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Challenge issued to Archbishop over Lords vote on same sex marriage

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Andrea Minichiello Williams, CEO of Christian Concern, has challenged the Archbishop of Canterbury concerning the low attendance of bishops in the House of Lords during crucial stages of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.

Report Stage

Mrs Minichiello Williams wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury – copied to all the Lords Spiritual – asking for an explanation as to why so few of the bishops were present at Report Stage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.

At Report Stage votes were taken on amendments to protect people from being discriminated against in the workplace for their belief in marriage between one man and one woman in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.

On the first day (8th July) only two bishops were present (Chester and Leicester). The Bishop of Leicester voted against Amendment 1, which sought to maintain a distinction between marriages of same sex couples and marriages of opposite sex couples. He did not vote on any other amendments.

On the second day of Report Stage (Wednesday 10th July), there were more bishops present but only three of these voted for Amendment 94, which sought to extend the availability of Civil Partnerships to unpaid carers and family members.

Mixed message

Mrs Minichiello Williams said in her letter: “I am surprised that the Church of England appears to be vacating the public square when it comes to the issue of marriage. Given the rich teaching of Scripture and strong tradition of marriage, this is something that the CofE should be able to comment on clearly, intelligently and winsomely.

“Marriage is something to be celebrated, promoted and, at this time, preserved. At a time when the nation needs to hear a prophetic voice on marriage, the CofE’s message is sadly mixed and, as a result, unclear.”

Second Reading vote

A Church of England official replied on behalf of the Archbishop, in which he argued that the vote on the Bill at Second Reading had a detrimental effect on the chances of securing subsequent amendments to the Bill.

Lord Dear introduced a ‘wrecking amendment’ at Second Reading which, had it been successful, would have derailed the Bill.

The Church official said in his letter that this move went against House of Lords tradition and protocol and therefore was a serious misjudgement.

Precedent

But in her reply, Mrs Minichiello Williams referred to the clear precedent for voting at Second Reading as a means of voting on the principle of a Bill. She said:

“It was very disappointing that the Archbishop himself said in the Second Reading debate that he was against the vote on Second Reading. In the event, of course, the Archbishop himself voted against the Bill, but his statement could well have dissuaded peers from voting with Lord Dear.

“The Public Bill Office advised peers that voting at Second Reading was the proper way to object to the principle of the Bill. Perhaps the Archbishop was not aware of this or the clear precedents for such votes.

“…There is a long history of Government Bills being opposed at Second Reading in the Lords… Most recently Labour voted against the Health and Social Care Bill in October 2011. The party argued that since we had a coalition Government the Salisbury-Addison Convention did not apply. It also disputed whether the particular Bill was in any case covered by a manifesto commitment.”

Disappointing

She continued:  “Given the spiritual, moral and constitutional enormity of the Marriage Bill, it would have been quite wrong not to vote on the principle. And, indeed, if Lord Dear had not done it, there were other people who would have done so. A vote was inevitable.

“It was disappointing that fewer than half the Bishops Bench turned out to vote on the principle on 3 June, and their attendance at Committee and Report was lamentable. If the Church of England takes its role in the Lords seriously, all reasonable steps should have been taken to secure full attendance - the political parties certainly did so, as the votes prove.”

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