The Church of England is excluded from performing any ceremony under the law that extended civil marriages to registered premises.

Tim Loughton:

I just want to know at what point does it become a non-marriage. It is performed by a Church of England vicar. The couple could say that they were married by a Church of England vicar, even if it were on civil hotel premises with all the trappings. What makes it a non-marriage?

Rev. Alexander McGregor:

Only civil marriages can take place in hotels. If a clergyman of the Church of England went mad and thought that he could officiate at a marriage in a hotel, then the marriage would not have any legal effect.

Ben Bradshaw:

If I were a Church of England priest and I had a gay or lesbian couple in my congregation, under this legislation I would not be allowed to marry them in my church. Would I be allowed to officiate at a ceremony at a Quaker meeting house, or one of the other churches that will offer marriage?

Maria Miller:

This is very much something you would perhaps want to talk to the Church of England about. I have considered that very carefully, and my interpretation of their rules—and it is my interpretation—would be that for a priest within the Church of England to officiate at a ceremony at another church in their official capacity might well put them in breach of their obligations to the Church of England. As I say, that is something about which you may want to question the Church of England further. Each religious institution in this country has its own different ways of dealing with marriage. In the Church of England a vicar is able to practise within that Church, and also within the premises of that Church. If they are given a dispensation to go into a Quaker church to practise, our interpretation would be that that would potentially be in breach of the Church of England’s regulations.

Ben Bradshaw:

May I ask the question I posed to Maria Miller about what would happen to a priest who wanted to give pastoral support to a gay or lesbian couple in his or her parish, and wanted, but was not allowed, to officiate at a ceremony at a Quaker meeting house or anywhere else?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

In the first place—I do not think we have discussed this in the Church of England—it would need to be recognised and regarded in another denomination in order to operate. He or she might need to be recognised as a civil registrar to undertake that function. Whether or not that would be an offence against the canons of the Church of England, I would need to ponder and think about. Within the Church as it is at the moment, there are possibilities of Church of England clergy presiding at marriages in non-conformist Churches if they are recognised and regarded under the ecumenical Canons. I would need to go back and look at that, and we could write to you with a much more informed answer.

What scope for the Church of England to change position?

Stephen Doughty:

The Archbishop of Canterbury was widely reported after his installation as restating the Church’s official position, but given the lack of unanimity and the variegation in the Church to which you have referred, how do you feel that he and indeed other bishops will approach the issue in the years to come within the Church, and what scope is there for a change in position in due course if that were to be the wish of the bodies of the Church of England?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

It is hard to tell, because this legislation has happened so quickly. We have not had a House of Bishops meeting or a General Synod working party of bishops to look at it. What the Archbishop said, if I have understood him correctly, was that he has to see this in the context of the worldwide communion. For us, quite apart from our own individual consciences and what we think the Church of England should do, what the Church of England does and what the Archbishop does and says is observed by a worldwide communion that he leads. It would be fair to say that for a great proportion of the Anglican communion around the world, this is not even a subject that has been discussed or thought about for understandable reasons. As for how quickly things might change, we have, at the moment, a working party being chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling looking afresh at our whole approach to issues related to human sexuality and indeed at our understanding of same-sex relationships. I think it is possible that our understanding of the status of same-sex relationships and how we treat them will change. Whether that would necessarily mean that you would then approve of same-sex marriage is another, quite different, issue. The tradition of marriage within the Christian church, which is shared with other world faiths, is so consistent over the centuries as being one man with one woman for life that I do not think that a change in understanding of same-sex relationships would necessarily lead automatically to the Church approving of same-sex marriage. However, I have to say that I am hazarding guesses here. You asked for evidence, but evidence on these things is a bit hard to come by. I can offer opinions rather than evidence; perhaps there is not a tremendous distinction between the two.

Quadruple lock

Stuart Andrew:

A recurring area of concern for my constituents has been the threat of legal challenge. Are you satisfied that the quadruple lock is sufficient?

William Fittall:

I think that we accept the Government’s good intentions in terms of protecting the religious freedom of the Churches. That is obviously something that has to be done in a different way for different Churches, given that the starting point for us is different: our position in law is different from that of all other Churches..

As far as the Church of England is concerned, we believe that the safeguarding of the position of canon law has been achieved.

Gender reassignment

Kate Green:

If a member of a married heterosexual couple undergoes gender reassignment, under this legislation they would not be required to annul their marriage, but would remain married as a same-sex couple. How will the Church regard that same-sex marriage?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

I think there may be a distinction between what is legal and what is pastoral. Would you like to say what is legal and I will tell you what I think pastorally?

Rev. Alexander McGregor:

As a matter of law, they would be whatever the Act said, which would be that they were married. That would be the legal position. The pastoral and theological implications are possibly different from that, however.

Kate Green:

If they had had a church wedding as a heterosexual couple and that marriage continues but one member of the couple changes gender, will the marriage continue in the eyes of the Church?

William Fittall:

It is already the case that clergy are not required to conduct the marriages of people who can already marry under existing law following a change of gender; there is a conscience clause, so that clergy are not required to marry people. That is the starting point.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

The marriage would have continued. That is what you are saying.

Kate Green:

The marriage will continue, but the clergy will not have to do anything.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

I can think of only one couple that I know—I am sure there are plenty of others—who are in that position. They are members of a Church of England congregation and are treated with all the honour and respect that you would expect. I suspect that that congregation do not think too much about what their legal status is. They see them as human beings who are connected with each other and are part of that Christian community.

Freedom to be married in the Church of England

Stephen Williams:

Coming back to the duty of the Church of England to marry whoever wishes to be married in a parish church, would the Church actually like that duty to be removed?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

I think that a very considerable number of people in England look to their parish church as the natural place in which to be married. To add to the complexity by which they would get married, which is what you would be talking about if they had to go to the civil registrar and then come to church afterwards, would probably not be appealing to them. It would not be appealing to us, because we recognise that the relationships that are built up with couples at the time of their marriage are very important to them.

The Church of England has recently done some extensive empirical research. What we discovered was that nine and a half out of 10 of all the couples who were married said that the most important element in their marriage was the vicar. They had made a relationship with the priest prior to the marriage and had been prepared for their marriage, and when they came to church on the day, they knew the person who was marrying them, and they felt that they belonged.

People who are married need to belong to their communities and be connected with others. That is one of the things that the Church can do extremely well and that is the challenge to us.

Chris Bryant:

It is rather charming, Mr McGregor, that you think that Anglican clergy only ever perform services according to the rites of the Church of England. I have been to All Saints, Margaret street for the installation of a new vicar or curate that has been performed in the middle of a service of benediction, which is not a rite of the Church of England and, effectively, contradicts the 39 Articles.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

It must be a rite of the Church of England—I have performed it. [Laughter.]

Chris Bryant:

My point is that, as a former priest in the Church of England, I hope that the Church will one day be able to change its mind more completely on this matter. I just wonder when you think the Church of England might change its mind. This is material to the Bill because we might think that all you have to lose is your locks.

William Fittall:

Earlier you discussed the difference between evidence and assessment and opinion. I have observed our bishops in discussion around these matters, and the other bodies of the Church of England such as the Archbishops Council, and you have to recognise the fact that, as the Bishop of Norwich has said, the Church of England is obviously divided on the ethical issues around same-sex relations; there are those who want to be more affirming of civil partnerships and those in active same-sex relations and there are many others for whom that is off limits. You have seen that debate played out publicly.

I would have to say that, in the private discussions that there have been since the Government announced their intention to introduce same-sex marriage, there has not been that same division of view. Yes, there are some people—you have heard some members of the Church of England—who have offered a minority view, but I have to say that, as I observe it at the moment, among the bishops, with the exception of one or two who have gone on their blogs to offer their personal view. I do not detect a strong debate among our bishops around moving to accept same-sex marriage. I think that you have to understand that if ever the Church of England were to change its doctrine, that would require a change to canon law, so there would have to be an amending canon that came through the General Synod and then had the royal licence, and in addition there would have to be a measure that went through the General Synod because it would involve a doctrinal change, which is currently rooted in the Book of Common Prayer, and that measure would also make the necessary changes to the Marriage Act. That would then make it possible for Church of England clergy to conduct same-sex marriages. So it is possible, but I have to say that my assessment is that it is nowhere on the horizon.

Adultery and consummation

 

Jane Ellison:

There has been a lot of correspondence about adultery and consummation. I am interested in how you feel about the fact that there is no plan to redefine that in the ambit of the Bill. Also, a question that has suddenly occurred to me is: if in a heterosexual marriage people commit adultery or are unfaithful with somebody of the same sex as themselves, is that currently covered by the definition? In other words, is there already an inconsistency that if a woman was unfaithful to her husband with another woman, does that already not qualify as adultery?

Rev. Alexander McGregor:

That would not amount to adultery.

Jane Ellison:

So there is already an inconsistency.

Rev. Alexander McGregor:

Yes. The same definition of adultery is effectively maintained, so adultery can be committed only between two people of the opposite sex.

Will discrimination harm the Church of England?

Tim Loughton:

It sounds as though Mr Fittall’s long drawn-out process, as he describes, for the Church of England is unlikely to happen in this millennium either. Contrary to what the Culture Secretary said earlier, the Church of England has a unique position in the Bill in effectively being able to discriminate against marrying same-sex couples. If this law goes through, do you think that it will harm the image of the Church of England that it will uniquely be able to discriminate, as laid out in law?

William Fittall:

I am not sure that I follow that it is in a unique position. It is only unique because the Church of England has canons that have the force of the law of land, it has the duty to marry and it has its own devolved legislature, so we start from a unique position in law, but in substance, what the Government set out to do is to create for us, as for all other denominations, the ability to continue to approach marriage according to our own doctrines and if, in due course, any denomination changes its view, it will be able to do so.

Tim Loughton:

What do you think the effect on the image of the Church of England will be? The uniqueness of the position is as you have described. It would be a very long drawn-out process for the Church of England to be able to change its position, other than being able to opt in as some other Churches would much more simply be able to do. Do you think that this law, if it goes through, with the Church of England in the position of automatically not being able to include same-sex marriage couples, will be damaging to the image of the Church of England in the public consciousness?

William Fittall:

I do not see why it should be. Underlying that question is the assumption that it is a deeply unpopular position not to be in favour of same-sex marriage. If you look at the results of the Government’s consultation and of the petitions that came in, and if you look at the opinion polling, this is a matter on which the country remains pretty divided. There are strong views around. People also respect faith traditions, whether they share those traditions or not, that have their own views and their own integrity.

I do not see a difficulty for the Church of England in having such a position. Indeed, I struggle a little bit to see how the law can be different unless, in the view of Parliament and Government, it should in a sense impose its view on the Churches. It is interesting what has happened in one or two Scandinavian countries, where the relationship between the Parliament and the state Church is different from how it is here. If you go back in history, Parliament legislated directly for the Church of England, because it did not have separate governance bodies of its own. But we have reached a place where we are regarded, like all other Churches and denominations, as having the ability to decide our own doctrine and to act accordingly.

Ben Bradshaw:

Mr Fittall, I must correct you on the opinion polling and refer you to the very helpful document prepared for the Committee by the House of Commons Library, which shows that all of the opinion polls, except those with very leading questions commissioned by the Christian Institute, show clear majorities, including majorities of people of faith, in support of equal marriage. You raised the spectre of successful litigation, but how many divorced people have successfully forced the Church of England in the courts to remarry them in their parish church against the wishes of their local priest?

William Fittall:

I did not suggest that we had any anxiety that we would be forced to marry people. I agree that I am not aware of any litigation of that kind. I think the issue is not whether we would be compelled, and we have expressed satisfaction about that. The issue is more the ability to act, as it were, in the shoes of the state in marrying people without any separate state formality.

Teaching about marriage in schools

Kate Green:

Some other faiths will conduct same-sex marriages as a result of the legislation. What advice will you give teachers in Church of England schools on how they teach about the importance and nature of marriage?

The Lord Bishop of Norwich:

We try always to respond positively to what the Secretary of State suggests in relation to the Education Act, which is to do with recognising the value of marriage. I suppose it is possible, although I was listening to what the Secretary of State for Education was saying, that a lot further down the line there might be some conflict there, which I think you were exploring. Our own view is that the promotion of marriage is part of sex and relationship education. What Church of England schools are good at doing, because the vast majority of them are community schools, is integrating the convictions of the Church of England with a recognition that the Christian opinions held in that school are not totally recognised within the whole of wider society.

There is a balance to be struck, and I think that the Secretary of State for Education was right to say that in teaching there will need to be a recognition that we have a society in which same-sex marriages—assuming the Bill goes through—are possible, and of course the teacher would also indicate why it is that within the majority of Christian traditions such marriages are not celebrated. My sense is that it is not going to be a huge part of sex and relationship education.

Christian attitudes to same-sex weddings and CPs in civil premises

Maria Miller:

Where someone with a strong religious faith who runs a hotel and may be offering civil marriages within their premises would be concerned about the impact of equal marriage, those individuals already have an obligation to offer civil partnerships—it is part of their licence—and they would already be in breach of their duties if they were to refuse same-sex civil partnerships, so those individuals have probably had to take the decision on whether they are happy to undertake same-sex civil partnerships on their premises already. The most telling thing is that I am not aware that there have been any problems in the area or that there have been any breaches of duties in that respect. It does not seem to be creating the problems that people might be worried about.

Comments

  1. says

    “There is a special exception to that in relation to Churches with which we have formal ecumenical relations. As far as I am aware, none of the Churches with which we have formal ecumenical relations is proposing to opt in to same-sex marriage.”

    They’ve forgotten the Porvoo churches and the possibility that a Church of Sweden service, for example, might happen in England involving a Church of England priest or indeed a Church of England priest travelling to Sweden to marry a same-sex couple.

  2. Richard Ashby says

    So Mr Fittall thinks that the opt out for the CofE on same sex marriage won’t harm its image. Really? Or perhaps he doesn’t care.

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