On 3rd March 2020 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill at its Committee Stage. The Bishop of Salisbury, Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, supported two amendments on relationship support, to ensure that divorcing couples had access to information about support and mediation to enable them to consider alternative ways forward before being issued with a final divorce order, and that this resource is funded. One of the amendments was put by the former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. The amendments were resisted by Government on grounds that they did not consider the Bill to be the right vehicle for tackling the wider issues that lead to relationship breakdown. The amendments were debated before being withdrawn.
The Lord Bishop of Salisbury: My Lords, I rise in support of Amendments 3 and 21 and to provide a brace of bishops. I want to observe the seriousness and the quality of this debate as we as a House navigate the support of marriage as an institution and of couples in keeping their vows while recognising that marriages break down and trying to provide adequately for those circumstances. If the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, is right that support for the relationship support services sometimes depends on the whim of a Minister or Prime Minister, one might hope that the present occupant of 10 Downing Street would take a particular interest in these matters.
On average, the Church of England conducts about 1,000 weddings a week. We have experience of conducting, preparing people for and supporting them in marriages. Quite often, couples that I have prepared say that they want to get married in church because they know that they are standing and making their vows in a solemn and serious place that has significance in the community and before God. They want the support of the community gathered around them.
In the modern marriage service, we say, “Will you support them in what they are doing?” The congregation comes back with, “We will”. The role of gathering around a couple to support them in keeping what we know to be quite difficult things to keep is a very significant part of the service. Marriage is a gift of God in creation. A marriage in civil ceremony is, therefore, as big a deal. That means that we need to gather around these couples too and support them in upholding their vows.
However, marriages break down. That is costly in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Browne, itemised; there is a financial cost to society. It is also emotionally costly to the individuals in the couples. This is not done lightly: there is a real cost to this, as well as a financial cost to the family concerned. It needs good support to wrap around it. Tolstoy observed that all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in is own way. That is a good reason for saying that the support of marriages is complex and that we need to put in relationship counselling provision early on to support that.
Both amendments seem valuable to me for the support that they give individuals but also because they make a point in a Bill that, as my right reverend friend the Bishop of Portsmouth observed at Second Reading, might better be focused on kinder divorce rather than easier divorce. Through these amendments, we would be making a statement about the seriousness and importance of marriage, and the support that needs to be wrapped around it, both at an earlier stage and, by noting the availability of resources, at this last stage before the matter is finalised.