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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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.