Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – Bishop of Chester’s speech in the Lords

14.03 Bishop of ChesterOn 3rd & 4th June 2013 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill at its Second Reading. The Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke in the debate and his remarks are below, with extracts from speeches made by Peers where reference is made.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I associate myself closely with the previous speeches from these Benches but want to develop the discussion in a slightly different direction. I should emphasise that I am speaking in my personal capacity as a bishop and not, in any formal sense, on behalf of the wider Church of England.

I want to focus on the potential impact on the relationship between the Church of England and the state. As I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Dear, with his great list of implications for Argentina, I wanted to leap up and say, “And we have the Church of England to think about as well, on top of all that lot”. It was an issue that did not receive much attention in the debate in the other place—hardly any at all. I say at the outset that the Church of England has no right simply to maintain the status quo in our relationship with the state; nor do we necessarily wish to do so. However, the argument that there has been change, as there has been, in church-state relationships is no argument for any particular change. The weakness in the powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, was that all the changes in marriage that he listed were, in themselves, no argument for the particular change that we are discussing now.

The relationship between church and state has evolved and is remarkably different now from how it was in earlier ages. Often changes happen best when they happen almost naturally, in an evolutionary sort of way—that is very much how the British constitution has developed over the years. In that process, it is always important to check that the baby is not thrown out with the bathwater when a particularly striking change is being made and in this Bill, something fundamental and foundational is changing. I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, but I thought he underplayed somewhat the depth of the change that we are talking about.

To me, the clue is in Clause 1(3) of the Bill to which very little attention has been paid. I believe it is unprecedented in statute law. The Submission of the Clergy Act 1533 provides that the church must not promulgate canons that are contrary to what the Explanatory Notes to the present Bill call “general law”. Arguably, the 1533 Act also lays a certain obligation on the state not to pass laws which are contrary to the received canon laws of the Church of England. That is how establishment has worked, because to do so would put the Church of England in a very difficult position. That is why Clause 1(3), on marriage, exempts our canons from the scope of the Submission of the Clergy Act. In effect, it creates an amendment to the Act without quite saying so and therefore legally permits statute law and canon law on marriage to be diametrically opposed in future on the very basic point of who can be married to whom.

In the government documents there is an attempt to draw a parallel with divorce, although that hardly applies at all because the canons of the Church of England have never forbidden divorce. There has always been a legal permission to divorce under the canons of the Church of England, and so the changes that have happened in divorce law have never come into conflict with the canons—for the very good reason that it was always permitted in statute law. It is also there in the Old and the New Testament. Therefore, this clause is unprecedented in our legislative history.

This helps us to understand why people feel so strongly, although this is one of the questions that we have not really asked. Of course, the easy answer is that they are homophobic. That is an easy dismissal than can be made, and who am I to say that this is not sometimes part of it? I cannot say that. However, I think the reason why people feel so strongly lies elsewhere. There are two roots to it. One is that marriage is given for the conception, nurture and upbringing of children—that is what it is naturally there for, as other speakers have said. I accept that other family arrangements can successfully bring up children, but there is something naturally given about marriage in relation to children. Our society has broken that connection in many ways, partly through contraception, but to break it in this radical way needs some thought.

The other reason why people feel strongly is because, in the Bible, the marriage relationship is the primary metaphor for how God relates to the world. That is in the Old and New Testament, particularly in the Old, and that is why it is a view also held strongly by Jews and Muslims, for whom the Old Testament is a sacred book. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, who is not in his place, alluded to this, but did not pick up on the obvious fact that the relationship between God and the world is not symmetrical. It is not a relationship of sameness, but of difference within a deep bond of love. That is why, in that metaphor, if you try to take away the difference between man and woman, it does not work any more. It is partly why people of faith feel so strongly about this matter. There is something about “vive la différence”, which the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, touched on so brilliantly in her speech. There is something basic about it, something visceral, which people feel is being undermined and changed, and that is why they react as they do, even if they do not quite know how to articulate it.

How should we proceed? I have come to the view that a more radical reconstruction of the law on marriage would be the right way forward. I think it would meet a lot of the issues raised in the powerful speeches that have been made. We should consider going some way towards the continental version, which has a legal, contractual relationship that is the same for everyone, absolutely without question. Then we could develop different religious understandings on top of that. That may be a bridge too far: the Government thought so when they drew up this rather rushed legislation. Several Members in the other place drew attention to this as the logical outcome of what we should be doing. Much of what we have heard today would potentially be satisfied, amid our society’s many differences, if we separated the legal contract of marriage, which the state establishes as being the same for everyone, and the religious side. I fully accept that that would have implications for establishment but there are unintended consequences of this Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Dear, said, and that is just one of them. It has not been thought out and if we commit this Bill to a Committee, we are almost saying that the Bill can be improved by tinkering: it cannot. What is wrong with it is just too basic. That is why, with the same regrets that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, mentioned, I shall be with the noble Lord, Lord Dear, in the Division Lobby.


Lord Carey of Clifton: [extract]…Those proposing change usually argue, as they have done today, in terms of equality. But with respect, we are told that those in same-sex relationships already have parity with marriage through civil partnerships, which give them equal rights. Equality is hardly the right term to use when comparing same-sex couples with those who are married, not least because marriage is not, and has never been, viewed in terms of sameness, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester mentioned earlier, but of difference—the difference of male and female, which creates and nourishes life…

Lord Dear: [extract]…We cannot escape the fact that the Bill will completely alter the concept of marriage as we know it. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the right reverend Prelates, the Bishop of Leicester, the Bishop of Chester and the Bishop of Exeter, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, and the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, all explained their opposition to the Bill and the detailed practical and theological reasons that underpin their stance.

Division on Lord Dear’s amendment (not to give the Bill a Second Reading).

Contents 148; Not-Contents 390.

Lord Dear’s amendment disagreed.

%d bloggers like this: