GOVERNMENT plans to legalise same-sex marriage threaten to “cut one of the threads of the Establishment”, senior church officials have said.
On Tuesday, the officials submitted a response, purportedly from the Church of England, to the Government’s consultation, which closed yesterday. The response, which is unattributed, was accompanied by a covering letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.
Within 24 hours, a petition objecting to the views in the response paper had attracted more than 1000 signatures.
The paper argues that to permit same-sex marriage would “dilute” marriage for everybody. It criticises the “fallacious assumption” that religious marriage differs from civil marriage. And it warns that the Government’s promise to limit same-sex couples to non-religious ceremonies would face the “serious prospect” of a successful challenge in the European Court of Human Rights.
The paper says that it is not about “knee-jerk resistance to change”. It is, instead, a defence of an “inherited understanding of marriage” which contributes a “vast amount to the common good”, including an acknowledgment of an “underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation”. To lose this definition “is to assert that men and women are simply interchangeable individuals”.
The Government has sought to reassure religious bodies that they will be unaffected by the proposals because they apply to “civil marriage” and not “religious marriage”. The C of E response, informed by the legal team at Church House, argues that this is “disingenous”. Marriage, as defined in English law, is a single institution, it argues.
If it were to be redefined as the Government proposes, marriage would become a new statutory concept that the Church would “struggle to recognise as amounting to marriage at all”. The canons of the Church of England, which are part of the law of England, would also be called into question.
The paper asserts that it is “very doubtful” whether the proposal to limit same-sex couples to non-religious ceremonies could withstand a challenge under the European Convention on Human Rights. It acknowledges the existence of the right to freedom of religious belief, but suggests that it is “very doubtful” that this would trump the right to equal treatment.
It concludes: “The proposals will potentially have a very significant impact on our ability to serve the people of the nation as we have always done.”
The director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, told Channel 4 News on Tuesday that redefining marriage would not “destroy” the relationship between Church and state, but would be “damaging”.
“The relationship between Church and state is a multi-stranded cord, but this is snipping away at one bit.”
Speaking on Monday, before the paper was released, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, said that many were in favour of blessing gay unions. “Some of us, I think, would be more sympathetic to the Church providing ways in which for Christian gay people their partnerships could be recognised and prayed for. Others would find that difficult, and that debate goes on.”
Ben Summerskill of the gay rights organisation Stonewall, speaking during Today on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, said that the Church of England’s response was a “masterclass in melodramatic scaremongering”. He suggested that there was “no evidence whatsoever” that people would take the Church of England to court, and pointed out that some clergy already refuse to marry divorcees.
A human-rights lawyer, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, said in the programme that it would be the Government rather than the Church of England that would be the subject of court cases. But she suggested that the European Court of Human Rights was “very tender towards religious sensibilities”, and that it was “inconceivable” that the Church or any individual would be forced to solemnise a marriage.
The claim that the response represents the official view of the Church of England has already been challenged. On Tuesday, the Revd Ian Stubbs, Priest-in-Charge of All Saints’, Glossop, posted a petition dissociating himself from the official submission. “I am bitterly disappointed by the Church’s shameful and outdated response to the proposals for gay marriage.” When the Church Times went to press, it had attracted 1076 signatures.
The LGB&T Anglican Coalition criticised the “scandalous lack of consultation” in the preparation of the response. The failure to recognise that same-sex couples seeking marriage wanted “something deeply spiritual which strengthens both the couple and society” had “impoverished” the Church’s teaching on marriage.
On Tuesday, Stonewall published a poll of of 2074 adults suggesting that 71 per cent of people, and 58 per cent of “people of faith”, in their sample supported the proposals to legalise same-sex marriage. The charity argues that the “vitriol” seen in statements by “some senior clerics” in relation to the proposals is evidence of a “deeply worrying prejudice toward gay people”. It argues that extending the right to marry to gay people is an “appropriate remedy” to discrimination.
Question of the Week: Does the official submission reflect your views on same-sex marriage?