Lord Ali makes the Bishop of Hereford an unwelcome offer

There is a madness that attends the work of the Director of Changing Attitude. I force myself to read extensive sections of Hansard from time to time, when relevant to the work of CA. This is a task for which I am not congenitally suited. If you want to read about Lord Ali’s offer, scroll towards the bottom now. The next bit verges on the obsessive.

Having read the Archbishop of York’s speech first thing today, I turned to read the contribution to the House of Lord’s debate made by Anthony Priddis, the Bishop of Hereford. I am amazed that he had dedicated a considerable amount of time to research information for his detailed speech supporting the amendments in the name of Lady Cumberlege. Maybe someone helped him. The Baroness has tabled an amendment seeking to deal with the absence of protection for civil registrars who might object to same-sex marriages on religious grounds.

The bishop is very concerned with conscience clauses and establishing categories for protection. He said “What is at issue is the category itself and protection for people, even if it is only a few people. We need to protect them and this seems to be the right way of doing it.”

I found myself wondering whether Anthony Priddis would show equal and dedicated concern for the protection of the consciences of the LGB&T minority in society and church. He contributes to the problem being created by some members of the House of Bishops – the impression that they are totally one-sided in their concerns and have no interest in achieving genuine equality and protection for LGB&T people.

His speech continued with two paragraphs about conscience clauses and exemptions. I found it hard to understand the development of his argument. Try for yourself.

He then referred to a report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights about whether existing employment and equality law provisions provide sufficient protection for employees (teachers and civil registrars) who may wish to manifest their belief about same-sex marriage in the workplace (which interpreted means, they think God is against it).

The Committee came to no final conclusion on whether additional protections are required, in part due to the complexity of the issues involved and the divergence of opinion upon them but recommended that the Government reconsider these issues with a view to bringing forward amendments in the House of Lords to put in place transitional arrangements.

Next he referred to the National Panel for Registration which had issued a briefing ahead of the debate. He quoted:

“We are strongly opposed to any ‘conscience clauses’ enabling Registrars to ‘opt out’ of marrying same sex couples. We consulted widely within the LRS”—the local registration service—“during the consultation on equal marriage and we want to assure you that no member of the LRS has called for a conscience clause”.

The bishop wanted to know how that consultation was held, how many people were consulted and what proportion responded. He wondered “whether some of those who might have wished to respond in another context or in another survey might have felt disinclined to do so because there is no conscience clause at the moment and because they did not therefore want, as some might put it, to put their head above the parapet.” Clearly the survey was faulty because it failed to produce the result he needed.

And he quoted the National Panel for Registration again:

“Registrars are local authority employees and are expected to carry out all the function that their role covers. At present this includes delivering civil partnership ceremonies. We do not believe that delivering equal marriage ceremonies will be any different. Allowing some Registrars to opt out of civil marriage for same sex couples would be discriminatory and cause serious administrative difficulties in delivering services”.

Because it states, “We do not believe that delivering equal marriage ceremonies will be any different” the bishop thinks they are saying there is no difference between civil partnerships and equal marriage. That’s shoddy thinking, bishop.

He is puzzled because, on the one hand, the panel is saying that it is not aware of any registrars wanting a conscience clause, yet, on the other, it is saying that if there were to be a conscience clause it would, “cause serious administrative difficulties in delivering services”.

Yet, he says, “in areas where there are only a few registrars or even, as the panel might think, none, it is hard to see quite how it would be so difficult to deliver the services. That is rather contradictory.”

I began to wonder why I was spending my time analysing this speech, with its somewhat obsessive need to pick holes in the bill, worrying that I was doing the same with his speech.

Finally, he quoted Jeffrey John in support of his argument, who in evidence given to the Commons Public Bill Committee on 14 February was asked whether he felt that registrars should have equal protection. Jeffrey said he would not be against it, personally. He thought it would be sensible if local councils made individual provision for registrars who seriously find equal marriage a difficulty.

This is obviously the coup de grace for the bishop. If Jeffrey John said he wouldn’t personally be against it, then obviously it’s something any reasonable person should support. Oh God, I wish such time and energy were being given to support LGB&T clergy and lay people in the Diocese of Hereford.

Lord Ali intervenes

Relief came in the form of Lord Alli who spoke next (and to whom the bishop of Salisbury wrote). He agreed with the statement that this House has at its core the belief that every citizen in this country has a right—regardless of creed, colour, background, religion or sexual orientation, to have equal access to the services that we pay for. No one should be denied equal access to services simply because of the way they were born. It cannot be right, equally, for public servants to pick and choose which laws they will and will not implement.

Lord Ali said he has an uncomfortable feeling about the notion that simply having a strong religious belief against gay marriage entitles you to be exempt from the law, but that having the opposite and equally strong religious conviction does not. There is no conscience clause to allow an individual priest or cleric who is a registrar to opt in, no matter how strong their conscientious belief that same-sex marriage should be allowed to be performed in religious settings.

He made an offer to the Bishops of Hereford and Leicester. If they are prepared to accept a conscience clause on one side, then help him to craft a conscience clause for the clerics and priests in the Church of England who wish to opt in to registrar marriages. “You have got your lock,” he said: “attacking ours is not, in my view, a clever move.”

Anthony Priddis replied obliquely, so Lord Ali repeated his offer. “If a conscientious clause to allow registrars to opt out in civil marriage is so important, I will work with him to craft a similar clause to allow registrars in the Church of England to opt in. Conscience is not a one-way street. It goes both ways. If you want to opt out, we must come back and question why we cannot opt in. It is about more than just one conscience. We all have a conscience and mine tells me that this amendment is wrong in principle.”

The bishop didn’t reply.

I’m going to lie down in a darkened room.


  1. says

    Oh Colin! I almost lost the will to live reading the first few paragraphs of this post, but I thanked God instead that reading your potted version saves me from having to read the much worse original (there is a compliment to you in there somewhere, even if you have to dig…)
    Poor Jeffrey John – I expect he prefers to pick his battles with some care and I can’t altogether blame him for ducking this one. But clever, wonderful, Lord Alli. Brilliant! Come on, Colin, come out of the darkened room – we can safely leave it all to him!

  2. Jeremy Pemberton says

    Oh Colin! I spent too much of my lunch half-hour reading Hansard. I wonder if the Revd Prelate the Bishop of Hereford (this pompous style of speech is catching – and rather charming all at the same time) has any idea how thoroughly nasty and bigoted he sounds. Please note I am not in fact saying that he is either of those things. But too many people will read maybe a potted version of what he says, or a soundbite or two – and will think “what an insufferable homophobic bigot”. And it is so painful that this kind of performance brings church, god and gospel into disrepute. I can’t wait for this all to be over.

Join the discussion