Bishop of Wakefield speaks in debate on secondary legislation for the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act

The Bishop of Wakefield spoke during the debate on the statutory instruments relating to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. He drew the attention of Peers to the recently published statement by the Church of England’s House of Bishops, which set out the Church’s position on this subject. He noted the wide range of views on the subject, both in the Church of England, and in the wider Anglican Communion, and noted the on-going discussions taking place between the Anglican Church in different parts of the world on the subject of human sexuality. He also highlighted the Church of England’s commitment to tackling homophobia.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: It would seem odd to me if I were to just sit here silently after people, particularly the noble Baroness, have said what they have. First, I am sure that no one in the House of Bishops would have approached with anything other than irony the fact that the statement was issued on 14 February. Secondly, I entirely associate myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, about Uganda and other countries where such repressive measures have been taken. I am fairly certain that no one in the House of Bishops would want to say anything different.

The next thing to say is that, without any sense of disloyalty to the college to which I belong, there was a variety of opinion on how we approach the problem. It is a problem because we are dealing with a very long tradition, set out in the Book of Common Prayer. For a church that has a tradition that now goes back 450 years in what it has been saying about marriage, to move in a significantly different direction is a significant shift. There will be a variety of opinions, but that is an issue.

The second issue refers to what the noble Lord, Lord Alli, was touching on. We are part of a worldwide communion. One very difficult thing for a worldwide communion is somehow to balance being sensitive to different cultural values in different places. By different cultural values, I do not mean repressive measures being passed in Acts by Governments, which none of us would support. That puts us in a particularly difficult position, because all the time we are trying to ensure that we listen to what people here are saying and what people’s consciences here are saying but, at the same time, to stay with the communion.

Back in the 1988 Lambeth conference, when there was a fairly heated debate about polygamy in some African countries, the western provinces in the Anglican Communion worked very hard, saying, “We understand that you are in a different place from where we are, and we are not going to take a hard line on this at the moment”. We have not yet got to that position in the communion. For me to stay other than loyal to the House of Bishops’ statement would be more than irresponsible, because I know that one real concern is that it is not just about us and the Church of England, it is also about the Anglican Communion. That is a key issue, and may not have been made quite as clear as it might have been when the statement was issued.

As your Lordships will see, I am not speaking from a prepared text. I think that there is universal concern in the Church of England that we move away from any sense of homophobia and do all that we can to affirm people in different sorts of relationships but, at the moment, that is where the House finds itself, because it had to respect the consciences of people bringing very different opinions.

I hope that that makes it clear to the House that that was not being done in an unthinking, hardhearted or insensitive way—it was certainly not intended to be—but your Lordships will be very pleased to hear that every Bishop, as far as I know, who is a Member of the House received an envelope last week with a note reading, “With compliments for your pastoral sensitivity”, and the envelope included a humbug.

Baroness Northover: I noted the generosity of spirit that was shown, especially in the later stages of the Bill, by those for whom this legislation was a very difficult challenge. I commend them for that generosity of spirit. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Alli, said in this regard and what the right reverend Prelate has just said….

Enabling same-sex couples to marry will not only bring fulfilment and joy to thousands of couples and their friends and families but is also a clear demonstration that Britain is a fair and inclusive place, where everyone has equal value. The noble Lords, Lord Alli and Lord Collins, and the right reverend Prelate are right to highlight the contrast with the situation in some countries around the world. We should treasure the freedoms that we have and be ever vigilant as we seek to support those who are less fortunate around the world. These statutory instruments are necessary to make marriage of same-sex couples a reality, and I hope the House will approve them.