THE Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, has defended the Bishops’ proposals to permit clergy to bless same-sex unions in church, in response to questioning in the House of Commons.
On Tuesday, the Labour MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, submitted an Urgent Question, and Mr Selous, who is the Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire, was called to the chamber in his capacity as parliamentary spokesperson for the Church of England.
In his opening remarks, Mr Selous explained the proposals, which were announced last Friday (News, 20 January), and said that he was “pleased to speak for a church that has the humility to apologise and admit when it has behaved badly”.
He echoed comments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury to protesters outside Lambeth Palace on Monday evening, saying that “there is not currently a two-third majority in the General Synod to change canon law on the doctrine of Holy Matrimony.”
Archbishop Welby told the protesters “I don’t have the votes to go further [than blessings]” (News, 24 January).
Mr Selous responded to questions from 12 MPs, most of whom indicated that they were in favour of the C of E introducing same-sex marriage.
Mr Bradshaw, who was at the protest on Monday evening, asked a long series of questions. These included a question about how the Bishops’ proposals sit with the Church’s “mission to appeal more to minorities and young people, given most young people find the position of the Church incomprehensible”.
He also asked whether the proposals were “compatible with the unique duty of the Established Church to serve everyone” (News, 16 January).
Mr Selous responded to some of Mr Bradshaw’s other questions, including one about the pastoral guidance that would come to replace Issues in Human Sexuality, but he did not touch on mission or the established status of the Church.
The Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley, made reference to the process by which the legislation for women bishops passed through the General Synod, and said that Parliament “will not put up with being held up by one third of one part of the General Synod”.
He continued: “Members may wish to look at the Library briefing from 11 August 2022 to see that the enabling Act of 1919, which established a General Synod as a way to stop Bills having to go through all the formal stages in the House of Commons, can be amended, and that some recent legislation wrongly gave permission for flying bishops and people under them to refuse to recognise women ordained in the Church of England.
“We are coming to a stage, on that and on this [same-sex marriage], where the Church of England needs to wake up.”
Jim Shannon, the Democratic Unionist Party MP for Strangford and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion and Belief, asked Mr Selous to confirm that “how the Church of England approaches marriage and blessings is a matter entirely for them and not for the legislators in this place.”
Parliament TVThe Labour MP Ben Bradshaw speaks in the House of Commons, on Tuesday
In response, Mr Selous said: “There will be very many who rejoice at what the Church did last week and who will be providing these prayers, but there will be some — and I think the honourable gentleman was speaking for them — who will not feel able, in terms of their conscience and their understanding of Holy Scripture, to to go forward.”
Chris Loder, the Conservative MP for West Dorset, said that the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process had been “far too long”, and that “maybe the synodical arrangements which we have are not fit for purpose and we should look to reform them”.
Mr Loder asked about the pastoral guidance that would be put in place for clergy in same-sex relationships, to which Mr Selous replied that “he and others who are concerned about this will be pleased about the direction which this new pastoral guidance is going to go in”.
Last week, Mr Loder appealed to clergy who had been affected by the C of E’s rules against clerics being in same-sex civil marriages, and asked them to get in touch with him (News, 19 January).
The Labour MP for Rhondda, Sir Chris Bryant, a former Anglican priest who relinquished his orders in 1991 to enter politics, spoke with emotion about the Church’s position on same-sex marriage, describing it as “terribly, terribly painful.
“I think there’s still a cruelty in what the bishops have brought forward. . . You can have a sort of blessing of your relationship, but you can’t be married,” he said.
Sir Chris continued: “Did Jesus say a single word about same-sex relationships or marriage? I don’t think he did. He said a great deal about love, the God of love. And St Paul said that in Christ there was neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek. And I think he would probably also have said, neither gay nor straight.”
Mr Selous acknowledged Sir Chris’s “passion and strength of feeling”.
“The Church of England, if it will forgive me for saying this, has almost managed to upset absolutely everyone because these proposals clearly do not go far enough for some. I just ask the House to understand that there are some who are deeply grieving and troubled because they believe that the proposals have gone too far.”
The Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, who is the Labour MP for Ilford North, said: “Nothing made it harder for me to come out as a gay Anglican than the Church’s teaching on sexual orientation and human sexuality. And, in the end, I did what I think many young gay Anglicans did of choosing to be myself and choosing not to go to church.
“That is such a tragedy for so many, particularly young Anglicans across our country, and I fear that the prayers proposed by the Bishops, however beautiful, do not go far enough to bridge that divide and close the distance between Christians and their God.”
Mr Streeting urged the bishops to “think again”. He continued: “I would never cast my vote in a way that compelled any place of worship to perform same-sex marriage, because I believe in freedom of religious belief, but surely permissive legislation that enables places of worship, churches, and priests to make that choice for themselves would be a different matter.”
Mr Streeting asked whether, “seeing that the prayers are so beautiful, will they be said in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, in St Margaret’s church or in Westminster Abbey?”
Mr Selous replied: “I have spoken to the Speaker’s Chaplain, who, subject to the usual booking arrangements, is happy to say the prayers of dedication, thanksgiving, and blessing for Members of this House in the crypt chapel of St Mary’s here within the Palace. Within St Margaret’s, that is a matter for the Dean of Westminster and I cannot speak on his behalf, but I am sure he will make his views known.”
Sir Desmond Swayne, the Conservative MP for New Forest West, called the proposals a “typical Church of England fudge, but all the more welcome for that because there are other fish that have to be fried out there.”