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Bishops divided as gay-marriage Bill passes in Lords

05 June 2013


FOURTEEN diocesan bishops were present at the vote on a wrecking amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill on Tuesday night, the largest number to attend a vote in recent times.

Of the 14, nine voted for Lord Dear's wrecking amendment to deny the Bill a second reading. Five abstained. The nine were: the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of Bristol, Birmingham, Chester, Coventry, Exeter, Hereford, London, and Winchester. The Bishops of Derby, Guildford, Leicester, Norwich, and St Edmundsbury & Ipswich abstained.

The amendment was rejected in the House of Lords by 390 votes to 148. Several Christian Peers spoke in favour of the Bill. Lord Black of Brentwood, a Christian in a civil partnership, said: "I support it because I am a Christian and I believe we are all equal in the eyes of God, and should be so under man's laws."

On Monday, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill would see marriage "abolished, redefined and recreated".

Speaking on the first day of the Second Reading of the Bill in the House of Lords, Archbishop Welby warned: "The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of a marriage as covenant is diminshed. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society . . . is weakened."

He expressed "sadness and sorrow" for the Church's "considerable failure" to serve the LGBT communities "in the way it should". He suggested that Bill could have introduced, alongside traditional marriage, "a new and valued institution . . . for same gender relationships, which I would personally strongly support to strengthen us all". Instead it "weakens what exists and replaces it with less good option that is neither equal nor effective".

Archbishop Welby concluded: "This is not, at heart, a faith issue; it is about the general social good. And so with much regret but entire conviction, I cannot support the Bill as it stands".

The Bishops of Chester, Leicester and Exeter also spoke during the debate, as did Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Harries, a former Bishop of Oxford.

Ealier in his speech, Archbishop Welby described comments made by the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam (below), last week in support of gay marriage as a "strong and welcome contribution". 

Bishop Holtam, who does not yet qualify for the House of Lords, sent a letter last Wednesday in response to a request from Lord Alli of Norbury, a Muslim who was the first peer to be open about his homosexuality. It sets out why he is "sympathetic to the possibility of equal marriage" and has a different view from that stated in the Church of England's response to the Government's consultation on the matter ( News, 15 June 2012).

He writes: "The theological debate is properly located in the Biblical accounts of marriage, which is why so many Christians see marriage as essentially heterosexual.

"However, Christian morality comes from the mix of Bible, Christian tradition and our reasoned experience. Sometimes Christians have had to rethink the priorities of the gospel in the light of experience. For example, before Wilberforce, Christians saw slavery as biblical and part of the God-given ordering of creation.

"Similarly in South Africa the Dutch Reformed Church supported Apartheid because it was biblical and part of the God-given order of creation. No one now supports either slavery or Apartheid. The biblical texts have not changed; our interpretation has."

Bishop Holtam first voiced his support for same-sex marriage last year ( News, 10 February). After a meeting with the Bishop of Sherborne, Dr Graham Kings, he issued a statement noting that he and Dr Kings "disagree about the appropriateness of using the word 'marriage' for same-sex relationships" and reaffirming his commitment to "supporting marriage as it is currently understood" and "upholding the current discipline and practice of the Church of England".

In his letter to peers, Bishop Holtam writes: "I used to think that it was helpful to distinguish between same-sex civil partnerships and heterosexual marriage. . . However, the relationships I know in civil partnerships seem to be either of the same nature as some marriages or so similar as to be indistinguishable. . . Open recognition and public support have increased in civil partnerships those very qualities of life for which marriage itself is so highly celebrated. It is not surprising this now needs recognition in law."

He argues: "The possibility of 'gay marriage' does not detract from heterosexual marriage unless we think that homosexuality is a choice rather than the given identity of a minority of people. Indeed the development of marriage for same sex couples is a very strong endorsement of the institution of marriage."

In an interview published in The Independent on Monday, Lord Alli said that he had recently met the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, and asked for his "blessing" to approach Bishop Holtham to write the piece. Archbishop Welby had said: "Absolutely. And that goes for any bishop," Lord Alli said.

On Sunday, the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, said on BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme that the Bill "won't cut the relationship between Church and state, but it will introduce a dislocation which is almost unprecendented".

He referred to a suggestion by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a Conservative Peer, that signing the Bill might compromise the Queen's ability to uphold her Coronation Oath. Dr Forster said: "Now that you can have canon law and statute law, for the very first time in our history, diametrically opposed, and that is what is unique and unprecedented about this Bill, puts the Queen in a difficult position."

Lord Harries, who intends to vote in favour of the Bill, cited the discussion of issues of contraception, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and divorce reform as times when the Church of England had been "reasonably near the cutting edge of reform. Now the Church of England, in opposing gay marriage, is suddenly putting itself out of step with what is the mainstream view of the country at the moment."

On Saturday, a letter opposing the Bill, signed by 53 religious leaders including the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Mike Hill, was published in the Daily Telegraph. It accuses the Government of having "failed to engage in meaningful debate with the many different faith communities in Britain.

"It has wrongly assumed that opposition to the redefintion of marriage is confined to a small number of Christians. In particular during the committee stage of the Bill, faith leaders from other religions, races and creeds were not consulted."

The signatories are "unimpressed" by the safeguards offered by the Government, and the Bill "devalues the meaning of marriage itself".

Signatories include prominent Conservative Evangelicals such as the Revd Dr Lee Gatiss, director of Church Society, the Ven. Michael Lawson, chairman of the Church of England Evangelical Council and a former Archdeacon of Hampstead, the Revd Paul Perkin, chairman of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, Canon Dr Chris Sugden, executive secretary of Anglican Mainstream, Prebendary Rod Thomas, chairman of Reform and the Revd Dr Simon Vibert of Wycliffe Hall.

This morning, more than 30 non-Anglican church leaders delivered a letter to Lambeth Palace urging Archbishop Welby to "whip" the Bishops in the House of Lords to attend the vote and oppose the Bill.

Signatories include a number of leaders of Black Majority churches.

Archbishop Welby's full speech can be read here.

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