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Same-sex marriage

13 July 2012

THE Church of England response to the Government's consultation on gay marriage, its status, and the process that lay behind it came under close scrutiny during Questions last Friday.

Mary Durlacher (Chelmsford) asked what steps would be taken to ensure that the Church of England's teaching on marriage remained represented in schools, in the light of the Government's proposals to legalise same-sex marriage.

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, described this as a "hot potato". The Church was "much engaged in conversations" at different levels, and he encouraged people to make their views known.

Canon Giles Goddard (Southwark) suggested that "the continued uncertainty" over the Church's position on civil partnerships "undermines the ministry of loyal and faithful clergy in civil partnerships". What measures were being taken to affirm those clergy in civil partnerships?

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, recognised that Canon Goodard, like him, was "frustrated", but suggested that the work of the review group had "better be done thoroughly and fairly". The response to the Government's consultation on same-sex marriage referred to civil partnerships, and indicated "that in this everything is still in play".

The Archbishop of Canterbury answered a group of questions together, including those from Canon Anne Stevens (Southwark) and the Revd Professor Richard Burridge (Universities, London), reflecting on how the response had claimed to represent "the Church of England". The submission had been discussed in draft by the Archbishops' Council and the House of Bishops, and amended to reflect comments made in those fora. It had been signed off by him and by the Archbishop of York, and sent to the Home Secretary, with a covering letter that had described it, accurately, as the "official Church of England response to the Government consultation document". This procedure had been followed on House of Lords reform, the Crown appointments process, and the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor.

In a supplementary question, Professor Burridge suggested that the Archbishop, in answering his question, had failed to explain how the process for responding to the consultation had been determined theologically and ecclesiastically.

Dr Williams said that the docu-ment was not a document of the House of Bishops, but a document that had been discussed with the House and with the Archbishops' Council, and could thus be said to be an expression of the bishops in synod.

Canon Stevens went on to ask whether official responses in areas of controversy might "at least acknowledge the presence of some diversity in the Church". She acknowledged Canon B30 on marriage, cited by the Archbishop, but suggested that diversity already existed in its interpretation, in that some clergy were prepared to marry divorcees.

Dr Williams argued that there was an acknowledgement of diversity in the response, in that the ongoing discussion on ethics regarding same-sex marriage was "specifically flagged": "It is not exactly a secret that the Church of England is having some discussions about this." But many would argue that "flexibility about how we respond to the breakdown of marriage is different from the question of marriage itself."

Robin Hall (Southwark) asked: "During the drafting was any consideration given to the pastoral care of the thousands of loyal An-glicans who woke up [on the day the response to the consultation was published] to discover that the Church officially demeaned and dis-criminated, in their view, against permanent . . . relationships?"

Dr Williams found this question-begging; but this had been very much in the Bishops' minds. "Much has been made of our need to be affirmative of civil partnerships". There had been "recognition that we have not always got it right".

Canon Michael Parsons (Gloucester) asked about the membership of the group that had produced the submission.

Answering this with several other questions from the Dean of Portsmouth, the Very Revd David Brindley (Deans), Tom Sutcliffe (Southwark), and others, Dr Williams said that the Archbishops' Council had considered a paper last November from the staff on the implications for the C of E of the Government's proposal, and that further work had needed to be done on the rationale for resistance to, or unhappiness with, it.

Staff had prepared the draft submission, which had been considered by residential meetings of the Archbishops' Council and House of Bishops in May, and shared in draft with members of the Mission and Public Affairs Council.

The Archbishops' Council had agreed that a "clear response" needed to be submitted, and that the draft covered the necessary ground. Then the Bishops "agreed the general shape of the response, considered a number of detailed suggestions regarding the content of the draft, and invited the Archbishops to finalise the draft". It was "not usual" to consult the Synod on government consultations.

Canon Parsons then asked if the Archbishop was aware of the "outrage felt by a significant portion of the Church of England that this statement was issued . . . that they wish to dissociate themselves permanently from it?"

Dr Williams said he was aware of this, but "it remains the case that we are as the Church of England bound by the law which governs us." The Government's consultation paper had been "deeply flawed" in regard to the legal position of the C of E and its clergy, and the "fundamental legal issues" raised by it "will not go away".

Prebendary Rod Thomas (Exeter) asked, "in the light of revelations . . . about the suppression by the Government relating to the impact of same-sex marriage on what is taught in schools", whether consideration would be given to making "further representations to the Government".

Dr Williams told the Revd Stephen Coles (London) that the House of Bishops had no plans to invite the Synod to inititiate a revsion of Canon B30, though there were many ways in which such a question could come to the Synod and other bodies.

In answer to questions from Joanna Monckton (Lichfield) and others, Dr Williams said that discussions were ongoing with the Home Secretary and Home Office, and that the basis of the mandate for changing the state's understanding of marriage, given the lack of commitment to this in the election manifestos, was a question that required a more lucid answer than it had so far received.

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