Thinking Anglicans

House of Commons: Same-sex marriage and civil partnerships

The House of Commons Library has published a briefing note, dealing primarily with the situation in England and Wales, and summarising published responses to the recent government consultation on equal civil marriage. It gives a good deal of space to the arguments put forward in the official Church of England response.

The full briefing paper is available here, as a PDF file.

Two members of the House of Commons have recently published their own views on this topic.

John Howell MP has written a paper on Gay Civil Marriage. He says:

I have had a number of e mails over the past weeks both from those who support gay civil marriage and those who oppose it. Many of the latter are based on template instructions issued to constituents by the Coalition for Marriage when writing to MPs and reflect a standard suite of points. However, the issue of Gay Civil Marriage is not one which can be boiled down to a few bullet points without radically undermining the complexity of the issues involved or producing a simplistic standard campaign letter.

In addition, some of those who have written to me predominantly from a religious perspective have not sufficiently recognised that what we are talking about is gay civil marriage or that the theological arguments are themselves complex and allow for different approaches even within a Christian tradition.

I have listened carefully to the arguments that have been made and I read with care the reasons given as to why some oppose this change. However, I have to say that I do not agree with them. However, in recognition of the sincerity with which many have put their views forward I have attached a paper to this page as a pdf download which I have put together myself and which sets out my own perspective on this issue. It runs to 7 pages which is, at the very least, an attempt to treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves and hopefully makes a thoughtful contribution to the debate whether you agree with me or not.

His full paper can be read here (PDF).

Tom Harris MP has also written. He titled his article Confessions of a Recovering Evangelical.

The vast majority of opposition to the idea of equal marriage comes from the Church and the followers of the other non-Christian religions. Homosexuality is a sinful state, they believe, therefore gay relationships should not be endorsed or approved of by the state.

I should say at the outset that I consider myself a Christian. Not a very good one, I admit, but a Christian nonetheless. In a former life I was very evangelical and spent a lot of time studying the Bible and trying to “convert” my less enlightened, hellbound friends. These days I am what a parliamentary colleague rather wonderfully described as a “recovering evangelical”. I’ll settle for that.

I still have lots of friends who were better at staying the course than I was. At least three of them are full-time leaders of their respective churches, and many others remain far more regular attendees at worship than I. So when I hear members of the clergy or lay members of the Church decrying moves towards equal marriage, or when I receive letters from local church members in my constituency warning me of the dire consequences of this move, I kind of understand where they’re coming from. I don’t agree with them, dearie me, no. I’m forthright and unapologetic in my support for equal marriage, largely on the (some might say counter-intuitive) basis that I’m a strong believer in marriage and therefore want to encourage as many as possible to give it a go…

This has provoked a response from Dr Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs, the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, which is titled Response to a Recovering Evangelical.

…The key point in our submission on same sex marriage is that the virtues of faithful homosexual relationships cannot embrace everything that is good about heterosexual marriage. There is an inescapable difference and complementarity between men and women that allows procreation to be an important component of a marriage between a man and a woman. Yes, of course many marriages are childless, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that a flourishing society needs some sort of social institution that celebrates and encourages having children and their upbringing in a family with their biological parents wherever possible. Our concern is emphatically not to say that same-sex relationships are wicked, but to ask what sort of a society we would have if the social meaning of marriage was stripped of any expectation at all that it involved having children. You don’t have to agree with our analysis of this, but many would surely agree that it is a question worth asking.

Unfortunately, the Coalition’s consultation on Equal Marriage is based on a profound ignorance of the current laws about marriage and, to be blunt, is a dog’s breakfast of erroneous assumptions and begged questions. The mistaken assumption that “religious marriage” and “civil marriage” are two different things in law is only the most egregious example of the GEO document’s failings. These points have nothing to do with Christian approaches to sexuality, but the church had no option but to oppose a proposal which would be based on such an utter misreading of the law and of the Church of England’s present role as a “purveyor of weddings to the nation”…


  • Mike Homfray says:

    But it is the Church itself and its negativity which has caused the division into civil and religious marriage.

    In my view, there should be marriage, and individual congregations should be able to choose who they marry, given that is a directly ‘religious’ duty. Given that those who refuse will soon be seen as bigots, these would soon become restricted to the headbangers, who the average person in the UK regards as unbalanced and bizarre in any case

  • “Our concern is emphatically not to say that same-sex relationships are wicked, but to ask what sort of a society we would have if the social meaning of marriage was stripped of any expectation at all that it involved having children.”

    – Dr. Malcolm Brown – Archbishops’ Council –

    ‘The social meaning of marriage’ will not be ‘stripped of any expectation…etc’ by the simple legal entitlement of Same-Sex monogamously related couples to enter into a Civil Marriage contract!

    After, all., many heterosexual couples today are legally married – even in Church – who have no expectation of begetting children, for various reasons. Has that had the effect that is feared by Dr. Brown?

    The answer must be a resounding ‘NO’. Therefore why use such a lame excuse to prevent a Civil Marriage ceremony for Same-Sex couples?

    Marriage is not only for procreation. Even the Old Prayer Book service talks about the mutual comfort and well-being of the partners.

    Another point is: Just how many Same-Sex Marriages does Dr. Brown expect will tip the balance against pro-creation – in a world rapidly running out of resources to support the present population?

    I’m surprised the Church of England is putting up such weak arguments against the expressed intention of Gay people to live a settled and faithful way of life in Marriage.

  • Feria says:

    Dear Father Ron,

    Quite right. It’s also worth mentioning that the the marriage service in the 1662 BCP specifically allowed a particular passage about procreation to be omitted ‘where the Woman is past child-bearing’. I’d say that means that the liturgical infrastructure for overcoming this issue for same-sex marriages is already in place.

  • Bill Dilworth says:

    I notice that the Archbishops’ Council’s website lists its objectives as:

    *promoting spiritual and numerical growth
    *enabling and supporting the worshipping Church and encouraging and promoting new ways of being Church, and
    *engaging with issues of social justice and environmental stewardship

    It’s hard to see how those objectives are furthered by their opposition to civil marriage. (And of course religious marriage and civil marriage are two different things. If they weren’t, the CofE’s regulations concerning marriage would be mandatory for everyone getting married in the country.)

    Even from another Province across the Atlantic, it’s embarrassing to know that this is the official stance of the Church of England.

  • Father Ron Smith makes an interesting point. Because of population pressure, the day will no doubt come when marriages producing children will be branded as selfish and antisocial. The church, if it still exists at that time, will likely be an advocate of childless marriage. Or not.

  • SJH says:

    Malcolm Brown asserts that the bishops’ document supports civil partnerships strongly. Exactly how? Just saying it, does not make it true. They still refuse to bless couples, refuse to register civil partnerships in churches and insist clergy in civil partnerships must remain celibate.
    Not quite what I would call strong support.

  • Ian Arch says:

    It seems unfortunate that the good questions raised in the C of E’s response and in Malcolm’s piece are continually obscured by irrelevant negativity from the Church.

    I’m just an average Vicar, but it was more than clear to me that whoever wrote the consultation document knew less about marriage law than me. The Church needed to point out to a government which doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing that there really is no distinction in English law between religious and civil marriage. But that is lost because the Church says nothing to address what might be done positively for same sex couples.

    Malcolm Brown points out that marriage as traditionally understood is about more than a possessive pair bond – a private privilege of consenting adults. The idea that it involves commitment to family and society is lost because he says nothing about how this sacramental understanding of marriage might be extended to same sex couples. And yes, he raises the question of the importance of complementarity but no one will engage with that when it still looks like an excuse for exclusion.

  • Murdoch says:

    It’s the same-sex couples who are raising children who benefit most from same-sex marriage. Odd how gay families seem to be as invisible to traditionalists as gay persons used to be.

  • peterpi - Peter Gross says:

    John Howell, MP, wrote:
    “some of those who have written to me predominantly from a religious perspective have not sufficiently recognised that what we are talking about is gay civil marriage …”
    Game, set, match!
    Marriage is a religious institution, but it is also a government function.
    Regardless of the status of the Church of England in England, I assume that, in this day and age, people in England can get married without benefit of clergy, simply “by going down to City Hall”.
    If two men or two women want to get civilly married, they should be able to do so. If a religious institution wants to say “no” to a religious ceremony, it should be able to do so. It already can, right now. I bet no Orthodox Jewish synagogue is required to bless or marry a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman, even if the Lord Mayor of London himself attended their civil marriage. No Roman Catholic priest is required to marry two Roman Catholics, if one or both of them had obtained a civil divorce, but not a religious annulment, of their previous church-sanctioned marriage.
    And, … two men or two women getting married would not scare the horses, nor affect my wife or I in any way.
    Mr. Howell, MP continued,
    “… or [recognized] that the theological arguments are themselves complex and allow for different approaches even within a Christian tradition.”
    Spot on again. I get so tired of certain people feeling that they alone can define “proper morality” or “Christian morality”. I’m tired of their absolute arrogance. Does God confer with them on other issues?

  • Gerry Lynch says:

    The Church of England speaks out of both sides of its mouth on this issue. When pressured by the secular press, it claims it has no problem with civil partnerships and celebrates the virtues of faithful same-sex relationships. Its official policy remains, however, that Priests in same-sex relationships should be sacked and I presume Dr. Brown is well aware of this.

    If faithful same-sex relationships are virtuous, why was David Page refused Permission To Officiate for not answering Wallace Benn’s impertinent questions about his sex life? And why is Howard Cocks’ ministry at risk? Why was Jeffrey John so determinedly blocked from the Episcopate by both Archbishops? And why does the Church of England still officially block people in faithful same-sex relationships from proceeding to Ordination?

    Why does the Church of England demand that its exemptions from equality laws remain in place? And why did the Bishop of Hereford lose an employment tribunal case after refusing to appoint a gay man to a lay post in his diocese?

    In practice, there is a post code lottery entirely dependent on the whim of bishops. Even under liberal bishops, the position of LGB clergy is wrapped in hypocrisy and dissembling. Probably the majority Church of England Bishops have ordained and deployed clergy they know to be gay and in relationships which all grown-ups know are sexual in nature. The current policy penalises only those who are not prepared to lie and happen to live in the wrong place. It is simply indefensible.

  • JCF says:

    Dr Malcolm Brown is quite persuasive…

    …in the sense of persuading me that I want (my church, TEC) to have NOTHING to do with “the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England” (a group clearly captive to a certain *segment* of the CofE, and does not reflect the many ssm-affirming CofE-Anglicans I know)

    Kyrie eleison.

  • We all know by now – as does the general public – that, for Christian Gays at least, there can no longer be any doubt; the initial prejudice of the Church against Same-Sex Civil Partnerships being Blessed in the Church has given rise, directly, to the cause for Same Sex Marriage – at least in the Civil Sphere. The Church must learn to live with the consequences of her churlishness!

    If the Church had allowed Same-Sex Blessings in the first place, there may not have been the same pressure towards Same-Sex Marriage – by couples who want to obtain the same legal rights as anyone else in a Civil Marriage.

    Where the Church refuses to sanction the blessing of a Same-Sex monogamous committed relationship, at least Civil Marriage will give stability in terms of legal acceptance of a Same-Sex couple. The Church has no moral or legal right to prevent such a relationship – especially when it refuses to recognise the relationship of a Christian Same-Sex couple with a Church Blessing.

  • One needs to be aware of the official rebuttal to the Church of England’s fear of being persecuted or prosecuted for withholding its Blessing from any Same-Sex legal Partnership – made by no less a personage than the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in this news-released statement:

    “In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 5 October 2011, the Prime Minister also supported the issue of same-sex marriage:
    ‘I once stood before a Conservative conference and said it shouldn’t matter whether commitment was between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and another man. You applauded me for that. Five years on, we’re consulting on legalising gay marriage.

    ‘And to anyone who has reservations, I say: Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.’

    These are pretty reassuring words from the British Head of Government, and should help the Church of England to realise that Gay Marriage is about more than Gays obtaining the right to exercise their God-given freedom; it is also about solidarity with others within the bonds of loving monogamous relationships. ‘Perfect Love casts out Fear’.

  • Laurence Roberts says:

    Malcolm Brown’s (Director of Mission and Public Affairs, the Archbishops’ Council) response to Tom is ignorant and homophobic through and through. And lacking in the humility to see it.

    ‘the opposition of some Christians to gay lifestyles and all that goes with them,’.

    Does he not know that the use of the ‘lifestyles’ is deeply insulting to gay christians ? And the words ‘and all that goes with them’ is an appalling innuendo based slur.

    How dare he imply or state in fact, that lesbian and gay relationships are inferior to the ‘fullness’ of heterosexual ones ?

    And this person is speaking apparently, ‘for the Church of England’.

  • Edward Prebble says:

    John Howells MP is quite correct when he states that these issues are highly complex; on the other hand, it is possible to cut through much of the verbiage to find a reasonably simple issue.

    Of course a union between a man and a woman is qualitatively different from one between two people of the same gender. No clear-thinking person can deny that. The question is whether that difference is sufficient to require a same-sex union to be called something other than marriage, and the ceremony bringing it about to be called something other than a wedding. I agree with Mr Howells, with David Cameron, and with Louisa Wall, the NZ MP sponsoring a private member’s bill to legalise same-sex marriage, in saying that this difference is not sufficient.

    As an Anglican Priest, I want to be free to conduct the wedding of a same-sex couple who can demonstrate to me their commitment to a life-long union under God.

  • Murdoch says:

    My (then) wife and I used to look at our friends in a midwestern university town and say, “There are a hundred different arrangements, all called marriage.” What holds one couple together may be quite different from what binds another couple. As E. Prebble notes, it’s the together that’s called marriage, notwithstanding the differences.

  • From the slough of despond says:

    Feria has it precisely; the BCP conception of marriage – which others have observed is the only legal extant definition of what a marriage is – already allows for a union based not primarily on having children but on ‘mutual society, help and comfort’, which seems to me to be the best justification for any marriage or civil partnership.

    But to turn this into a workable proposition needs much more work than the clearly superficial and hasty consultation document from the coalition anticipated and, in turn, a far, far more nuanced and engaged response from the Church of England.

    The Archbishops Council should have issued a statement welcoming the fact of the consultation, recognising the integrity of the desire of those in same sex relationships to solemnize those relationships whilst staking a claim to more than a passing interest in the outcome. It should then have observed below the fold that the legal ground to be covered was far more considerable than the consultation document appreciated.

    It should then have offered the Church’s help to the government in exploring the extent to which this desire could be given proper expression whilst the legal complexities could be unravelled and the rights both of individual churches and denominations protected.

    Instead we have knee-jerk responses from Church House which are continuing to inflame, will rule out any invitation to be part of the process; make a proper engagement with change impossible and are an open invitation for the church to be held at arm’s length and humiliatingly and comprehensively slapped down; an outcome which, on its current performance, it well deserves.

    We needed thoughtful and considered and careful approach to this; we didn’t get it, and the real concerns that arise from this will consequently not get a decent hearing.

    Gamma double minus, I’m afraid …

  • Susannah says:

    We continue to get submissions from ‘The Church of England’ that give the impression there is one, uniform view within the organisation, and there is a failure to represent *all* views and acknowledge that the Church of England is deeply divided on this issue.

    There is no consensus.

    To represent the Church as if the support for Equal Marriage in its own membership is not there… seems like a partisan act to me.

    When representing what the Church of England’s views (in the plural) are on Gay and Lesbian marriage, it would be much more honest to say: “Actually, we don’t agree among ourselves. Some people strongly believe ‘this’, and some people strongly believe ‘that’.”

    And to actually represent the range of views its members hold.

    Because that is the reality. The other reality is that many couples are just going ahead (along with civil legislators) with the expression of marriage founded on love and commitment.

    Equal Marriage is coming anyway. It’s just happening.

    Many people in the Church of England are coming to recognise there is no fear in this, and that it would actually enhance marriage as an institution and sacrament open to all, but the official statements being released really don’t represent these convictions in the Church’s midst.

  • Apparently, according to scripture, “In heaven, there will be neither given, nor being given in marriage. The only marriage to be encountered in the hereafter will be at the Marriage Feast of The Lamb – ALL believers united with Christ. so what’s all the great fuss, here, about marriage?

    In the Book of Common Prayer, marriage is for two distinct purposes; one, for procreation; and two; for the mutual comfort of the two partners. There are many heterosexual couples whose marriage does not include procreation. does that prevent them from being married – in church?

  • It’s depressing to see a spokesperson for the mother church of the Anglican Communion so out of touch with the emerging Christian life of the 21st century. The Episcopal Church in the U.S., of which I am a member, is struggling with the issue, but is rapidly coming to a full recognition that unions of two people of the same sex are potentially holy and are genuine marriages. There are five priests associated with my congregation. Two are widowed. One has a spouse of the opposite sex. Two have spouses of the same sex. Love abounds and God is present in our midst.

  • Laurence Roberts says:

    ‘the emerging Christian life of the 21st century’.

    What a beautiful expression. Kudos.

  • Jeremy says:

    Hear, hear, William Mackaye!

    It is not only depressing, it is outright embarrassing and counterproductive for TEC to be associated with a church that clings to obscurantism.

    Out of touch indeed.

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