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Archbishop defends gay-marriage response

07 July 2012


Petition: Chris Smith (Chief of Staff, Canterbury) holds a challenge to the C of E's submission on same-sex marriage

Petition: Chris Smith (Chief of Staff, Canterbury) holds a challenge to the C of E's submission on same-sex marriage

THE Church of England response to the Government's consultation on gay marriage ( News, 15 June), its status, and the process that lay behind it, came under close scrutiny during Questions at General Synod last night.

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".

His first presidential address, Dr Williams said, had begun with the words "Does the Church of England exist?" and so he was sensitive to such issues. 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 the Archbishop of York and himself, and sent under cover of a letter to the Home Secretary which had described it, accurately, as the "official Church of England response to the Government consultation document".

This was the same procedure as 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 document 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. "Given that they do have, theologically, guardianship of the tradition and teaching of the Church, the House of Bishops has a leading role in discussion of the response."

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 some diversity already existed in the interpretation of that canon, 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; it is the worst kept secret in Christendom." But he suggested that 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 Anglicans who woke up [on the day the response to the consultation was published] to discover that the Church officially demeaned and discriminated, in their view, against permanent and stable relationships?"

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

Canon Michael Parsons (Gloucester) then asked whether 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 that he was aware of this, but that "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 Church of England and of its clergy, and the "fundamental legal issues" raised by it "will not go away".

Gerald O'Brien (Rochester) thanked the Archbishop for the "robust defence of marriage" made in the response to the consultation; and there was a round of applause.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) asked whether it could be ensured that documents bore the name of "a body of persons who are answerable for" them. Dr Williams reiterated, briefly, what the drafting and signing off procedure was, and added: "I hear the question."

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. "It is only right to note, however, that same-sex marriage now has the official support of all three main parties."

Mr O'Brien asked whether it could be inferred from the Archbishop's comments that "he does not accept that the Government has a mandate to make these changes and that it has offered no evidence of a significant demand for it?"

The Archbishop said that this "would be a reasonable inference".



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