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Gay marriage and church politics

Who speaks for the Church of England?

David Cameron has pledged to introduce gay marriage before 2015.
The Church of England has declared its opposition to government plans to introduce gay marriage. Photograph: Getty Images.

Few will be surprised, though many will be disappointed, that the Church of England has come out vehemently against the government's proposals to allow same-sex marriage.  

The document released by the Church today claims that its opposition to the measure does not prejudge "continuing theological and ethical debate" within the institution over the status of same-sex relationships. However, in language very similar to that employed by the Catholic bishops earlier this year, the text stresses the importance of traditional marriage for the common good of society, argues that "complementarity" of the sexes (and the goal of procreation) undergirds it and takes the view that characterises the proposal as a "fundamental redefinition" of marriage.  

The first thing to note is that this official statement does not reflect the view of "the Church of England" because the Church of England, as such, does not have a view.  The statement has not been voted on by the General Synod or even offered to the Synod for comment.  It implies a unity of opinion among Anglican Christians that simply does not exist.  A majority of British Christians in fact support equal rights for gay people. The manner in which it was released is also quite striking.  The statement was, however, heavily trailed by a number of newspapers sympathetic to its general line, accompanied by comments, some off the record, by its authors. One of them took advantage of anonymity to describe the proposals as "shallow" and "half-baked".  On the record, the Bishop of Leicester warned in slightly more measured tones of "a situation in which civil law and canon law are at odds".

An accompanying press release claimed that the Church of England "has supported the removal of previous legal and material inequities between heterosexual and same-sex partnerships".  This is simply not true.  When civil partnerships were being introduced in 2004, six bishops voted against the proposal in the House of Lords, with only one (the then bishop of Oxford) voting in favour.  Conservative voices in the church made the same arguments - and raised much the same apocalyptic fears - then against civil partnerships as they are making now against equalising marriage.

Taken together, then, the statement and the accompanying media blitz are as much a part of internal church politics as they are an attempt to raise actual problems with the proposed legislation.  

Nevertheless, the document is worth considering on its own merits.  The most interesting sections are those that concern the legal implications of the change.  The authors are right, I think, to suggest that it is doubtful that the continuation of same-sex only civil partnership would be legally sustainable.  Indeed, the refusal to allow heterosexual couples the option of having a civil partnership instead of a marriage is for me the single most objectionable (and irrational) part of the government's proposals.  The C of E statement is also right to point out the illogicality of allowing religious premises to host civil partnership ceremonies while forbidding them from conducting same-sex marriages even when they wish to do so.  

Much attention today has focused on the possible implications of same-sex marriage on the constitutional position of the Church of England.  The document claims that, since there is no legal distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage (as opposed to civil and religious weddings), if the government's changes went ahead traditional marriage,

would in effect have been abolished and replaced by a new statutory concept which the Church – and many outside the Church – would struggle to recognise as amounting to marriage at all. A man and a woman who wished to enter into the traditional institution of marriage would no longer have the opportunity to do so.

This is, to say the least, a remarkably alarmist way of putting the matter.  There are real questions concerning the role of Anglican clergy as registrars: it could be argued, and no doubt will be, that their obligation to perform marriages for their parishioners ought to extend to same-sex couples.  But as the document goes on to admit, it is in practice highly unlikely that the European Court of Human Rights would intervene to force unwilling churches to marry people of the same sex - who would, after all, be able to achieve the same status via a civil ceremony. (A right to get married is not the same as a right to a particular style of wedding.)  Where the Courts might step in is in relation to the proposed bar on allowing churches to conduct same-sex marriages should they wish to do so.

This, I think, is the central fear behind the Church of England's official response to the consultation process. In Denmark, legislation has recently been passed allowing for same sex marriages in the country's established Lutheran church, subject to an opt-out for clergy who have conscientious objection to the idea. There's no prospect in sight of such a move being made in this country.  Whatever fears are being expressed today, the Church of England's role as the Established church no longer means (as it once did) that the state dictates what it should believe or how it should organise itself.  But if same-sex marriage goes through, there will be pressure from liberal Anglican clergy who would like the right to conduct weddings of gay couples.  Indeed, mainstream opposition within the church is likely to decline once same-sex marriage has become established and Anglicans notice that the Apocalypse has not arrived.