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MPs outline how Parliament might open same-sex marriage choice to clergy

07 February 2023

Francis Martin/Church Times

Sir Tony Baldry addresses Synod members on Tuesday afternoon, watched by Ben Bradshaw MP and Jayne Ozanne, a Synod member who organised the event

Sir Tony Baldry addresses Synod members on Tuesday afternoon, watched by Ben Bradshaw MP and Jayne Ozanne, a Synod member who organised the event

THE former Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, and the Labour MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, have outlined to General Synod members the actions that Parliament might take on same-sex marriage in the Church of England.

Sir Tony told a full room of Synod members in a fringe event on Tuesday afternoon: “The Church of England is the creation of Parliament: everything of any significance that has happened to the governance of the Church of England . . . has been approved by Parliament.”

He suggested that a Private Member’s Bill with the effect of permitting Church of England priests to marry same-sex couples would be the most straightforward and unobtrusive method that Parliament could use to make the situation analogous to the current approach taken to the marriage of divorced people. “Such legislation would not oblige a single priest to do anything against their will or conscience, but would reflect what is happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom,” he said.

He was referring to both the Scottish Episcopal Church, in which same-sex marriage is permitted, and the Church in Wales, where blessings are already permitted.

Sir Tony said that he appreciated the Archbishop of Canterbury’s concerns about maintaining the Anglican Communion’s unity, but asked: “Why is the unity of the Church of England with, say, the Church of Uganda or the Church in South Sudan more important that the unity of the Church of England with its sister Churches in Scotland and Wales?”

Referring to deliberations on women bishops, which occurred while he was Second Commissioner, Sir Tony said that he was “in no doubt that the concerns raised in Parliament seriously helped concentrate the minds of members of General Synod”.

The Church’s “opposition to same-sex relationships is a serious barrier to admission, with many younger people thinking on matters of sexuality that the approach of the Church of England is at best weird and at worst homophobic”.

Mr Bradshaw echoed Sir Tony’s points, and emphasised that MPs were not minded to go for a “nuclear option” involving disestablishment. But, he said, “I think there would be support for the sort of parliamentary initiative that Sir Tony has just outlined.”

Other options, considered “gentler” than disestablishment, included removing the clauses in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 which currently prevent Church of England priests’ solemnising same-sex marriages.

“I want you as members of Synod to just be conscious of the fact that Parliament is worried about this,” Mr Bradshaw said. “Parliament values the role of the Church of England as an Established Church, and it wants to nurture that relationship; but it’s not prepared to do so at all costs, and particularly not at the cost of continuing to discriminate against people because they happen to be gay.

“I happen to be gay, I happen to be an Anglican, I happen to be in a faithful, monogamaous marriage to my partner of 28 years,” Mr Bradshaw said. “A bit like I stayed in the Labour Party and fought under Jeremy Corbyn, I’m staying in the Church of England, and I’m fighting for this; and I think a lot of my colleagues in Parliament will join me in that fight.”

In a Q&A session at the end, one Synod member suggested: “In this cultural moment, the mood music and the social-media atmosphere is such that any priest choosing to decline to do same-sex marriages opens themselves up to informal or even organised local campaigns.” How could such priests be “protected from that sort of unintended consequence”?

Sir Tony replied: “I think one of the things that we’ve all got to be grown up and recognise is that, as I said, there are various tribes in the Churches and various different groups,” and that it was important to ensure that all those views were respected.

“I think we should not be frightened of doing what we consider to be right on the basis that it may offend some. I think we just have to encourage people to be a lot more tolerant to each other.”

Mr Bradshaw suggested that it was an “unfounded fear, the idea that there are all these militant LGBTQ+ Christians who will come and picket or demonstrate outside your church. I suspect they’ve got better things to do with their time, as long as thy feel that there’s a church, maybe in the same town or in the next town, where they can go and feel welcomed and affirmed.”

Another member asked whether, if Parliament chose to legalise polygamy, the C of E would be forced to embrace it, to which Sir Tony replied: “I think the prospects of Parliament ever agreeing polygamy — if that is the best argument — I think that is zero.”

Mr Bradshaw added that MPs had constituents, including clerics, who came to them “in real distress” about the C of E’s stance on homosexuality. “I don’t have lots of people coming to my surgery asking that polygamy is legalised.”

The fringe event was held in Mary Sumner House, Westminster, during the lunchtime adjournment of the Synod meeting. To reach the venue, members had to pass a group of ten protesters outside Church House, who held up a poster depicting Archbishop Welby as the devil, and calling on Synod members to “reject wokery”.

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