Dreams and challenges we all (and especially the House of Bishops) have to face

Following the House of Lords debate on the Marriage (same sex couples bill) when Lord Dear’s motion was decisively defeated, dates have been announced for the committee stage – Monday 17th, Wednesday 19th, and Monday 24th June. A number of amendments have been tabled, some by members of the House of Bishops.

If I was one of the bishops other than the 9 who voted for Lord Dear’s amendment, I’d be feeling pretty dispirited at the moment. Well, I think I’d be dispirited if I was one of the 9, but conservatives have a way of translating failure into the potential for success, even when the odds seem stacked against them.

I know that many bishops are fully supportive of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who worship in congregations in their dioceses, of their clergy, and of those members of the House of Bishops who are gay. And I know that they find it incredibly difficult (with one exception) to state clearly and publicly what they really think and feel. I hope they will continue either to absent themselves from the Lords or abstain in votes, though I really wish they would attend and vote against amendments that are hostile to the well-being of LGB&T people or are simply unnecessary.

The members of the House of Bishops are having to deal with teaching and policy in relation to LGB&T people on a number of fronts at the moment – the Equal Marriage bill; the sex life of gay clergy person who may be a candidate for Episcopal office; and the prospect of dealing with the Pilling report in December. It’s stressful!

Archbishop Justin Welby’s speech in the Lord’s debate typifies the contortions necessary to try and maintain that the Church of England really, really does like and welcome LGB&T people while at the same time satisfying conservative expectations (with which his own ideas are probably congruent) that the Church of England is going to uphold unchanging teaching about human sexuality and homosexuality (and therefore demonstrate that it doesn’t really, really like LGB&T people).

There is obviously a major problem for the majority of LGB&T Anglicans with this line, let alone for those LGB&T people who despair of the Church – we don’t buy it. There’s an even bigger problem, mostly ignored because of the focus on LGB&T issues. The majority of heterosexuals, single, partnered or married, also ignore traditional church teaching and practice. But let’s not talk about them – far too close to home, even for conservatives.

The move towards greater equality, real, full equality for LGB&T people in UK society, is presenting the Church of England with decisions that it is less and less able to avoid (though it is trying hard to avoid them or arguing as if historic values can still be imposed).

It isn’t east living in this newly emerging paradigm of intimate human sexual encounters and relationships. I don’t find it easy. And some conservatives find this new state of affairs deeply problematic.

Canon Chris Sugden commented on Anglican Mainstream’s web site. It was an attempt at a revisionist understanding of what happened in the debate and what the Bishop of Leicester’s subsequent statement really meant.

The members of the Lords, wrote Canon Sugden, have made clear that the large majority was not of those in favour of same sex marriage but in favour of giving the bill a second reading. They were avoiding being ‘constitutional anarchists,’ since rejecting a bill on second reading is not a recognized practice before it is given further scrutiny. The Coalition for Marriage stated: “148 Peers voted with Lord Dear against the Bill. That number is likely grow for key amendments at later stages, and may grow by the time the Bill reaches Third Reading in the Lords.” I, Colin, think this is a wishful statement that by the time of the Third Reading in the Lords, there may be a majority to defeat the bill.

The Lords Spiritual, writes Canon Sugden again, have not, as has been reported, ‘given up the fight’. They have decided to take full part in the amendment process. Some of them will seek to protect freedom of conscience for people who believe in traditional marriage and require the Government to review the impact of the legislation after it becomes law. They may seek to do this, but there is no guarantee following the overwhelming defeat of Lord Dear’s wrecking amendment, that they will succeed. It may be that such amendments may be more problematic now.

Canon Sugden say that the idea that society is becoming increasingly secular is highly debatable. All the evidence shows that in the last twenty years the west is becoming increasingly religious. If this is true, it is obviously good news – but is it true – where is the evidence. What I read from conservative Christians all the time is despair at the way society is becoming ever more secular and opposed to Christian freedoms.

Canon Sugden’s final point is to note that although young people do not understand why anybody should be against gay marriage, many of them are not married and do not have children and grandchildren so are not aware of many of the issues. I think this ventures into the realm of extreme wish fulfillment if he thinks that once married, they will become aware of ‘traditional Christian teaching and values’ about marriage. Indeed, based on the evidence, fewer may choose to marry and of those that do, fewer will marry in church.

Chris Sugden commends Peter Ould’s blog An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy. Peter claims that if you read the Bishop of Leicester’s statement carefully you can see that the Church of England has not surrendered on the Bill and in fact may very well continue to oppose it in Committee stage and at a Third Reading. The Bishop indicates that the concerns are valid, are easy to understand and that Parliament cannot argue it has not heard them or does not need to engage with them.

My understanding is that the House of Bishops has indeed surrendered on the Bill but not on their attempt to change of improve or worse it (according to your stance) by pursuing their own amendments. But I could be wrong, of course.

Peter analyses the Bishop of Leicester’s text and comes to the conclusion that the House of Bishops thinks it has some good grounds to challenge the Bill on particular matters.

He believes the key to understanding the intention of the House of Bishops can be found in the last sentence of the first paragraph: “Lastly, at this stage, is it appropriate to frustrate the clear will of the Commons on this Bill?” He thinks this indicates that the Bishops are contemplating the possibility of voting down the Commons’ proposal at some stage.

Rather than signalling a surrender, it seems to him that the Bishop’s statement on behalf of the House of Bishops in the Lords indicates that the Lords Spiritual are preparing to pull up their sleeves and get stuck in. He anticipates a number of interventions during the Committee and Report stages and the very real possibility of a collective No vote at the Third Reading.


  1. says

    Well. I view the alternative interpretation of the bishops’ statement with undiluted horror. It is somewhat like watching a slow motion car crash. The way I see it is this. If their amendments are rejected then there is a clear majority to sustain the bill all the way to Royal Assent. If amendments are made then voting down the bill at third reading is a kind of kamikaze act by the unelected chamber that will efface their own amendents as the Commons will surely use the Parliament Act thus losing all of their Lordships amendments. The most likely outcome is a range of tidying up amendments and some ‘for the avoidance of doubt’ statements which will leave people saying the bill is much improved by the Lords debates and that is the basis on which the bill will pass at third reading with an equality big majority.

Join the discussion