THE prospect of the
Church of England's allowing clergy to solemnise same-sex marriages
is "nowhere on the horizon", the Secretary General of the General
Synod, William Fittall, said this week.
Mr Fittall gave evidence
to MPs on Tuesday during the Committee Stage of the Marriage (Same
Sex Couples) Bill, which passed its Second Reading in the House of
Commons last week (
News, 8 February). The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham
James, and the deputy legal adviser to the Synod, the Revd
Alexander McGregor, also gave evidence.
Mr Fittall told MPs that,
apart from one or two people who had expressed personal views on
their blogs, he did "not detect a strong debate among our bishops
around moving to same-sex marriage". It would be "possible" for the
General Synod to pass legislation enabling clergy to conduct
same-sex marriages, "but I have to say my assessment is, it is
nowhere on the horizon."
Asked by an MP whether
the Church's official stance on homosexuality might change in years
to come, Bishop James said that a group chaired by Sir Joseph
Pilling was looking at the Church's approach to sexuality (
News, 6 January 2012). "I think it's possible, of course, that
our understanding of same-sex relationships and how we treat them
would change," he said. But this would not necessarily "lead
automatically to the Church approving of same-sex marriage."
Bishop James acknowledged
that there was "no unanimity of view" in the C of E on same-sex
marriage, but said that there was "a distinction between the
doctrine of the Church of England, and what people who belong to
the Church of England think".
Bishop James said that
the C of E did not have any "official view" on whether civil
partnerships should be extended to heterosexual couples, but his
personal opinion was that it was "a strange anomaly that
heterosexual couples cannot register a civil partnership".
Mr Fittall said that the
Church was satisfied with the protections in the Bill provided by
the "quadruple lock" (
News, 14 December). Clause 1 of the Bill safeguarded the C of
E's canon law, which stated that marriage was between a man and a
woman. This meant that "the Church of England will be able to
continue to marry people according to its own doctrine. I think any
erosion of that would raise very serious issues indeed."
Mr Fittall continued: "We
value that opportunity to provide that service [of marriage] for
people . . . and we want to be able to go on providing that service
to people, which is why, for example, any playing around with the
locks [during the legislative process] . . . would be unattractive
At the resumption of the Committee session on Thursday, however,
the Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, said that he
thought it "highly regrettable that the Church feels the need to
have these triple or quadruple locks.
"My main worry about it, frankly, is the image of the Church
that it puts to ordinary people. My fear is that people will judge
God by the Church on this issue. God is infinitely more
compassionate and positive about gay people than the Church, in my
view. . . I can understand why that lock has been demanded, but I
am very fearful that the Church is forgetting its own gospel in
making that demand."
Dr John, who has publicly endorsed same-sex marriage (
Comment, 31 August), went on to say that he "would not want to
amend the Bill to force it [same-sex marriage] on the Church. . .
It is up to people like me, within the Church, to argue with the
Church and to try to help it move along to a more Christian
Dr John hoped that the Pilling report "may recommend some
acceptance of civil partnerships. There are already noises in the
wings suggesting that the bishops are moving round to becoming much
more positive about them. . .
"I am hopeful that that will be the first stage, but I hope that
we will go beyond that ultimately - I am sure we will go beyond it
ultimately, actually - to blessing same-sex marriages. We will get
there, but I think the delay is more political than theological at
Bishop James said on
Tuesday that the C of E's obligation to marry couples should be
maintained. "We want to be of service to those who live within our
parishes, and I think a very considerable number of people in
England look to their parish church as a natural place in which to
The Conservative MP Tim
Loughton asked whether a marriage at which an Anglican cleric
officiated on licensed premises would be considered illegal.
Such a scenario did not
seem "likely to arise", Mr McGregor said. "The general principle of
ecclesiastical law is that the clergy of the Church of England can
only use Church of England rites, Church of England forms of
services. There's a special exception for that in relation to
churches with which we have formal ecumenical relations, but, as
far as I'm aware, none of the Churches we have formal ecumenical
relations with are proposing to opt into same-sex marriage."
Giving evidence to MPs
earlier in the session on Tuesday, the Education Secretary, Michael
Gove, said that if the Bill was passed, there would be "no
requirement on any teacher to promote a view or doctrine with which
they felt any discomfort". Teachers would be expected to apply
"common sense", however, and behave in a "reasonable" manner.
Later on in the evidence session, Mr Fittall said: "Not
everybody does approach this with reasonableness and common sense.
You will get people on both sides of the argument who will want to
test [in the courts]."