Gay marriage and church politics

Who speaks for the Church of England?

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.

The Church of England has declared its opposition to government plans to introduce gay marriage. Photograph: Getty Images.
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Graham Brady illustration
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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle