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MPs seek movement from Bishops on same-sex marriage

16 January 2023

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PARLIAMENTARIANS are putting pressure on the Church of England to change canon law to allow same-sex marriage in church.

The College and House of Bishops are meeting in London this week to confirm the outcomes of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) discernment process (News, 16 December 2022). These outcomes, or recommendations, regarding same-sex relationships, are to be presented to the General Synod when it meets early next month, and ultimately put to the vote. They will be made public on Friday.

This might include a vote on whether the Church should amend canon law to permit same-sex blessings or marriages. Several MPs have written publicly or privately to their diocesan bishops in support of such a move.

Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP for Exeter, said that it was “extremely important that the bishops show leadership” on the issue. He suggested that Parliament might be tempted to act if “significant change” was not felt to be “imminent”.

“I don’t think parliamentarians want disestablishment, but they can’t see how the current established status of the Church, with the duties and privileges it brings, is sustainable,” he told the Church Times on Monday.

“If there’s no significant movement now, I’m not sure whether parliamentarians want to look first at disestablishment, or reforming the Equality Act to remove the exemption” currently received by the Church of England, he said. “I don’t necessarily think there needs to be any kind of formal or legislative action as long as there was a feeling among parliamentarians that significant change is imminent.”

Mr Bradshaw warned that “no change, or minimal change, will simply mean that the issue continues to fester, and the Church of England won’t be able to talk about anything else that matters.” This, he said, would be a “tragedy”.

The Conservative MP for Darlington, Peter Gibson, also spoke in support of change to canon law on marriage, saying that the current situation — in which the Scottish Episcopal Church permitted same-sex marriage while the C of E did not — amounted to a “postcode lottery”.

Mr Gibson said that he had written to the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, to whom he had previously spoken about this issue. Asked about what processes Parliament might enact to put further pressure on the Church, Mr Gibson said that he did not want to go “down a constitutional rabbit hole”.

Though it would be “wonderful” if the Synod endorsed same-sex marriage, he said, it was “perhaps not going to happen quite so quickly, without some intermediate steps”, such as the provision of blessings.

It was necessary, however, for “some movement” to be made, he said, alongside “some real acknowledgement that gay people form an integral part of many church communities, including the clergy”.

The Church Times understands that at least 16 MPs have written to their area or diocesan bishops recommending that the Church change its position on same-sex marriage. This is understood to include the Labour MPs Saron Hodgson, Lilian Greenwood, Nadia Whittome, Alex Norris, Lyn Brown, Kim Leadbetter, Angela Eagle, and Luke Pollard. Neil Coyle, who sits as an independent after his suspension from the Labour Party last year, is also reported to have sent a letter, as has Alicia Kearns, the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton.

On Twitter, Mr Bradshaw praised an open letter from the Leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, to the Bishop of Portsmouth, Dr Jonathan Frost.

Dated 15 January but published on Twitter on Monday morning, the letter says that Ms Mordaunt “wanted to get in touch about the forthcoming meeting of Church of England Bishops to finalise their recommendation to February's General Synod about how the Church moves forward on the question of same sex relationships”.

She expressed hope that the bishops would “back reform, allowing parishes and clergy to conduct weddings for same sex couples or, at a minimum, enable authorized blessings.

“I want all my constituents and others to be able to have the right to have their relationships solemnised in their local parish in England.”

Ms Mordaunt wrote that “this issue has been under discussion within the Church of England for a long time,” and that “I fear if it is not resolved at next month’s General Synod the matter will continue to fester and detract from the positive contribution the Church of England makes to our society.”

It was, she went on to say, “important to recognize the pain and trauma that this continues to cause many LGBT+ people who are left feeling that they are treated as second class citizens within our society”.

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