Leader: Legal protection for clerical consciences

by
10 March 2010

A LITTLE historical perspective might help those who are alarmed at the consequences of the amendment to the Equality Bill passed in the House of Lords at the end of last month. The effect of it, if the Bill survives intact, would be to permit same-sex partnerships to be solemnised in Quaker meetings, Unitarian churches, and Liberal synagogues. Much attention was given last week to the fears expressed by the Bishops of Winchester and Bradford that clerics would be compelled to register civil partnerships, under threat of legal action for exercising discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Political parties are considering the possible con­sequences on votes in the forthcoming election. There is even a petition being got up to have the amendment thrown out.

Two points are perhaps worth bearing in mind. The first is a point of courtesy. The Church of England in recent times has defended its privileged level of representation in the House of Lords by arguing that the bishops function on behalf of all people of faith, and are encouraged to do so by the other denominations and faith leaders. This argument will not stand for long if bishops vote against the wishes of these others. As Michael Bartlet says for the Quakers (read article here): “Why should three smaller denomina­tions be denied the right to follow the conscience of their memberships, when the Established Church is permitted to do so?”

The second is a point of law. One reason why the C of E chose eight years ago not to proceed with a national scheme by Act of Synod for the marriage of couples after divorce was because of advice from the Church of England’s legal office to the House of Bishops in 2002 (Annex 2 to Marriage in Church After Divorce, GS1449). This was that the phrase in Canon B30 that marriage was “in its nature a union permanent and lifelong” was ambiguous and compatible with marriage after divorce. Because the Matrimonial Causes Act 1965 gave the conscientious right to refuse such a marriage to the relevant cleric alone, “the Church cannot therefore require him or her to act in a particular way, whether in an individual case . . . or by requiring the cleric to apply certain criteria or to follow certain procedures” (Annex 2, para 3a). In other words, the incumbent’s right to follow his or her own conscience in decisions about marrying divorcees is paramount. The Bishop of Winchester, who was steering through the national scheme at the time, must remember this precedent.

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There are other sorts of pressures besides legal ones, of course. Again, though, the example of the marriage of divorcees suggests that clergy who wish to hold to a traditional view of marriage are left perfectly free to pursue that line. They might be asked to explain their stance from time to time, but that is no hardship for those who value debate. What will be interesting is whether parish clergy will seek to extend the autonomy upheld in the 1965 Act, and claim the right to register civil partnerships. The Bishops of Winchester and Bradford have expressed their concern about pressure upon the Church from outside; it may be that they are just as worried about pressure from within.

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