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Stevens holds line as Government publishes same-sex marriage Bill

25 January 2013


THE Government's same-sex marriage legislation, published today, was brought forward too hastily and without a "clear mandate", the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, has said.

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was presented to Parliament yesterday, and is due to have its Second Reading on 5 February, when it will be debated by MPs.

Part of the Bill reads: "Any duty of a member of the clergy to solemnize marriages (and any corresponding right of persons to have their marriages solemnized by members of the clergy) is not extended by this Act to marriages of same sex couples." It defines a member of the clergy as "a clerk in Holy Orders in the Church of England, or . . . of the Church in Wales."

The Bill contains a "quadruple lock" of measures designed to protect religious freedom, including no religious organisation being compelled to marry same-sex couples ( News, 7 December).

Bishop Stevens said in a statement from Church House this morning that Church officials had "continued to raise questions about whether it is wise or appropriate to legislate at speed on a matter of such fundamental importance to society, when the proposal was not in any major party manifesto, the Coalition Agreement or the last Queen's Speech.

"The lack of a clear mandate and the absence of an overwhelming public consensus for change ought at least to give pause for thought."

Bishop Stevens said that "the Church of England. . . continues to hold the view, set out in doctrine and canon law, that marriage is a union between one man and one woman". The Church would, as the legislative process continued, seek "to press serious questions about the implications for wider society, for the significance of procreation and upbringing of children as part of the purpose of marriage, the effect on teaching in schools, and the work of chaplains and others with religious convictions who are involved in public service delivery."

Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, said today that the Bill "protects and promotes religious freedom, so that all religious organisations can act according to their doctrines and beliefs.

"Crucially, the Bill recognises the unique legal situation of the Church of England and the Church in Wales. Unlike any other religious organisation in this country, their clergy are subject to a legal duty to marry parishioners.

"To protect them from legal challenge, therefore, the Bill makes clear that this duty does not extend to same-sex couples. Both Churches have been clear that they do not currently wish to conduct marriages for same-sex couples. If they choose to do so at a later date, they will of course be able to." 

A statement from the Church in Wales said: "As a disestablished church with a legal duty to marry, the Church in Wales is uniquely placed. The Bill provides protection for the Church whilst still enabling it to make its own decision on same-sex marriage.

"Under the Bill, the duty of Church in Wales ministers to marry will not be extended to same-sex couples. However, should the Church's Governing Body decide in the future that the Church wishes to conduct such marriages, there is provision in the Bill for the law to be altered without the need for further primary legislation by Parliament. Instead, a resolution from the Church's Governing Body would trigger an order by the Lord Chancellor for the necessary legal changes to be made."

The Bill, which will be subject to a free vote by MPs, is expected to gain the support of a majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, as well as of Scottish Nationalists. It is likely to encounter serious opposition on the Conservative back benches. MPs such as David Burrowes, the chairman of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and Edward Leigh, the Roman Catholic MP, are among those who have spoken out against the legislation in recent months.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry MP, told MPs yesterday that Church officials and the Government's Equalities Office had discussed the drafting of the Bill during a series of conversations over the past few weeks. There had also been meetings between Church representatives and Mrs Miller, he said.

Campaigners against the Bill, including the Christian Institute and CARE, have urged churches to hold a "national day of prayer for marriage" on Sunday 3 February, two days before the Bill is expected to be debated in Parliament.

A message to supporters, sent on Wednesday, said that they should not worry if the Bill passes its second reading, "but it is important that as many MPs as possible vote 'no'. A healthy 'no' vote, even if it's not an outright majority, will put added pressure on the Government to drop its plans to redefine marriage."

Stonewall, the gay rights campaign group, has urged its supporters to lobby their MPs to support the Bill's second reading. Stonewall's chief executive, Ben Summerskill, said: "Supporters of this modest measure mustn't let a vocal minority block equality. . . We need straight people with lesbian or gay friends or relatives to stand up for their rights too. Equality benefits everyone, which is why we need every supporter to press MPs to vote for it."

Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner, said that the Bill was "welcome and commendable", but criticised the Government for retaining "the inequality of the current legal ban on heterosexual civil partnerships".

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill can be read here. Bishop Stevens's statement can be read in full here.

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