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Equal Marriage: Church of England

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Second Church Estates Commissioner if he will make a statement on the outcome of the meeting of Church of England bishops on equal marriage in the Church of England.

Mr Speaker, as you know, I offered to make a statement to the House yesterday but was advised that a response to an urgent question would be preferable.

Last Friday, the bishops of the Church of England published a pastoral letter and draft resources that will enable same-sex couples to come to a Church of England church to give thanks for their civil marriage or civil partnership, and to have a service in which there would be prayers of dedication, thanksgiving and blessing for the couple. The bishops also apologised for the rejection, exclusion and hostility that LGBTQI+ people have faced in some of our churches. The bishops are united in condemning homophobia, and urged churches to welcome same-sex couples “unreservedly and joyfully”. I am pleased to speak for a Church that has the humility to apologise and admit when it has behaved badly.

The bishops recognise that for some—including many in the Chamber today—these proposals do not go far enough, and that for others they will have gone too far. In order to change canon law on the doctrine of holy matrimony, there has to be a two-thirds majority in the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity of the General Synod, which is itself a devolved body of this Parliament, and the vast majority of whose members are elected. There is not currently a two-thirds majority in the General Synod to change canon law on the doctrine of holy matrimony. Should the General Synod take a different view at some point in the future, it will bring forward legislation to this Parliament in the usual way, in the form of Church Measures. Parliament would not need to initiate legislation to change the Church’s practice on marriage.

It is also important to remember that this House approved measures in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 to ensure that conscience and freedom of religion were protected for all faiths, including the Church of England. Freedom of religion and belief must apply here in the United Kingdom as well as around the world. We do not want to be in a position where churches are forced to follow the directives of Government or Parliament on matters of doctrine. The General Synod will consider these proposals next month, from 6 to 9 February, after which the bishops will reflect on the views expressed before commending the prayers of love and faith and agreeing to new pastoral guidance. The Church will also engage further in the areas of singleness, friendship, community and household, and will offer resources to affirm covenanted companionship or friendship, where two people make a commitment to a deep and lasting friendship, which could be in a non-sexual relationship.

I ask the House to understand that different views on these matters are held with great integrity and that, as a Church, it is welcome that we are in a position where many can say, “I totally disagree with you and I love you dearly as you are my sister or brother in Christ.” That is a model we should try to emulate in our Parliament. Our proposals will allow clergy and laity to follow their consciences before God, in their understanding of holy scripture as to whether they use the prayers provided.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing this urgent question, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for his reply. Will he explain to Parliament how continuing to discriminate against lesbian and gay Anglicans in England is compatible with the unique duty of the established Church to serve everyone? How sustainable is it when gay Anglicans in Scotland—and soon in Wales—may marry in church, but our constituents in England may not? What consideration was given to the suggestion by his predecessor, Sir Tony Baldry, that those parishes that wish to conduct same-sex weddings should be able to do so but no parish should be compelled to do so, and why was that suggestion rejected?

How does the bishops’ statement sit with the Church’s mission to appeal more to minorities and young people, given that most young people find the position of the Church incomprehensible? How meaningful is an apology for historical homophobia and discrimination when that discrimination continues? Will the hon. Gentleman explain the status of these prayers for blessing being proposed? As I understand it, they will bless the individuals but not their relationship—why not?

What will happen to clergy in same-sex relationships, because that is not at all clear from the bishops’ statement? What would be the consequences for a gay Anglican priest married in Scotland who then applied for a job in England? What about the celibacy rule as it affects the clergy? There is nothing about the physical expression of love or intimacy in this statement. What consideration has been given to potential complexities involving the monarch, as head of the Church of England, when teaching and practice varies across the UK and Church rules in England diverge from the law.

Finally, what can the hon. Gentleman say to reassure Parliament that the bishops are not allowing policy to be dictated by a minority of very vocal Anglicans in England and in some overseas provinces, while neglecting their primary duty to serve all of God’s people in England?

I have the greatest respect for the right hon. Gentleman, with whom I have discussed these issues privately on a number of occasions. I will do my very best to answer his questions, although he did pose me quite a number so I may have to get back to him in writing on some. It is the case that there has been a distinction in civil law and Church law about marriage for some time, so that is nothing new.

With regard to the different constituent parts of the United Kingdom, the right hon. Gentleman is correct that in the Episcopal Church in Scotland it is possible for same-sex couples to be married. The Church of England is now moving to the same position as the Church in Wales, in offering blessings. My understanding is that the Church of Ireland does not actually allow either of those two possibilities. As I said in my initial response, these matters are up to the Synod of the Church of England, which is a democratically elected body, just like this Parliament—it is in fact a devolved body of this Parliament, set up by Parliament to take decisions. The vast majority of Synod members are elected. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there are three Houses—the House of Bishops, the House of Laity and the House of Clergy—and it is up to members in the Synod to decide and take action on these matters.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the prayers. I do not know if he has had an opportunity to read them. For the convenience of the House, I will put a copy of the prayers and the response from the bishops in the Library of the House. They are very beautiful. I commend all hon. Members who are interested to find some time to read them. The bishops will reflect on the debate in the General Synod between 6 and 8 February and make a formal commendation of the prayers to the Church.

The bishops will also be getting together in a smaller group to bring forward new pastoral guidance to replace the old “Issues in Human Sexuality”, which is now about 30 years out of date. I understand that that work will happen at pace. The right hon. Gentleman may know that we do not take away the living from any priest depending on their sexuality or who they live with. A new pastoral consultative committee has been set up to revise that guidance at pace, and it work report back to the Church shortly.

The whole House should be grateful to the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for the way he has raised this.

We recognise that our Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), is a channel of peace rather than of conflict, but may I say to him, as I said to his predecessor over the appointment of women bishops, that this House will not put up with being held up by one third of one part of the General Synod?

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, where the Church of England needs to wake up. I commend to it the establishment of a commission similar to the Chadwick commission, and for it to ask itself how to get out of this dilemma. Does it want to solve it, or will it leave it to us to do that for it?

I have great respect, of course, for what the Father of the House says, and I know that many Members in this House take a close interest in what happens in the General Synod of the Church of England, but it goes equally the other way. Today I commit to the Father of the House, and to all right hon. and hon. Members here, to feed back to the General Synod fully and frankly not only the views of the House, as have been set out here, but the strength of feeling on these issues. That is my role as Second Church Estates Commissioner.

I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner for his responses so far. Does he not acknowledge that protection for those who hold biblical beliefs regarding the definition of marriage is enshrined in legislation, and in particular that there would never be a case where Government instructed the Church on what to believe or how to express those beliefs unless they contravened the law? That being an absolute fact, does he agree that how the Church of England approaches marriage and blessings is a matter entirely for it and not for legislators in this place?

As I said in my opening statement, there is a range of views within the Church. We have seen just now that there is clearly a range of views within this House. The hon. Gentleman carries out in a very distinguished manner his role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, and he does that on behalf of Christians all around the world. I think part of the sense of his question is that we allow that same freedom of conscience to individual priests within the Church of England. 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—I think the hon. Gentleman was speaking for them—who will not feel able in their conscience and understanding of Holy Scripture to go forward.

It is also worth briefly reflecting on the point the hon. Gentleman made about the relationship between Parliament and the Church. If we look back at our history and perhaps at the founding of the United States of America, we can see that at times when Parliament has been over-involved in the life of the Church, it has led to some Christians feeling quite strongly about it. As I say, I am the servant of this House and I will reflect what has been said back to the Synod.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response to the question from the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). I think it is right that there is a fine balance between equal marriage and freedom of religion in this debate. It is right that we have it, and I am pleased that those points are being made. However, I hope my hon. Friend will agree that the five years it has taken the House of Bishops to come to this conclusion—it is not even a conclusion at this stage—is far too long? Does he agree that our synodical arrangements are perhaps not fit for purpose and that we should look to reform them?

Can I briefly say to my hon. Friend that my real concern here is for those who are directly affected here and now: members of the clergy today who either are not allowed to get married, for fear of losing their job, or have to lie about it; or those who want to be a priest but are not permitted because they are already married? What exactly will my hon. Friend be able to take to the House of Bishops on this matter, and what advice will he be able to share with us from their conversation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I believe that I can reassure him. As I said earlier, the new pastoral guidance will take account of the major change that the Church of England made last week. That guidance will be put together at pace by a group of bishops and a wider group with a diverse range of lived experience on these issues. On the changes that my hon. Friend seeks, I think I am able to say to him that he and others who are concerned will be pleased about the direction that this new pastoral guidance will go in.

There is an awful lot of pain. Imagine being a church warden. You turn up maybe every day of the week to open the church before the priest gets there to take the 8 o’clock service. On Sundays, you turn up a couple of hours beforehand to make sure the church is warm. You clean and iron the vestments, you make sure the church is prepared, and you count the collection at the end of the service. And you have fallen in love with somebody of your own sex. The place that you have devoted your life to—and your God—is that church, and that is the place you cannot get married. That is terribly, terribly painful.

I think that there is still a cruelty in what the bishops have brought forward. There is a sort of hypocrisy. I know that they are trying to square everything off, but in the end there is a hypocrisy that we will bless the individuals but not the relationship. You can have a sort of blessing of your relationship—a celebration—but you cannot be married; you cannot refer to the other person as your husband. Imagine being a priest and wanting to be able to marry your church warden to the person they love. Is there any biblical teaching that says this is wrong? Is there any, really? Did Jesus say a single word about same-sex relationships or marriage? I do not think he did. He said a great deal about love—God of love. 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.

The whole House will have been deeply moved by what the hon. Gentleman has said. I get his passion and strength of feeling on the issue. I do not know whether he had a chance to see the Church of England press conference last Friday. The Archbishop of York was deeply moved by what the Church of England did last week, as in fact was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who mentioned a former member of his congregation who was gay and who later took his own life. What a terrible tragedy that was for the Archbishop of Canterbury and for many, many others.

In a sense, 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 hon. Gentleman is right: we read the same Bible. It is slightly strange, Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not even have a degree in theology and here I am, the only person in the whole Parliament who speaks for the Church of England. But I study the Bible, like the hon. Gentleman, and I know that good and true people can come to different conclusions about it. He will know that and respect that. I thank him for his gracious and very moving words.

Having been the Government Whip on the Equal Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, I can say that this is a typical Church of England fudge, but all the more welcome for that because there are other fish that have to be fried, aren’t there?

I do not take away for one moment the seriousness with which hon. Members on all sides of the House view this issue, and I see the numbers who have come in for this urgent question today. It is a deep and serious issue and I absolutely get that. My right hon. Friend is also right that the mission of the Church of England is to save souls, and we need to get on and do that as well.

I have grown up with a deep respect for the Church, but I have to say that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) spoke for a great many of us when he said that we cannot understand how a Church, and a faith so rooted in the belief of love and goodness, can still accept that it can make some of its own parishioners and its own clergy feel that they are somehow less worthy. I am afraid that I am one of those people who is less than happy with this, and feels that it sends the wrong message to an awful lot of people in this country about what the Church actually stands for and risks separating the Church from a great many people who might otherwise be part of it. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree?

I hear what the hon. Lady says. I just repeat the apology made by the bishops and the fact that the bishops welcome same-sex couples unreservedly and joyfully. Perhaps you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to quote briefly from something the Archbishop of York said. He said that the Church expresses its

“deep sorrow and grief at the way LGBTQI+ and those they love have been treated by the Church which, most of all, ought to recognise everyone as precious and created in the image of God. We are deeply sorry and ashamed and want to take this opportunity to begin again in the spirit of repentance which our faith teaches us.”

I know that that does not go far enough, but I ask the hon. Lady to recognise the spirit in which that statement was made and the fact that it was a big change, albeit not far enough for some, that the Church made last week.

I commend the exemplary way in which the Second Church Estates Commissioner is responding today and, indeed, the dedicated way in which he fulfils his role more widely. I also thank him for reassuring Members that he will convey the varying views of colleagues here on this issue, and I know that he knows my view on the issue. Again, more widely, I say to him that there are many here and outside this House who have invested a great deal in promoting freedom of religion or belief across the world and challenging abuses of it. In all conscience, we cannot do that in other countries if we do not also honour freedom of religion or belief at home. Does he agree?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and thank her for her kind words about me. May I warmly reciprocate by recognising what she does in her incredibly important role as the Prime Minister’s envoy for freedom of religion and belief around the world? She is right that freedom of conscience is universal. I get the issue when that rubs up against the centrality of the issue we are discussing today for so many people. There is and will always be a tension, but I think that her words are wise and should be listened to by the House.

I had not planned to speak in this urgent question. However, other contributions have spurred me to do so. I often do not participate in Church Commissioner-type questions because I am a member of the Methodist Church, and I would arrive at a slightly different conclusion, but it does strike me that, because we have an established Church in this country, it falls on all of us to take an interest in and to speak out on the issues of the Church. As a Christian, I know that God sent his own son to die on the cross for my sins and for the sins of all of us. That love is huge and incomprehensible. Love is such a beautiful thing and should be celebrated. Will the Second Church Estates Commissioner convey feelings that I would represent, which is that love should be celebrated in all its forms, and that our diversity in terms of human sexuality is not an accident—it is not a design fault by God—but something designed by God and therefore beautiful?

The Church of England recognises the huge privilege that it has in being the established Church and it does see it as its role to speak up for all Christian denominations and, in a sense, to hold the ring for all faiths within this country, as the Queen said very movingly at Lambeth Palace in 2012. So what the hon. Lady says from the point of view of the Methodist Church is an important contribution and I absolutely hear that. If she has a moment, I commend to her the prayers of love and faith—I shall put a copy in the Library of the House. They are beautifully written, they celebrate love and I think she will find much to commend in them, but I have listened carefully to what she has said and I thank her for it.

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. I note that in it he spoke of both the vote of Synod and the strength of feeling, which I think is evident in the contributions. Does he agree that it is premature to have this conversation today, while the whole of Synod has not yet had a chance to express its own view on this question?

The General Synod of the Church of England is deeply respectful of Parliament, as it rightly should be, but I also ask hon. Friends and hon. Members across the House to give the General Synod time. It will have its own debate early next month, between 6 and 8 February, and that debate will be an impassioned one. I can assure hon. Members that many of the views that have been expressed here today will be expressed with equal passion and equally robustly at the General Synod, and I will ensure that Synod is well aware of the views of Parliament.

Nothing made it harder for me to come out as a gay Anglican than the Church’s teaching on sexual orientation and human sexuality. In the end, I made the choice that I think many young gay Anglicans did—choosing to be myself and 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. So I urge them to think again and ask two things of the hon. Gentleman. First, this is an established Church; in fact this applies to all places of worship. 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. Certainly I know where my vote would go on that. Secondly, 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?

I am deeply saddened that the hon. Gentleman felt he was no longer able to go along to his Church of England church. I know that what happened last week has not gone far enough, but I repeat that the Church now welcomes same-sex couples unreservedly and joyfully. On his last point, 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. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about a permissive way forward on this matter; I commit to feed that through to the bishops and Synod and I thank him for making that point.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply to the urgent question. While I welcome the movement towards allowing blessings for same-sex couples to take place, is it not time that the Church of England celebrated every relationship and ended the two-tier system that labels gay people as second-class citizens?

Again, I thoroughly commend to my hon. Friend the prayers of love and faith that were written last week. Last week marked a major change for the Church of England: the Church has apologised for the way it has behaved in the past in making people of same-sex orientation not feel welcome within church and said that it welcomes them unreservedly and joyfully. The Church went a long way last week in hopefully getting rid of the feelings he expresses, but I accept from him, as from others here, that he would like the Church to go further.