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Same Sex Marriage (Church of England)

Volume 730: debated on Tuesday 21 March 2023

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable clergy of the Church of England to conduct same sex marriages on Church of England premises in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.

As I am sure colleagues are aware, the Church of England has grappled with the issue of human sexuality for many years. It has been nearly 18 years since the passing of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and 10 years since the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, or equal marriage Act. The Church of England opposed both reforms at the time. It has since changed its mind on civil partnerships, but it still opposes equal marriage, will not allow same-sex weddings in church, and requires its own clergy in same-sex relationships to be celibate. The Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church in England conduct same-sex weddings, as do the Anglican—or Episcopal—Church in Scotland, the established Church of Scotland, and several other provinces of the global Anglican communion.

The most recent opinion poll commissioned by The Times and conducted by YouGov in February found that a majority of the public, and a majority of Anglicans, support marrying same-sex couples in church. People who know the private views of the bishops better than I do believe that a majority of them also support treating lesbian and gay members equally. But in January, after six years of formal discussions in the Church, through a process called “Living in Love and Faith”, the bishops recommended to the Church of England’s General Synod that there be no significant change to the current rules. Instead, they recommended allowing some limited prayers of blessing for people in same-sex relationships—although not a blessing of the relationship itself—and they promised to review the current rules regarding the clergy.

That was a bitter disappointment to many Anglicans and their families and friends. I will quote just one of the emails I have had about my Bill. Susannah wrote:

“I am a lesbian Christian who has worked in prisons and as a teacher and a registered nurse for 40 years. I have tried to lead a decent and caring life, but my church has refused to marry my wife and myself and I find that deeply demeaning. I have engaged with over 50 bishops trying to get them to allow freedom of conscience on this at local church level. The recent decision (to continue the ban) was devastating, and my wife no longer wants to be part of an organisation that discriminates in this way. We are so grateful for your support in introducing this Bill.”

The House might ask why this is a matter for MPs and for Parliament. Well, the Church of England is not just some sect; it is the established Church in England. It was established by Parliament and still has its Church or canon laws approved by Parliament.

The monarch is its Supreme Governor; its bishops are appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister and sit in the other place; it runs thousands of schools across England. With those privileges of establishment comes a duty to serve the whole nation—to be there for all citizens.

As constituency MPs, we have all had experience of the special role played by the Church of England in our nation’s life. In times of tragedy and celebration, the Church’s doors are open to all in our communities. Personally, I value that role, and I believe that most Anglicans and parliamentarians do, too. But when the practice of the Church in how it treats its lesbian and gay members persists in being so out of step with the country as a whole, that established status is bound to be questioned.

Sir Tony Baldry, the former Conservative MP and Second Church Estates Commissioner, recently called for a Bill just like this one to be introduced in Parliament. He noted that when Parliament relinquished most of the responsibility for Church legislation in 1919, it was not envisaged that there would be a major issue of doctrine or practice on which Church and state would diverge. But during the 20th century, as society and attitudes inside the Church changed, differences emerged over the treatment of divorcees, for example, or the role of women in the Church.

On each of those subjects, the Church eventually adjusted to the new reality, but not without a gentle nudge from Parliament. We did that most recently over the decision to allow women bishops when, at the first time of asking, the Synod failed to approve the change. Parliament, through the Second Church Estates Commissioner, made it quite clear to the bishops that that was an unacceptable state of affairs. The following Synod approved the measure, and Parliament legislated to fast-track women bishops into the other place.

Parliament nudged the Church then, and a gentle nudge is what this Bill is intended to give now. It would allow, in certain circumstances, priests and parishes that wish to conduct same sex weddings to do so—a solution similar to the one governing the remarriage of divorcees or whether a parish should be forced to have a woman priest. I have seen some conservative evangelicals and other opponents of equality claim in recent days that the Bill amounts to an attack on religious freedom or to Parliament legislating on doctrine. It is neither. The Bill is deliberately drafted as permissive, so as to allow those who wish to move forward to do so “in certain circumstances”. Such circumstances could include prior approval by the Synod.

Many would like Parliament to go further, including my local priest, a traditionalist who nevertheless said to me after mass—following the heated debates in Synod in February—that, “Parliament should just get on with it.” Parliament could get on with it, but that is not the intention or necessary consequence of my Bill. My preference—and, I imagine, that of most colleagues—would be for the Church to do this itself. A vote at February’s Synod to allow same-sex weddings was very close among the clergy and laity. It is quite possible that, once blessings are allowed and the world does not fall in, things could move rapidly in the next few years. Yet even if the Church of England wanted to conduct same-sex weddings, it is currently prevented from doing so by the so-called quadruple lock to the equal marriage Act. This Bill could, should Parliament wish, simply remove that lock, meaning that the Church would not have to come back to Parliament again as and when it decided to change its doctrine and practice.

Of course, discussion about the potential impact of the Bill is somewhat academic, given that it has no chance of becoming law. The main motivation in introducing it is to encourage the bishops to stick to the commitments and timetable agreed by February’s Synod and resist any delay or backsliding at the next Synod in July. There has been sustained pressure from a vocal minority inside the Church against the very modest proposals on the table.

Some conservative provinces in the global Anglican communion have disowned the Archbishop of Canterbury, and a small number of homophobic parishes here have stopped paying their diocesan contributions in protest. There is a small minority in the Church of England who will never be reconciled to treating gay and lesbian people equally. They are holding the majority back. The Church leadership should stop indulging them and focus on their primary mission to the majority of Anglicans here. That might also make it easier for them to focus on the many important things the Church has to say and offer about the 21st century.

I am immensely grateful for and humbled by the range and quality of the co-sponsors of this Bill. They include the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), my right hon. Friends the Members for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the hon. Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) and both the Mother and Father of the House. I apologise to those who wanted to be sponsors but did not make the list, but I am only allowed 11.

I hope the Bill serves, if nothing else, to give hope to those still waiting for change, like Susannah and her wife, and sends a clear message to the Church of England leadership about where Parliament stands on these matters. I commend it to the House.

I do not intend to divide the House, but it is necessary to respond to the Bill in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner because it 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, a freedom that members from all parts of this House champion for religions and beliefs all over the world and one that we should therefore apply equally to the Church of England.

There are passionately held and differing views about same-sex marriage on both sides of the House and I am also acutely aware of the personal pain and hurt that the 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. That has been the settled convention for nearly 50 years, since the 1974 worship and doctrine Measure was approved by Parliament.

At the General Synod last month, it was agreed that the prayers of love and faith proposed by the bishops would be finalised, that the pastoral guidance for clergy would be produced and that a welcoming culture towards LGBTQI+ people would be embedded throughout the church. It was also agreed not to change the doctrine of marriage and that motion was passed by a clear majority in all three Houses of the Synod. Amendments to require the bishops to bring forward proposals for same-sex marriage to the next meeting of the Synod and to revisit the issue within the next two years were rejected by the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity.

The Bill proposed by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) proposes that the decision of the Synod, arrived at prayerfully and democratically, should simply be set aside. In this House, we do not all agree with each other, but we respect everyone’s right to be here because we have all been given our mandate through the same black boxes on election night. I ask that members of this democratically elected House to show the same respect to the democratically elected members of the General Synod.

Directing the Church of England on doctrine is not the job of Parliament. It would infringe on settled principles of religious freedom, for which we argue for our sisters and brothers overseas, and it would also call into question the rights and protections of conscience for other denominations and faiths. Several Catholic members of this House came up to me after the urgent question on 24 January and told me how grateful they were that Parliament was not telling their Church what to do.

The Bill is also unnecessary, as should the Synod decide to change the doctrine of marriage in the future, it could do so. It would produce a Measure that would come before Parliament and amend the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. There is no need, therefore, for Parliament to act independently to change the Act.

Although the Bill is intended to be permissive and not to compel any member of the clergy to solemnise same-sex marriage, it is just not possible to leave it to individual clergy to choose to do things that are clearly contrary to the doctrine of the Church. Doctrine is not determined by local decision varying by parish or diocese, but is decided centrally, not by a small group of bishops, but through the prayerful deliberation and decision of the democratically elected Synod. If the Church lost its ability to require compliance with its doctrine, that would be a breach of the human rights convention as it would be contrary to article 9 read with article 11 for the state to interfere with a religious organisation’s ability to require compliance with its own doctrine. The Bill’s attempt to give individual freedom and choice would be unworkable and would breach the long-standing convention that Parliament does not legislate for the internal affairs of the Church of England without its consent.

I honoured my commitment to tell the General Synod the views of Parliament as expressed in the urgent question on 24 January. I know that the General Synod will continue to listen carefully and respectfully to the views of this House, just as I would ask Parliament to be respectful to the views of the Synod.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.


That Mr Ben Bradshaw, Margaret Beckett, Hilary Benn, Sir Peter Bottomley, Sir Chris Bryant, Sir Robert Buckland, Daisy Cooper, Ms Harriet Harman, Dame Diana Johnson, Caroline Lucas, Caroline Nokes and Iain Stewart present the Bill.

Mr Ben Bradshaw accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 274).