The decision to allow same-sex marriages in church will be a headache for Justin Welby

It may end up dominating the new Archbishop of Canterbury's tenure in the way that the women bishops debate has dominated Rowan Williams'.

As if he didn't have enough on his in-tray trying to sort out the mess over women bishops, the government's decision to permit same-sex marriage in church will create more problems for the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

When his appointment was announced, Welby was widely described as being a "staunch" opponent of same-sex marriage. But he has never used the language of, say, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu, who once claimed that to allow gay couples to get married would be to "torture the English language."  Instead, during his first press conference Welby promised to "listen very attentively to the LGBT communities and examine my own thinking prayerfully." But however his own thinking evolves, the change will inevitably call into question both the unity of the Church of England and its relationship with wider society. 

As the women's bishops debate also showed, the church can't afford to get too out of step with the nation from which it takes its name.  When it does, it raises awkward questions about its constitutional status and privileges, even about what it is for. 

The Church's official position, as set out in its response to the government's consultation earlier this year, is to oppose any move towards equalisation marriage between gay and straight couples.  Even the government's initial proposals, which would have prohibited any same-sex ceremonies in religious premises, went too far for the Anglican leadership. The document claimed that the change would "alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history." 

It also made legal arguments, casting doubt on the government's distinction between religious and civil marriage and stressing the historic obligation of the Anglican priests to marry couples resident in their parish, whether they were members of the church or not.  However, the Church of England has long had an exemption when it comes to marrying divorcees, and recently acquired one in respect of transsexuals, so there's no obvious reason why it shouldn't also have an exemption from being required to perform same-sex marriages.

The real problem for the established church - and for the new archbishop - will be internal rather than external.  Instead of vicars being forced by the state to perform gay marriages against their conscience, a more likely scenario will see clergy banned by the church from following their conscience by performing them. The official statement was not universally welcomed by Anglicans.  Many, in fact, denounced it.  The liberal grouping Inclusive Church put in its own submission, describing the ability of churches to offer same-sex ceremonies "a fundamental principle of religious liberty."  It was "of the utmost importance that objections to the principle of same-sex marriages by some religious groups should not be used as an excuse to obstruct other groups from acting in accordance with their own religious views."  Giles Fraser, perhaps the Church's highest-profile liberal, declared that he was "spitting blood" after reading the "ridiculous" official response, which he thought had "all the democratic authority of a  Putin election victory."

Such views probably still represent a minority view among practising Anglicans, in contrast to the push for women bishops - which, despite the disappointing outcome of the recent Synod vote, has clear majority support inside the church.  And as that vote showed, it's quite easy for opponents of change to put together a blocking minority in the Synod.  So it's hard to see a proposal to permit same-sex marriage winning the necessary two-thirds majority in all three houses.  It's very likely that religious organisations will be allowed to offer same-sex weddings on the same terms that they can already offer civil partnerships: that is, only if the group as a whole decides to accept it.  Individual priests will not be able to make the decision unilaterally. 

The Church of England officially supports civil partnerships but, unlike some other religious groups including the Quakers and the United Reformed Church, has made no move to permit the ceremonies in its churches.  Once same sex marriage becomes widely accepted, as it surely will once the doom-laden predictions of its opponents prove unfounded, this is likely to change.  There will be increasingly vocal calls from liberal clergy to marry same sex couples.  In Denmark, the national Lutheran Church already performs same sex weddings, with exemptions for individual ministers who have an objection. Such a solution could also work in the Church of England.  But not before another almighty row between the C of E's liberals and conservatives. It may end up dominating Justin Welby's tenure as archbishop in the way that the women bishops debate has dominated Rowan Williams'.  

Justin Welby. Photo: Getty
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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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