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Bishops gather in Lords to vote against gay-marriage Bill

07 June 2013


Upholding: protesters against the same-sex marriage Bill outside the Houses of Parliament on Monday

Upholding: protesters against the same-sex marriage Bill outside the Houses of Parliament on Monday

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

Of the 14, nine voted for Lord Dear's 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 by 390 votes to 148.

Several Christian peers spoke in favour of the Bill. Lord Jenkin of Roding said: "The character of love which marriage reflects - that it is faithful, stable, tough, unselfish, and

unconditional - is the same character that most Christians see in the love of God. Marriage is therefore holy, not because it is ordained by God, but because it reflects that most important central truth of our religion: the love of God for all of us."

On Monday, the Archbishop of Canterbury had warned that the Bill would see marriage "abolished, redefined, and recreated". "The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of a marriage as covenant is diminished. 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 LGBT communities "in the way it should". He suggested that the 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".

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Timothy Stevens, who spoke as "one whose respect for and appreciation of gay clergy is deep and who recognises in them sacrificial lives and fruitful ministries", warned that same-sex marriage would "bring to an end the one major social institution that enshrines that complementarity". Nevertheless, concluding that it was not "appropriate to frustrate the clear will of the Commons", he abstained from the vote.

On Wednesday, Bishop Stevens said that he could not in conscience vote for the amendment, as it was the "responsibility of the Lords to consider the legislation sent from the Commons. That is our job. If we do not like it, we can discuss and amend it, and if necessary, we can reject it. But the Dear amendment was to avoid any such amendment or discussion process."

He said that reports in the press that bishops had been advised by officials from Church House to stay away from the debate were "completely untrue".

On Monday, the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, called for a "more radical reconstruction of the law": "We should consider going some way towards the Continental version, which has a legal, contractual relationship that is the same for everyone, absolutely without question. Then we could develop different religious understandings on top of that."

The Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, argued that "a Bill predicated on the claim that marriage should be equal and gender is irrelevant has to recognise that this logic breaks down when confronted by the reality of marriage as hitherto universally understood." He quoted Lady Thatcher: "Equity is a very much better principle than equality."

Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, warned that the Bill would leave marriage "weakened and diminished".

Several Christian peers spoke in favour of the Bill. Lord Harries, a former Bishop of Oxford, said: "I believe, with the Jewish rabbi of old, that in the love of a couple there dwells the shekinah - the divine presence; or, to put it in Christian terms, that which reflects the mutual love of Christ and his Church. I believe in the institution of marriage, and I want it to be available to same-sex couples as well as to males and females."

Lord Blair of Boughton said: "I hope that one day, before I die, I will see the Anglican Church unlock that quadruple lock from the inside."

Lord Black of Brentwood, who is in a civil partnership, said of the Bill: "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."

During his speech, Archbishop Welby welcomed comments made by the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam.

Bishop Holtam, who does not yet qualify to sit in the House of Lords, wrote 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. The Bishop set out why he has a different view from that stated in the Church of England's response to the Government's consultation on the subject ( News, 15 June 2012).

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."

On Monday, Bishop Holtam said that he was able to square his letter with a statement he issued last year reaffirming his commitment to "supporting marriage as it is currently understood", "because I do not see same-sex marriage as a threat to heterosexual marriage".

On Saturday, a letter opposing the Bill, signed by 53 leaders from various faiths, including the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Mike Hill, and several prominent conservative Evangelicals, was published in The Daily Telegraph. It accused the Government of having "failed to engage in meaningful debate with the many different faith communities in Britain".

The Bill will now pass to Committee Stage in the House of Lords. On Wednesday, Bishop Stevens said that there was a "lot of work to do to ensure that it is good and improved".

The Bishops would seek to ensure that church schools were able to teach traditional views of marriage, and that freedom of speech was protected. They "may want to put down amendments about the question of fidelity in marriage, how that is understood in equal marriage", he said.

Leader comment

Question of the Week: Should the Bishops have voted for the wrecking amendment?

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