A BILL to remove legal impediments for Church of England priests wishing to conduct same-sex marriages has been introduced in the House of Commons, although the MP proposing the Bill admits that it has “no chance of becoming law”.
The Labour MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, proposed the Same Sex Marriage (Church of England) Bill on Tuesday afternoon, as a Private Member’s Bill under the Ten Minute Rule, and it was allowed to progress, with support from senior MPs from across the political divide (News, 15 March).
However, there is not enough time in the current parliamentary session for it to become law.
Mr Bradshaw described the Bill’s main purpose as being to “encourage the bishops to stick to the commitments and timetable agreed by February’s Synod (News, 9 February) and resist any delay or backsliding at the next Synod in July. . .
“I hope this Bill serves, if nothing else, to give hope to those still waiting for change . . . and sends a clear message to the Church of England leadership where Parliament stands on these matters.”
Mr Bradshaw argued that it was appropriate for Parliament to give the Church a “gentle nudge” because “the Church of England is not just some sect: it is the Established Church in England.”
In February, at a fringe event during the General Synod, Mr Bradshaw spoke alongside a former Second Church Estates Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, at which the latter had endorsed the idea of a Private Member’s Bill that would allow priests to perform same-sex marriages if they wished to do so (News, 7 February).
Justifying the move on Tuesday, Mr Bradshaw said that “some conservative Evangelicals and other opponents of equality” had claimed that the Bill “amounts to an attack on religious freedom or Parliament legislating on doctrine”.
“It is neither,” he said. “The Bill is deliberately drafted as permissive to allow those who wish to, to move forward, in certain circumstances, and such circumstances could include the prior approval by Synod.”
He said that “many would like Parliament to go further, including my own local priest”, but “my preference — and, I imagine, the preference of most colleagues — would be for the Church to do this itself.”
The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous, spoke against Mr Bradshaw’s motion, but did not call for a counted vote.
He said that the Bill “seeks to usurp the role of the democratically elected General Synod of the Church of England, as well as to remove the freedom of the Church of England to decide its own doctrine”.
Mr Selous, who is the Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire, said that he was “acutely aware of the personal pain and hurt that this issue causes for so many people, but it is for the democratically elected assembly of the Church of England, the General Synod, to decide matters of doctrine, rather than Parliament.”
He said that it was “just not possible to leave it to individual clergy to choose to do things that are clearly contrary to the doctrine of the Church”.
Mr Bradshaw had suggested that “permissive legislation” was necessary in order to bypass the “so-called quadruple lock” contained in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, thereby allowing the Church to change its doctrine if it so wished.
Mr Selous said that there was no procedural need for Parliament to legislate, however, because, if the Church of England decided to change its doctrine of marriage, it could do so without need for Parliament to pass legislation.
The General Synod has the power to alter legislation under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, and the recent move to the blessing of same-sex couples does not require any change to the law.
The director of strategy and operations for the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), Canon John Dunnett, characterised Mr Bradshaw’s intervention as “probably sabre-rattling”.
In the course of his speech in the House of Commons, Mr Bradshaw said that there had been “sustained pressure from a vocal minority inside the Church against the very modest proposals” voted on at the Synod.
“Some conservative Provinces in the global Anglican Communion have disowned the Archbishop of Canterbury [News, 20 February], and a small number of homophobic parishes here have stopped paying paying their diocesan contributions in protest,” he said.
After the Synod vote, several conservative Evangelical churches in London announced that they were suspending financial contributions to the diocese of London, and welcomed the support of bishops from breakaway Anglican provinces (News, 1 March).
Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, Canon Dunnett said: “Mr Bradshaw is right that there are currently a small number of churches which have paused payment of their parish share, but this should not be taken as representative of the much wider concern about the House of Bishops’ proposals.
“To describe their actions as homophobic is to suggest that the global Anglican Communion and the historical teaching of the Church of England are homophobic, which is a difficult position to sustain.”
On Wednesday, a Synod member and campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights, Jayne Ozanne, said: “I was saddened to hear Andrew Selous’s response, which seemed to misjudge the mood in the Chamber and completely misrepresented what Ben Bradshaw’s Bill is seeking to do.
“As Ben had made clear, he was not looking to dictate Church doctrine, but rather remove impediments to allowing same-sex marriage, should the Church agree to do conduct them.”
She said that the idea that the Bill represented a threat to freedom of religion were “totally over the top”.
A spokesman for Church House said on Tuesday: “Today’s Ten-Minute Rule Bill from Ben Bradshaw provided an opportunity to hear from MPs on the question of marriage law, set out in the context of the valued role the Church of England plays in the life of the nation.
“The debate will be noted and reflected on by bishops and the Synod as they continue with their work to deliver the Prayers of Love and Faith and pastoral principles, as approved.
“Freedom of Religion and Belief is an important principle championed by MPs, and therefore it would not be appropriate for Parliament to decide the teachings of any church or other faith group, as the Second Estates Commissioner reminded the House in his response.
“The Church of England’s formal doctrine of marriage is a matter for the General Synod, which approved an amended motion on same-sex relationships at its most recent meeting just last month, following an extensive national period of listening and engagement across the Church of England on questions of human identity, sexuality and marriage.”
The second reading of the Same Sex Marriage (Church of England) Bill has been scheduled for 24 November. However, it is highly unlikely it will actually receive a second reading, as the current Parliamentary session is due to finish in the autumn, and Government business takes priority over Private Member’s Bills.