My Lords, I will first make it clear, lest it be misunderstood, that the Church of England seeks to welcome all people, including LGBTI+ people, including those in civil partnerships and same-sex marriages. The reason we are having this discussion is that there are questions about how this welcome can be expressed, but I deeply regret a situation where anyone, because of their sexuality, feels excluded, alienated or hurt in the way that I know some are.
As I shall go on to explain, the Church of England is at the moment in the middle of a process which is examining how we give expression to this welcome. I hope noble Lords will understand my comments in this context, because I still regret that this amendment has been tabled. It introduces a discordant note into your Lordships’ consideration of a Bill which is otherwise uncontentious and likely to receive clear support. Moreover, an exemption from one piece of legislation can challenge inclusion in another. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 seeks to strike a balance between the right of individuals to marry a person of the same sex, and the rights of churches and other religious bodies—and of their ministers—to act in a way consistent with their religious beliefs. Nobody is prevented from entering into marriage with a person of the same sex, but no religious body or minister of religion is compelled to solemnise such a marriage.
In its second report on the then Marriage (Same Sex) Couples Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said that religious liberty, as granted under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights is,
“a collective as well as individual right. Religious organisations have the right to determine and administer their”,
“own internal religious affairs without interference from the state. The European Court of Human Rights has held that the autonomy of religious organisations is ‘indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society and is thus an issue at the very heart of the protection which Article 9 of the Convention affords’”.
The Joint Committee went on to say that the Government have an obligation to protect the rights of religious organisations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It concluded that this was a justification for the provisions now contained in the 2013 Act, which provides for religious organisations to decide whether or not to conduct same-sex marriage.
The 2013 Act treats the Church of England and—the noble Baroness is right—the Church in Wales differently from other churches and religious organisations. Nevertheless, as the Government made clear in 2013 and as the Joint Committee on Human Rights accepted, both Churches are free to decide whether to solemnise same-sex marriages. Any such decision would be implemented through the particular legislative processes rather than through the opt-in mechanism provided in the 2013 Act that applies to other religious organisations. However, the Joint Committee concluded that this difference in treatment was justified because of the particular legal position of the Church of England and the Church in Wales—this is the crucial point—whose clergy have a duty under common law to marry parishioners. The 2013 Act accordingly contains specific provision so that the common-law duty of the clergy is not extended to same-sex marriages. As I understand it, that appears to be the main target of the amendment.
I accept—of course I do—that many noble Lords deeply regret the Church of England’s current position on the marriage of same-sex couples. However, that position is based on the doctrine of the Church of England set out in canon law—which in turn forms part of the law of England—and in the Book of Common Prayer. However, the Church of England is currently engaged in what is called the Living in Love and Faith project, which is driven by a desire to learn how relationships, marriage and sexuality fit within the bigger picture of humanity, made in the image of God and redeemed by Christ. It is no secret that there are differing, strongly held views within the Church of England on these questions—I am putting it mildly. We recognise that they are vital matters which affect the well-being of individuals and communities, but we are in the middle of this process and we are waiting to see what will emerge.
Were the Church of England’s doctrine that marriage is between one man and one woman to be changed, that could be achieved only by specific ecclesiastical legislation, passed by the General Synod and then by Parliament. This amendment, which I am pleased to hear is not intended to compel the Church—I thank noble Lords for making that point—would not remove the need for that legislative process to happen, so I believe it would only make matters more difficult for the Church, not easier. Even for those within the Church who want to see change, this is not the way to help that. Instead, by requiring the removal of provisions from the 2013 Act, it will put marriage legislation at odds with ecclesiastical law, and it is impossible to know how the courts would resolve that situation. But, more significantly, it would unbalance the 2013 Act so that it ceased to respect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. I therefore hope the noble Lord will not press this amendment.