Ecumenical Marriage Bill – Bishop of Winchester points to difficulties

Bishop of WinchesterOn the 23rd February 2018, Lord Deben’s  ‘Ecumenical Marriage Bill’ was debated in the House of Lords at Second Reading. The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, spoke during the debate to say that he could not support the Bill for reasons related to detail and due process. The Government also declined to give the Bill its support, but as is convention, it passed Second Reading to be considered further in Committee. The Bishop’s speech and the closing speeches of the Minister and Lord Deben are reproduced below:

The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Deben, for giving us the opportunity to speak about issues of such importance to this Bench as the celebration of marriage and our ecumenical relationships. I first acknowledge the personal and pastoral issues raised by the noble Lord and the way that he has so succinctly put those in his four concluding points, about sacraments, the ecumenical world, the fudges and the ecumenical movement.

I am, therefore, rather embarrassed to start with something slightly more dry and technical. However, I begin by addressing what I believe to be the key issue here, which is constitutional in nature. There is a long-standing constitutional convention, with which noble Lords will be very familiar, that the Church of England makes its own legislation by synodical process. That legislation comes before Parliament for approval, having first been considered by the Ecclesiastical Committee. This Bill represents a departure from that convention.

As many will be aware, ecumenical relations are governed by Measure. The Church of England (Ecumenical Relations) Measure 1988 and the use of Church of England buildings by other Christian denominations is governed by Canon B43, what is known as the ecumenical canon. There are already structures which give expression to the valuable relationships that we have with our ecumenical partners. Indeed, members of the Church of England are convinced that Christian Churches should work, pray and witness together in a growing unity. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, underlined, our prayers this morning reminded us of that—that we might live together in true charitable love.

With regard to the participation by ministers of other denominations in Church of England weddings, Canon B43 already offers considerable flexibility, with the result that Church of England weddings regularly involve ministers of other denominations. There are even provisions for the sharing of church buildings in certain circumstances. However, these practical arrangements flow from the relationships between Churches of different denominations which, as I have said, involve dialogue on many levels, not least the doctrinal one.

The current arrangement is not a result of the unintentional effects of the wording of the Marriage Act 1949. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, will appreciate practical arrangements flow from the progress made on ecumenical dialogue rather than the other way around, and it is no more appropriate for Parliament to prescribe to the Church of England or any Church how it carries out its ecumenical relationships than it would be to legislate on any other questions of doctrine.

Lord Deben: The right reverend Prelate uses the word “prescribe”. This Bill prescribes nothing; it permits. Earlier he said that in this House we have a long tradition of leaving law to the Church of England. That is what this Bill does. It removes the power of this House to stop the Church of England doing something. It is the removal of an impediment; it is not a prescription. If one uses those two words, it would be a different Bill, and I have specifically avoided either of them.
The Lord Bishop of Winchester: The noble Lord makes his points clearly on these matters, but I hope that he will listen to what else I have to say and see if I have responded to the questions that he has raised.
In my understanding, the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference, with which I am pleased to say we have very good ecumenical relationships, is not supportive of the Bill. I am also advised that the Church in Wales is likewise unsupportive.
I turn to the text of the Bill. Here I may have to go into a little detail and I may not quite say what the noble Lord, Lord Deben, thinks is my position. Clause 1 defines:
“Christian denominations other than the Church of England”,
“any denominations whose ministers and churches can be licensed for the solemnization of marriage under the Marriage Act 1949”.
This is in the first place erroneous in that it is the building and not the minister that is licensed. More importantly, that Act makes provision for places of worship of many faiths to be licensed. The result here is to leave undefined the question of what a Christian denomination is and affords potential legal rights to the use of churches to new religious movements with which the Church of England does not have existing formal ecumenical relationships. We are returned to addressing questions of doctrine, creed and ecumenical dialogue, all of which ought properly to sit with the Churches themselves.
For the Church of England in particular there is not in the present legal framework provision for the exercise of discretion by an incumbent, PCC or diocesan bishop in individual cases over whether a marriage can take place or can take place in one place or another. All other legal requirements being in place, if a couple live in the parish, they have the right to be married in the parish church. The Bill unhelpfully gives wide discretionary powers through the making of exceptions to a general rule. Setting aside the long-winded process that would be involved in gaining formal consent from an incumbent PCC and diocesan bishop, it is hard to see how in natural justice this discretion could be exercised with sufficient fairness and transparency to be acceptable. The more one imagines specific cases, the more there is to be said for a legal framework which does not contain the element of personal discretion.
It has been pointed out, and the noble Lord has himself made it clear, that there are some places in mainly rural areas where the Anglican church is the only church building convenient for weddings and that it would be better for marriages of other denominations to take place in them than for couples to have the choice between either a church or chapel of their own denomination in an inconvenient location or in a secular venue where religious content to the marriage service is not permitted. But it seems upside down to start addressing this issue with the matter of weddings when it relates to the mission and ministry of the Christian Church in the area. It is already possible for denominations to enter at the local level into a sharing agreement under the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969. Under the terms of such an agreement, each participating denomination can celebrate marriage services in accordance with its own rites and usages. The shared building can be a Church of England parish church or chapel, for example. There are many more problems of detail into which I do not propose to delve here, but would need to be unpacked at greater length were this Bill to reach Committee.
It would be a great mistake if I were to speak here of only church buildings and church ministers. The local church building, parish church or licensed chapel is significant as the focus of a worshipping Christian community. Marriages are solemnised in the building as an expression of the reality of that parish community, and in some cases of a community with a historical identity spanning centuries. The prayer, support and friendship of the local Christian community gives extra depth and meaning to the event of a marriage ceremony. In that, the church building is so much more than a wedding venue.
For all the progress that it might appear to embody, I must none the less urge the House to recognise that this Bill is not the way to encourage the ecumenical hospitality for which we continue to work and to which I am personally committed. I want to leave it, having heard the challenges put by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, right at the end of his remarks—those very direct challenges to the Church of England—as being ones that we must address.

 Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con) [Minister]: My Lords, on what is very nearly my first wedding anniversary, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Deben on securing a Second Reading of his Bill. Like my noble friend, I have learned a huge amount in preparing for today’s debate. Marriage law is very complex. I note his acknowledgement of the Church of England’s ecumenical generosity in allowing its churches to be used by other denominations. In turn, I acknowledge the generosity of intention with which he has brought his proposal before the House today, which has been mentioned by many noble Lords.


Parliament lately has been debating various subjects that concern marriage. I was pleased to note the support last month from all sides of this House for the Registration of Marriage Bill, introduced by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. As he informed the House, the purpose of making provision to include mothers’ names on marriage certificates is,

“to correct a clear and historic injustice”.—[Official Report, 26/1/18; col. 1233.]

The Government are firmly committed to doing so. Also last month, in another place, Members debated marriage and support for family relationships more generally. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Kit Malthouse, responded by saying:

“The vital institution of marriage is a strong symbol of wider society’s desire to celebrate commitment between partners”.—[Official Report, Commons, 30/1/18; col. 286WH.]

It is a pleasure to be able to repeat his words in this House today.

It is true, as my noble friend Lord Deben noted, that the Marriage Act 1949 does not routinely provide for other Christian denominations to solemnize marriages according to their own rites and ceremonies in Church of England churches and chapels. Noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to this as an accidental omission. But this is neither an injustice nor an accident. However, the law does provide for other denominations, both Christian and others, to solemnize marriages in their own places of worship and in their own ways. Such provision reflects a long-standing freedom that couples should be able to marry in their place of worship, regardless of denomination or faith. That is entirely right.

How Church of England marriages take place is a matter of law and practice that go back many centuries before the 1949 Act. There has long been a tight association between the Church’s rites and ceremonies, its churches and chapels, and the reading of banns to give public notice of a marriage. We have a richness of ways in which partners can celebrate their commitment to each other before family and friends. Whether they choose to enter into marriage through a religious or a civil route, there is an unbroken connection between the place of the marriage and the type of ceremony that may be used.

Because provision for Church of England marriages and provision for other religious marriages were not made at the same time, there are some differences in the requirements that must be followed. None the less, important principles of public policy have endured and run throughout. The law sets out the requirements for a legally valid marriage. It also includes safeguards against marriages that should not take place at all, for reasons of important public policy. Marriage is one of our greatest institutions. The Government have always a duty to consider with the most studious care any proposals for change.

The Church of England has legislated for nearly 100 years through Measures that are received by the joint Ecclesiastical Committee. Although it is possible, it is not conventional for Parliament to legislate directly on matters that properly belong to the Church. I have therefore paid great attention to the contributions that all noble Lords have made today. I recognise that my noble friend Lord Deben has introduced a proposal that requires the Church’s permission for marriages to take place. I listened carefully to what he said. I also listened carefully to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, who set out the position of the Church of England. I am also struck by the right reverend Prelate’s understanding that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Church of Wales are not supportive of this Bill. Many noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Robathan and Lady O’Cathain, have noted that it must be for the Church of England to decide. Without the Church of England’s consent to changing the law that affects it, the Government are clear that they cannot support the Bill. This is the Government’s principal reservation.

I also note that the Government have not seen evidence of any demand from denominations or couples to use Church of England churches and chapels for their own marriages; nor have the Government heard of any dissatisfaction with the current arrangements, apart from those expressed by my noble friend Lord Deben—

 Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for giving me this space but I could give plenty of evidence of people who would like to avail themselves of this facility—plenty, plenty, plenty.
Baroness Vere of Norbiton: I thank the noble Lord for his intervention; perhaps I should have prefaced my “evidence” with “sufficient”. We are certainly always open to receiving evidence because that is the best way to make law.
As a government Minister, I cannot of course comment on the ecumenical purpose of the Bill or on the practices of denominations. These are matters for others to determine, in their own way and their own time. I see that only this month, the General Synod of the Church of England has done just that in welcoming a joint report with the Methodist Church on how the two Churches can work more closely together, including in what they speak of as an interchange of ministries. The report is called Mission and Ministry in Covenant; I note that its authors acknowledge that they have built on the foundations of dialogue between the two Churches over many years, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths. They also recognise that there is still much work to do. It is clear to me, then, that if Churches wish to take the initiative to work closely together, it is not a change that can be achieved overnight. Instead, it takes long consideration and, no doubt, prayerful reflection.
With all this in mind, and repeating that the Church’s position is sufficient reason for the Government not to support the Bill, I turn now to the detail of what my noble friend has proposed. Clause 1(2) makes it clear that the proposal would extend to peculiars, royal or otherwise. The Government would wish to approach very cautiously any proposal from outside the Church that affected royal peculiars in particular, since they come under the direct jurisdiction of Her Majesty the Queen.
Clause 1(3) requires that the proposed marriages are solemnized and registered only by a minister licensed to perform marriages in a church of another denomination. The existing law sets out that a marriage in another denomination’s registered building must take place in the presence of either a registrar or an authorised person. This authorised person will usually be a minister of religion, but not necessarily. The law does not require a minister to perform a marriage, only that the marriage should take place in the presence of the people required by statute. Furthermore, notice of such a marriage could not be given by the reading of banns, and the Marriage Act 1949 would require further amendment to provide for a superintendent registrar’s certificate to authorise marriages by other denominations in Church of England churches and chapels. The existing law provides for offences relating to the solemnization of marriages; the Government would also need to consider whether these offences ought to be extended.
Clause 1(4) presents a problem of definition. I am aware that there is potential for dispute about which groups constitute a Christian denomination. Whether this is justiciable would be a matter for the court. Lord Ramsey, as the then most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, understood this difficulty when he introduced his Private Member’s Bill nearly 50 years ago. Now known as the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969, it extended to the denominations which had taken part in the negotiations for the actual construction of the Bill. Furthermore, it provided a mechanism so that other denominations could apply to various Christian umbrella organisations to have the Act extended to them. Although not the prime intention of Lord Ramsey’s Bill, a consequence of a sharing agreement made locally with the Church of England under this Act is that other denominations may solemnize marriages in the Church of England building concerned. The requirements of the Act must be met, including that the other denomination has the building certified and registered in the usual manner.
I have endeavoured to be helpful to the House in setting out these points in detail. It remains the case that the fundamental issue for the Government is the Church of England’s position on its own affairs. Because the Church does not support the Bill, I must, as a matter of principle, express the Government’s reservations about the Bill.
I turn briefly to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He spoke very movingly of how differences in religion can affect families and communities, and the benefits of practical ecumenism. I accept his point that marriage is symbolic because it is a union—a coming together. None the less, families and communities have overcome their differences by themselves without changing the law. If one denomination is willing to involve another at an appropriate point in the marriage ceremony, that will surely be most welcomed by families and communities. That, however, remains a matter for the people involved, not for the Government.
The noble Lord, Lord Beith, commented on non-C of E participants in C of E weddings. He said that there are certain parts of the marriage in the Church of England that cannot be performed by ministers of other denominations. But in any marriage, whether religious or civil, there are certain requirements that must be met and the presence of certain people is required. My noble friend Lady O’Cathain helpfully noted these in her contribution.
I remain grateful to my noble friend Lord Deben for bringing this matter before the House today and encouraging such an interesting debate. I know that many of your Lordships have a close interest in these matters—in how different denominations work together in sharing their faith and witness. This has been a fruitful debate that has drawn on long reflection and wide experience from across the House. I should therefore like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part today.

Lord Deben: My Lords, I thank all those who have taken part in this debate. I say to my noble friend who has just spoken that none of the things she raised could not be altered in amendments to the Bill. There is no difference between us and no reason at all why we cannot meet all those things. I just want to come back at her clearly: the Bill does not tell the Church of England to do anything. It is entirely fictitious to suggest that we are breaking the convention. What we are doing is removing a legal impediment for the Church of England to make up its own mind, which is clearly different.
The 1949 Act says that churches are licensed for marriage according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England. The Church of England would have to get Parliament to remove that if it wanted to change it. All I am doing is removing that impediment to start with and leaving the Church of England to make up its own mind. That is what this House has done on successive occasions, and why the Church of England now has so much power to make up its own mind. I say that as somebody who was a member of the General Synod of the Church of England for more than a decade, so I know how the system works. But I know also that every time one raised this question, and I have raised it for many years, I was told that it could not be done because of the previous law in this House. All I am doing is removing that. If I hear anybody repeat the argument that we are asking, forcing or doing anything else to the Church of England, I will just ask them to look at the Bill. It does not say that at all. The fact that that is the only argument that has been properly brought forward suggests to me that the Church of England does not want to be challenged by the ecumenical realities of where it stands.
I much admire my noble friend in answering for the Government but, frankly, the idea that she has never heard of anybody being worried or upset about this leaves me flabbergasted—that is the only word I can think of—because this is the issue for so many couples, as we now have an ecumenical society. They are amazed when they discover that the Anglican girl and the Catholic boy, or the other way round—or the Methodist girl and the Anglican boy—cannot make the arrangement that they expect and want to make. They want to be married by the person who has been closest to them in their courting and their coming to terms with what marriage is. They are surprised to be excluded from that and blame first the Church of England. I have been able to defend the Church of England again and again by saying “It’s not the Church’s fault; it is not allowed to do it because of the state’s law”. I want to remove that here.
I have one thing to say to the right reverend Prelate. I have been in politics for many years, and I often hear speeches which go like this: “I’m so much in favour of this reform, so keen on the other reform, and on all these past reforms. I am absolutely on that side, it’s just this new one that I am against”. The Church of England has a long history of that and of never being in advance. But it always finally blesses the marriage with the deceased wife’s sister—remember? That spent years getting through, because the Church of England could never bring itself to be just a bit ahead of what the public really wanted. There was the demeaning comment about a “marriage venue”; no one is talking about a marriage venue. We are talking about Christian people wanting to be married in the church which is their church, in their village, which they help to keep up, which they go to for ceremonies when they are there together. They do not want some hotel or some secondary place. They want to be where they see their faith continuous and with their neighbours. I say to the right reverend Prelate that that was the moment when he lost me. It was when he did not understand that ecumenism demands sacrifice and also demands getting round silly legalistic arguments. Of course we can insist that a registrar fills in the form, if that is what is needed. Of course we can get round all those things. This Bill says to the Church of England: “Here. All the impediments are taken away. You now have the chance to make a generous gift to the rest of society and a chance to show”—
The Lord Bishop of Winchester: The noble Lord makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I want to clarify what I said at the beginning. I recognise the pastoral and personal issues that have been raised, but I say to him that there are a number of clergy in my diocese, and many other clergy in many other dioceses, who know that they have to conduct 150 weddings this year. They know what it feels like for their buildings to be used for event after event after event. My comment was not about the particular concern the noble Lord may have about a wedding that he is very interested in wanting to use the parish church as a wedding venue. but about the whole package deal of the Church of England’s parish church—the local priest who knows the people concerned, reads the banns, prepares the people, uses the service that expresses the faith in which people are going to be married—that cannot be separated from the building. That is a very particular way of doing a marriage service.
I have no intention of saying to the noble Lord that he wants to change parish churches into wedding venues. I do not think that that was my concern. I just wanted to clarify that.
Lord Deben: The right reverend Prelate is making my point for me. We are talking about Christians who want to get married and one or other of them has a connection with a particular parish church. If there are 150 weddings, there are still going to be 150 weddings, but in one of them instead of the actual words of marriage being forcefully made by a clergyman of one denomination, they can be made by a clergyman or priest of another denomination, due to the generosity of the Church of England, which recognises that its place as the national church is the evolution of a whole historic story and that it needs to defend that by showing that generosity.
I say to the right reverend Prelate that what concerns me is that I have been involved in ecumenical movements for a very long time. As an Anglican I closed, forcibly, the last Conservative club in Liverpool that excluded Catholics. When I became a Catholic, I was cut off by relatives who thought that that was unacceptable. Do not let us kid ourselves about the amount of sectarian bigotry that still exists. Our discussions about Brexit have brought it to the surface again. All I am saying to the right reverend Prelate—and I am addressing him very directly as I finish—is that this is the next step in ecumenism. It is not good enough to say, “I am so keen on the past and am entirely in favour of all that but I cannot manage this step”.
In the amendments, we can get around any of the legal problems. There is no difficulty. I have a host of different ways of doing that. They are not here because I wanted this to be absolutely clearly the words of the Church of England as far as I possibly could, but if the right reverend Prelate would like me to make a lot of changes, I am very happy to do so. It would have been nice had we had that conversation before, but my first discussion about this happened this morning. It is an interesting kind of way in which this has been handled. I just say please give the Bill its Second Reading because the time has come and there is no longer anything but mere political and bureaucratic reasons for trying to stop it.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.