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

On 3rd June 2013 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill at its Second Reading. The Bishop of Leicester, Rt Revd Tim Stevens, spoke in the debate and his remarks are below, with extracts from speeches made by Peers where reference is made.

LeicesterThe Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, having conducted some 400 weddings as a parish priest, making the journey with couples as they anticipate a lifelong commitment has been one of the great privileges of the ordained life. I have witnessed personally the stability, fulfilment and anchor for life for so many, which has been transformational. However, I have also observed that the open and public recognition of gay relationships that civil partnerships now provide displays many of the very qualities for which marriage itself is so highly celebrated. I speak as one whose respect for and appreciation of gay clergy is deep and who recognises in them sacrificial lives and fruitful ministries. I also recognise the need for some humility at this moment in speaking on matters of equality from these Benches. I add my appreciation to that of the most reverend Primate for the way in which the Secretary of State and her colleagues have tried to accommodate the Church of England’s concerns at every point in this process. I entirely endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and others have said about the need to continue to make progress on the inclusion of gay people in our society, and I entirely accept what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has said about change and development in our understanding of the institution of marriage.

Yet I cannot support the Bill and, from the post bags of those of us on these Benches, the reasons why are shared by many who do not hold the Christian faith and by the great majority of the leaders of the other world faith traditions. I want to highlight three reasons.

First, this legislation does not resolve the decades-old debate about when undeniable differences between men and women matter and when they do not. Modern political discourse tends to recognise as public goods only things that can be equally appropriated by any given individual, regardless of difference. This involves a difficulty in entertaining notions of public rights and obligations that might pertain to one sex rather than the other, or to one sexual orientation rather than another. As Professor John Milbank has written in a paper for the ResPublica think tank:

“The risk of this exclusive focus on individual rights is that the needs and capacities of people in their specific differences, which may be either naturally given or the result of cultural association, tend to be overridden. And so it is that injustice can arise in the name of justice”.

I could not help noticing in the debate in this House on International Women’s Day the underlying assumption that women bring a special quality to the public square and that the complementarity of men and women is what enriches and stabilises society. Yet, in the realm of public discourse, assertion of sexual difference in relation to marriage has become practically unspeakable, in spite of the fact that it is implicitly assumed by most people in the course of everyday life. Equal marriage will bring to an end the one major social institution that enshrines that complementarity.

Secondly, the Bill, introduced in haste, has not allowed enough time for a weighing of gains and losses to the well-being of society. Do the gains of meeting the need of many LGBT people for the dignity and equality that identifying their partnerships as marriage gives outweigh the loss entailed as society moves away from a clear understanding of marriage as a desirable setting within which children are conceived and raised? In traditional Christian societies, the price you pay for getting married is, in principle, a heavy one—sexual fidelity till death us do part and, for some, a responsibility for the socialising and educating of children. As the ResPublica paper on this subject pointed out:

“As people become more and more reluctant to pay that price, so do weddings become more and more provisional, and the distinction between the socially endorsed union and the merely private arrangement becomes less and less absolute and less and less secure”.

As sociologists regularly observe, this gain in freedom for one generation may imply a loss for the next. Regardless of the best intentions of advocates of equality, if we detach the procreation of children as being one of the core purposes of marriage, then no social institution enshrines that purpose for the generations ahead. This is not, of course, to say that those who cannot or do not wish to have children are any less married.

Thirdly, as others have said, there is a difficulty here in the use of language. Put simply, there are two competing ideas of marriage at play in this debate. The first is perhaps traditional and conjugal, and extends beyond the individuals who marry to the children they hope to create and to the society they wish to shape. The second is more privative, and is to do with a relationship abstracted from the wider concern that marriage was originally designed to speak to. As the most reverend Primate has pointed out, this category error lies at the heart of this Bill as drafted.

In deciding whether to give this Bill a Second Reading, I have to ask myself several questions. Is it clear that it will produce public goods for our society that outweigh the loss of understanding of marriage as we have known it? Has the debate in the country and in Parliament been conducted in a way that will enable our society to adapt wisely to a fundamental social change? At a time of extreme social pressure, is this innovation likely to create a more cohesive, settled and unified society? Lastly, at this stage, is it appropriate to frustrate the clear will of the Commons on this Bill?

I have concluded that the answer to all these questions must be no and therefore, if it is the unusual intention of this House to divide at Second Reading, I shall have no alternative but to abstain.


Lord Jenkin of Roding: [extract] …Finally, I return to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. I hope that he will not feel it is unfair if I call him my “old friend”, as indeed he is. I have come to the firm conclusion that there is nothing to fear in gay marriage and that, indeed, it will be a positive good not just for same-gender unions but for the institution of marriage generally. The effect will be to put right at the centre of marriage the concept of a stable, loving relationship..

Baroness Cumberlege: [extract] ..I do not ask for or want equality; I value being different. I do not want to be called a man or treated as a man because women are different. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester said, sometimes we bring something new to politics, to business, to discussions and to life…

Lord Young of Norwood Green: [extract]..This has been a fascinating debate with some very powerful and emotional contributions. I cannot attempt to engage in a theological debate with the right reverend Prelates—I fear that as a non-practising Jewish atheist that is probably beyond me. However, treating the matter seriously, as I do, I was interested in the idea that marriage is just one specific type of union between a man and a women and that it is for procreation, if I may paraphrase slightly. I cannot help feeling that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, was right in saying that the nature of marriage has changed fundamentally since being an institution that discriminated abominably against women, giving them few or no rights whatever when it came to inheritance and even no rights over their children…

..I have some sympathy with the right reverend Prelates and I would not want the Bill to undermine their right to determine who gets married in church. However, they seem to have great difficulty in determining some of their attitudes, whether on homosexuality or on whether a woman should be a bishop. They are still agonising over that with different wings of the church, but their attitudes will no doubt change over time.

Baroness Mallalieu: [extract] …I have had people say in letters, e-mails and, indeed, in this House that homosexuals cannot consummate a marriage; marriage is meant for the creation of children; homosexuals cannot commit adultery. Those are the strains of objections voiced by a number of your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. We do not stop women over childbearing age or some disabled people from marrying, or those who cannot have or do not want children—of course not. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester conceded, such people are no less married—so why not homosexuals?

Lord Jay of Ewelme: [extract]…Today it is entirely right and proper that we respect the right of those same-sex couples who wish to see their relationships regarded by society as marriage. I must say to the right reverend Prelates—and it is a rare privilege to be able to address so many at the same time—that I hope before long it will be possible for them to celebrate and to bless such unions themselves…

Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Minister): [extract]…I say, first, that I am very grateful to the most reverend Primate and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester for their acknowledgement of the work that the Government have done to ensure that the religious protections in the Bill are effective….

…Some noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelates on the Bishops’ Bench, my noble friend Lady Cumberlege and others, have suggested that gay couples should have their own institution separate from marriage. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern repeated that today, and made clear that he believes so on the grounds of procreation. On the question of a separate institution, gay men and women already have their own institution called civil partnership…

…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester asked yesterday,

“Do the gains of meeting the need of many LGBT people for the dignity and equality that identifying their partnerships as marriage gives outweigh the loss entailed as society moves away from a clear understanding of marriage as a desirable setting within which children are conceived and raised?”.—[Official Report, 3/6/13; col. 962.]

That may be a legitimate question for the church to ask itself when or if it ever considers whether to allow same-sex couples to marry. However, I would argue that, outside the church, people already understand that two gay men or two lesbian women marrying each other is the same as a man marrying a woman. They have accepted that it is okay for same-sex couples to marry and that them doing so will not redefine their own marriage, because they understand that gay men and women decide to enter a civil partnership for the same reason that a straight couple decide to marry. Same sex couples and opposite sex couples are different physically, but that which leads them to want the same is not different.

I urge this House to ensure that the protections that allow the church and other faiths to maintain their very legitimate belief in marriage being only between a man and a woman work properly. This House should also debate and scrutinise whether the Bill protects freedom of speech and freedom of expression; that is what we really need to ensure is the case. We need religious belief in marriage to sit comfortably alongside what the state allows in law, just as we already do for divorce, contraception and abortion. It is possible for us to allow something in law that not everyone agrees with and to respect our differences of view…

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.

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