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House of Lords debates Clergy exemption from same-sex 'marriages'

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When same-sex marriage was passed, provisions were included to stop clergy from having to solemnise the ceremonies. Today, the House of Lords debated an amendment to remove this key protection. Although the Bishop of Chelmsford opposed the amendment, he spoke about the CofE working closely with Stonewall and held out the prospect that church doctrine on homosexuality could change. After the government opposed the amendment, it was withdrawn. Tim Dieppe analyses the debate.

The House of Lords debated an amendment to the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill which would remove the exemption for clergy from officiating at same-sex ‘marriages’. If passed the amendment could compel Church of England clergy to carry out same-sex ‘marriages’ even though this is contrary to Church doctrine and would violate the consciences of many Clergy. Tim Dieppe discusses how the debate went.
 

The amendment

The amendment reads:

Insert the following new Clause— “Removal of exemption for clergy under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013

(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations to amend the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 to remove the exemption for members of the clergy to solemnize the marriage of a same sex couple.

(2) Regulations under this section must be in force by the end of the period of 6 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”

If passed this amendment could mean that clergy are forced to carry out same-sex ‘marriages’ since they have an obligation in law to marry people in their parish. Passing this amendment would also break key religious freedom promises made by the government when same-sex ‘marriage’ was passed in 2013.

The amendment was brought by Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lord Collins of Highbury, who is in a same-sex ‘marriage’.
 

Removing exemptions

In proposing the amendment, Lord Faulkner criticised the so-called “triple-lock” which exempted the Church of England from the provisions for same-sex ‘marriage’. This was done with good reason because Church doctrine is that marriage is between a man and a woman, so the Church of England needs to be exempt in order to be able to comply with its doctrine.

Lord Cashman, a founder of the LGBT campaign group Stonewall, spoke in support of the amendment, as did Lord Scriven who mentioned his ‘marriage’ to his ‘husband’ in the debate.

The Bishop of Chelmsford represented the Church of England in the debate. He explained that:

“The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 seeks to strike a balance between the right of individuals to marry a person of the same sex, and the rights of churches and other religious bodies—and of their ministers—to act in a way consistent with their religious beliefs. Nobody is prevented from entering into marriage with a person of the same sex, but no religious body or minister of religion is compelled to solemnise such a marriage.”

He went on to say:

“The 2013 Act accordingly contains specific provision so that the common-law duty of the clergy is not extended to same-sex marriages. As I understand it, that appears to be the main target of the amendment.”

The point is that clergy have a common law duty to marry people from their parish who request it. They are currently exempted from this in the case of same-sex ‘marriages’, but this amendment could force clergy to marry same-sex couples even though that is against Church doctrine and would violate the consciences of many clergy.
 

Church of England revisiting doctrine

The Bishop of Chelmsford further explained that the Church of England is engaged in a process of revisiting their thoughts on relationships and marriage.

“It is no secret that there are differing, strongly held views within the Church of England on these questions—I am putting it mildly. We recognise that they are vital matters which affect the well-being of individuals and communities, but we are in the middle of this process and we are waiting to see what will emerge.”

He held out the prospect that the doctrine could change:

“Were the Church of England’s doctrine that marriage is between one man and one woman to be changed, that could be achieved only by specific ecclesiastical legislation, passed by the General Synod and then by Parliament.”


Church of England works closely with Stonewall

When pressed by Lord Cashman of Stonewall, the Bishop of Chelmsford said:

“I want him to know that the Church of England works closely with Stonewall to address many of the issues he identified, which I am aware of and very much hope that the Church of England will address.”

Indeed, the Church of England does work closely with Stonewall, and Stonewall are invited into Church of England schools to teach about LGBT related issues. Stonewall posters and materials are frequently seen in Church of England Schools.
 

Compulsion

Lord Elton asked about whether the amendment would place clergy under compulsion to marry against their principles. The Bishop of Chelmsford replied that the legal department of the Church of England had raised this concern:

“I think I am right to say that it would be a concern even for those who would like change, because it would introduce compulsion. That would be very unhelpful, particularly as the Church of England is in the middle of a process of discussion of the issues.”


The Church of England following society

Lord Collins quoted from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s book Reimagining Britain’ as follows:

“If fluidity of relationships is the reality of our society, then this should be our starting point for building values, because all values must connect with where people are and not where other people might like them to be.”

This is a shocking and disturbing quote from Justin Welby. The starting point for our values should be the Bible, not society. The Church should be leading society, not following it.

Lord Collins continued:

“That is the question for the Church of England. If it does not catch up, people will go somewhere else.”

The fact is that people are leaving the Church of England because many of its churches are following society rather than leading. It is Bible-believing churches that are attracting people.
 

Amendment withdrawn

Baroness Williams responded for the government and said:

“We have always been clear that no religious organisation should be forced to marry same-sex couples—I think the noble Lords made that clear—or to host civil partnerships. A number of religious organisations have chosen to opt in by providing blessings and, again, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford gives us hope when he talks about the process of living in love and faith that the Church of England is currently going through. We hope that more organisations will do that in the future, but it is right that it should remain a decision for them. It is not for the Government to mandate this through regulations.”

She requested for the amendment to be withdrawn. Lord Faulkner then withdrew the amendment but reserved the right to bring it back at the Report stage.
 

Religious liberty under threat

We are relieved that this amendment was withdrawn. It would have been a massive blow to religious liberty for Church of England clergy to be forced to carry out same-sex ‘marriages’. It is pleasing that the government remains committed to maintaining religious freedom, but the direction of travel is clear. One wonders how long the government will continue to protect religious freedom in this country?
 

Links:

Amendment for the removal of exemption for clergy
Hansard transcript of the debate

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