My Lords, I am pleased to add my name to this amendment and I echo the words of my noble friend. It is vital to remember that this change will not compel the Church of England to solemnise same-sex marriage. Instead, it simply means that if the Church were to change its position at any time, as some of us hope it will, and decide to authorise its clergy to solemnise same-sex marriage, it would not have to appeal to Parliament to change the law to allow it to do so. It rightly places this decision in the hands of the religious institution rather than Parliament. I have to reflect at this point that other religions are not so prohibited and are allowed to make their decisions. As a born-again atheist—although one right reverend Prelate informed me that I was not a born-again atheist but probably a “recovering Catholic”—I go to great lengths to defend the rights of religion and belief, because the basis upon which any civilised society is formed is defence of the rights of the other, even if the other is in complete opposition to you.
I have witnessed, in this country and around the world, how religious belief has been used to deny people basic equality—equality of rights, civil rights. I want us to come to a time when that history is far, far behind us. I witness how religion and personal, private religious belief is still being extended into the public and political domain to deny others basic human rights. I have to ask myself and imagine what would have happened if, instead of my wonderful civil partnership with the late Paul Cottingham, we had wanted to marry in the Church of England. I would have faced discrimination, as people of faith in the so-called LGBT, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans community, often do, because the views of religious people are used to deny that group and other groups equality, as I said. But what about when those people of faith and of belief are discriminated against and denied their place within their own faith and belief community? It makes no sense to me whatever.
Neither does the use of religious principle, selectively implemented to justify such discrimination, make sense. I remember being mentored, before a television debate, by the late Bishop of Bath and Wells, Jim Thompson. He schooled me rather brilliantly and said, “When they use the Levitical code, remind them how the modern Church has dissociated itself from strands of the Levitical code, particularly in relation to women, people with disabilities, the eating of pork and shellfish et cetera”. When we use religious principle selectively, I would argue that we undermine those principles.
Therefore, without wishing to preach—dare an atheist do that?—I look to those progressives within religious institutions, not only in this country but across the world, and the incredible work that they are undertaking within their institutions and within those religious bodies to move forward. We need to do everything to support them. I believe that this amendment goes along that route. It is not about telling them what they should do, but telling the Government that they should remove the obstruction to a religious institution, in this instance the Church of England, if it so decides, going along the route to solemnise same-sex marriage, and thereby welcome into the body of that Church people regardless of whom they wish to love consensually.