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The Crown, the Bishops, and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill

14 June 2013


From Mr Donald E. Draper

Sir, - I am not qualified to comment on the theology behind the Revd Dr Nigel Scotland's assertion that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is "clearly contrary to established Christian doctrine" (Letters, 7 June), but, as a solicitor of some years' standing, I would venture the opinion that his view could be be described as "moot". What is absolutely clear, however, is that there is no legal basis for his opinion that this makes it impossible for the Queen to grant the royal assent, should the Bill be passed by Parliament - as now seems inevitable.

The Queen has never yet withheld the royal assent in her 61-year reign. This is because the Constitution is predicated on the supremacy of Parliament. The coronation oath was not intended to give the monarch the discretion to reach his or her own judgements on religious matters - quite the reverse. It was intended as a polite reminder of Parliament's desire not to return to the traumas of the Tudor disputes and the Commonwealth, and of the parameters within which the monarch would be expected to work. There was to be no "back-door" reintroduction of Roman Catholicism, and any monarch had to agree to that as a condition of being crowned.

Subsequently, the views of Parliament on religious matters have evolved, but the convention remains that the royal assent is withheld on the advice of ministers (as happened the last time the royal assent was withheld, by Queen Anne in 1708). Such advice appears inconceivable in the current situation.

There has been only one occasion when the monarch has seriously considered withholding the royal assent on the grounds that it was incompatible with the coronation oath - in 1829, when George IV threatened to withhold it from the Catholic Emancipation Act. In the end, he relented, and I think we can all thank God now that he did. Since then, there have been several occasions when Parliament has passed legislation that could reasonably be said to be "clearly contrary to established Christian doctrine", most obviously the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857). Gladstone described this as the first Act ever passed that was explicitly contrary to Christian doctrine, but even he did not think for a moment of seeking to ask Queen Victoria to withhold the royal assent.

It appears desperately unedifying for Christians, having lost the wider argument about homosexuality, to try to block legislation with which they disagree by putting Her Majesty in a position where she either provokes a constitutional crisis or is made to look as though she is somehow being disloyal to her coronation oath, when nothing could be further from the truth.

For the record, I have no great enthusiasm for gay marriage, but I recognise that it is the will of Parliament, and, indeed, of the majority of the population.

Fairlawns, Combine Close
Sutton Coldfield
West Midlands B75 9TJ

From the Revd Alan Fraser

Sir, - The Revd Dr Nigel Scotland echoes the recent call of the Coalition for Marriage for the Queen to refuse to give the royal assent to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, on the grounds that it "clearly contradicts established Christian doctrine".

Leaving aside the constitutional implications of such a move (which would be considerable and damaging), I fear that Christian doctrine may not be as clearly established as Dr Scotland supposes. James I (VI of Scotland) was the first King of a united British Kingdom and has a good claim, with Elizabeth I, to be the co-founder of the Established Church in a form recognisable to us today.

He was Supreme Governor of the Church of England, a devout Anglican (indeed, the reputed originator of that word), a biblical scholar of some note, and the authoriser of the magisterial vernacular Bible translation that still bears his name. In short, he has an even greater claim than Dr Scotland to be an authority on what might constitute "the Protestant Reformed Religion as established by law" and the doctrine of the Church of England. He has probably an equal claim to be able to be able to define "the law of God and the true profession of the gospel".

As David M. Bergeron reminds us, in 1624 James wrote to his "favourite", George Villiers, whom he had recently made Duke of Buckingham, saying how much he hoped "that we may make this Christmas a new marriage, ever to be kept hereafter. For God so love me . . . I had rather live banished in any part of the Earth with you than live a sorrowful widow's life without you. And so God bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband" (King James and Letters of Homoerotic Desire, University of Iowa Press, 1999).

James was adamant that his love for Villiers was compatible with the scriptures, and is even reported by Roger Lockyer as having told the Privy Council that "Jesus Christ had done the same thing as he was doing and there was nothing reprehensible about it, for Christ had his John and he had his George."

While I would never presume to tell Her Majesty how to do her job, on the basis of the above, my advice to those hoping that, having lost the argument, they might still win the war, is not to hold their breath in expectation of royal support.

41 Hobhouse Close, Great Barr
Birmingham B42 1HB

From Mr Robert Ian Williams

Sir, - The Revd Dr Nigel Scotland believes that the Queen will have her coronation promises violated if she signs gay marriage into law.

Does he realise that our Queen is also Queen of New Zealand and Canada, and that her signature, in the person of her respective Governor General, is already on similar legislation? Indeed, in the case of Canada, it has been there for ten years, and the Queen has not used her two-year veto, which exists in the Canadian constitution, to rescind such legislation.

Y Garreg Lwyd, Whitchurch Road
Bangor Is Y Coed
Wrexham LL13 0BB

From the Revd Dr M. A. Johnson

Sir, - The disgraceful speeches and voting of the Bishops last week in the House of Lords debate on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill brings to mind Canon Sydney Smith's comment in 1832:

"The attempt of the Lords to stop the progress of Reform reminds me forcibly of the great storm at Sidmouth, and of the conduct of the excellent Mrs Partington on that occasion. In the midst of this sublime and terrible storm, Dame Partington, who lived upon the beach, was seen at the door of her house with mop and bucket vigorously pushing away the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic was roused: Mrs Partington's spirit was up; but I need not tell you that the contest was unequal. The Atlantic Ocean won, as Reform will do."

Fortunately, the Bishops' efforts were defeated by 390 to 148, a majority of 242, and once again their moral leadership was questioned.

1 Foxgrove Drive, Woking
Surrey GU21 4DZ

From the Revd Liam Beadle

Sir, - The Archbishop of Canterbury has argued in the House of Lords that the Government's proposal to extend the language of marriage to same-gender couples "diminishes" the covenantal aspect of marriage and "weakens what exists".

The Church of England has a website (www.yourchurchwedding.org) dedicated to promoting Anglican churches as attractive venues for weddings. On the site, marriage itself is marketed as a lifestyle choice: not only is much made of the apparent financial advantages, but we are even told that marriage is good for our health.

The site also informs us that "sexual activity is strongly and invariably correlated with happiness", which probably undermines 2000 years of Christian teaching on sex and relationships.

If the Archbishop is anxious that marriage is being "weakened", perhaps the fault lies closer to the Church's door than we might first like to admit.

The Vicarage,
2 St Mary's Road, Honley
Holmfirth HD9 6AZ

From Canon John Goodchild

Sir, - You report the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, as saying that "the Bishops would seek to ensure church schools were able to teach traditional forms of marriage" (News, 7 June).

Presumably, this would include polygamy (the marital norm for much of the biblical period) and the priority of reproduction (according to the 1662 Prayer Book, and before the Lambeth Conference approved family planning).

What a pity the Bishops cannot concentrate on the divine quality of faithful love.

39 St Michaels Road
Liverpool L17 7AN

From Dr Christopher Shell

Sir, - Your leader comment (7 June) asserts that "the institution" of marriage is in trouble. This is demonstrably untrue.

If it were the institution that were at fault, the fallout from this would be seen in every land, historical period, and culture where the institution is found. But it is not. Therefore, it must be particular cultures - or, rather, their movers and shakers, and their faulty philosophies - that are to blame: in this instance, post-1960 secularism.

When secularists point to this institution's contemporary failures, we should remember that all of these are a result of the "reforms" that they themselves initiated and the Christians opposed.

186 Ellerdine Road
Hounslow TW3 2PX

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