General Synod should decide on doctrine, not Parliament – Second Estates Commissioner to MPs in response to Bill

On 21st March 2023 Rt Hon Ben Bradshaw MP spoke to a Motion he had tabled in the House of Commons, for leave to bring in a Bill on same sex marriages in the Church of England. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, responded.


Mr Ben Bradshaw: That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable clergy of the Church of England to conduct same sex marriages on Church of England premises in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.

Ben Bradshaw introduces his Ten Minute Rule Bill and Andrew Selous responds

A transcript of the response from Andrew Selous is below:

Mr Andrew Selous MP (Second Church Estates Commissioner): Thank you very much Mr Deputy Mr Speaker. I do not intend to divide the House, but it is necessary to respond to the Bill in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner, because it seeks to usurp the role of the democratically elected General Synod of the Church of England, as well as to remove the freedom of the Church of England to decide its own doctrine, a freedom which Members on all sides of this House champion for religions and beliefs all over the world, and one that we should therefore apply equally to the Church of England.

There are passionately held and differing views about same sex marriage on all sides of this House and I am also acutely aware of the personal pain and hurt that this issue causes for so many people. But it is for the democratically elected assembly of the Church of England, the General Synod, to decide matters of doctrine rather than Parliament. And this has been the settled convention for nearly fifty years, since the 1974 Worship and Doctrine Measure was approved by Parliament.

At the General Synod last month, it was agreed that the Prayers of Love and Faith proposed by the bishops would be finalised, that the pastoral guidance for clergy would be produced, and that a welcoming culture towards LGBTQI+ people would be embedded throughout the Church. It was also agreed not to change the doctrine of marriage. And that Motion was passed by a clear majority in all three Houses of the Synod. Amendments to require the bishops to bring forward proposals for same-sex marriage to the next meeting of Synod and to revisit the issue within the next two years, were rejected by the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity.

The Right Honourable Gentleman’s Bill proposes that the decision of the Synod, arrived at prayerfully and democratically, should simply be set aside.

In this House, we do not all agree with each other, but we do respect everyone’s right to be here because we have all been given our mandate through the same black boxes on election night. I would ask that the Members of this democratically elected House show the same respect to the democratically elected members of the General Synod.

Directing the Church of England on doctrine is not the job of Parliament. It would infringe on settled principles of religious freedom, which we argue for our sisters and brothers overseas, and it would call into question the rights and protections of conscience for other denominations and faiths as well. Several Catholic members of this House came up to me after the Urgent Question on the 24th of January and told me how grateful they were that Parliament was not telling their church what to do!

The Bill is also unnecessary as should Synod decide to change the doctrine of marriage in the future, it could do so. It would produce a Measure, which would come before Parliament and amend the 2013 Marriage Act. There is no need therefore for Parliament to act independently to change the Act.

Although the Bill is intended to be permissive and not to compel any member of the clergy to solemnise same-sex marriage, it is just not possible to leave it to individual clergy to choose to do things that are clearly contrary to the doctrine of the church. Doctrine is not determined by local decision, varying by parish or diocese, but is decided centrally, not by a small group of bishops, but through the prayerful deliberation and decision of the democratically elected Synod. If the Church lost its ability to require compliance with its doctrine, this would be a breach of the Human Rights Convention as it would be contrary to article 9, read with article 11, for the State to interfere with a religious organisation’s ability to require compliance with its own doctrine.

The Bill’s attempt to give individual freedom and choice would be unworkable and would breach the longstanding convention that Parliament does not legislate for the internal affairs of the Church of England without its consent.

I honoured my commitment to tell the General Synod the views of Parliament as expressed in the Urgent Question on the 24th of January, and I know that the General Synod will continue to listen carefully and respectfully to the views of this House, just as I would ask Parliament to be respectful to the views of the Synod.

Note: The Motion was not opposed in a vote and the Bill was presented, though it will be unlikely to progress any further due to lack of time in the parliamentary session.

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