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Fittall: gay marriage ‘not on horizon’

15 February 2013


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 to us."

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 position."

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 the moment."

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 be married."

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]."

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