Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 12th February 2013.
Good morning. Thank you for coming to give evidence before us today. Would you kindly introduce yourselves for the record?
Would you like to make a brief working statement, or shall we go straight to questions?
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: I am happy to make a brief statement. The Church of England’s understanding of marriage is rather unambiguously set out in Canon B30, as many of you will be aware, which says, according to Christ’s teaching, marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life to the exclusion of all others. Since canon law is part of the law of the land, clearly there has been a need for the sort of legislation before us which acknowledges two understandings of marriage, one which will be gender neutral and one which will be more traditional.
Our concern has not been simply to ensure rights and freedoms for the Church of England, but is a concern for the good of marriage itself. The Secretary of State said that she believed marriage was a good institution in society; so do we, and we have been grateful for the way in which the Government have worked with us in shaping this Bill. Overall, we are broadly content with the way it has developed, although there is more work to be done. Our regret is that until now there has been a single understanding of marriage across Church and state, and between the world faiths. We regret there will not be the same unanimity and we think that there may well be consequences for this which none of us has fully identified as yet.
That might not be within the scope of the Bill, but let’s have a very brief response and then we will come back to the debate.
Mr Streeter, without your cynicism, it does strike to the matter of the Bill and in particular the Church of England, because the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 lays down three reasons for marriage. First of all, procreation, which does not apply to many who get married because they either have no intention or no ability to have children, and we do not consider theirs not to be proper marriages. Secondly, to prevent fornication—[ Interruption. ] It was written in the language of 1662 and for a particular understanding. The third reason was for mutual society. The bit I do not understand about the Church of England’s position is why—and that is reaffirmed in the 1928 prayer book, not passed by Parliament, but passed by the Church of England—if you do not believe homosexuality is a moral disorder or you do not believe it is incurable, why you would be opposed to homosexual couples being able to have that mutual society?
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: I think the mutual society, help and comfort one may have of the other is affordable in civil partnerships. When the Church of England marries someone, the preface in the Book of Common Prayer is recited even when the woman is past child-bearing age. There is a distinction between idealism in relation to what the purposes are for marriage and realism about the couple who stand before you. I have married a couple who are both in their 80s and I have said the first purpose of marriage is for the procreation of children and they have understood it. It does not apply in its fullness to them, but it is a purpose for which marriage exists.
But do you understand why people would then think if the Church of England had campaigned aggressively or assertively or voluntarily for civil partnerships, then you might have a bit more to say on this subject?
Coming back to this common-law duty to marry, as I understand it, a parishioner could turn up at a parish church and one of your vicars in Norfolk would marry them if they were divorced—indeed if both parties were divorced—or even if they were atheists and not even professing Christians. Is that the case? If they are atheists, they do not have to prove they are adherents of the Church of England?
So a vicar in one of your parishes would marry a double-divorced couple who could be atheists but would deny that right to committed Christians?
May I ask the question I posed to Maria Miller about what would happen to a priest who wanted to give pastoral support to a gay or lesbian couple in his or her parish, and wanted, but was not allowed, to officiate at a ceremony at a Quaker meeting house?
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: I recognise the point. In the first place—I do not think we have discussed this in the Church of England—it would need to be recognised and regarded in another denomination in order to operate. He or she might need to be recognised as a civil registrar to undertake that function. Whether or not that would be an offence against the canons of the Church of England, I would need to ponder and think about. Within the Church as it is at the moment, there are possibilities of Church of England clergy presiding at marriages in non-conformist Churches if they are recognised and regarded under the ecumenical Canons. I would need to go back and look at that, and we could write to you with a much more informed answer.
If either of the two other witnesses want to chip in at any time, please feel free to do so.
One quick question and then a main question. Do you accept that there are other views within the Church, with vicars in different parishes in different places, and that the Church of England does not have one stable view across the country shared by every member?
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: The Church of England has doctrine which is expressed in its canons which it believes to be consistent across time and with the teaching of Jesus Christ. I think that I have been ordained in the Church of England long enough to know that unanimity of view on anything is impossible to find, on this as on everything else. So no, certainly there is no unanimity of view, but there is a distinction between the doctrine of the Church of England and what people who belong to it think. One of the glories of the Church of England is that we recognise conscientious dissent. There is a right of conscience, and we welcome couples who have registered a civil partnership who may not agree with the Church of England’s doctrine to the Eucharist and to be part—full part—of the body of Christ.
On to my main point which is about humility. I was very lucky to go to a Church of England primary school, and one of the lessons that struck me there was about humility and questioning whether you might be wrong even in the strongly held views that you have. It strikes me that if the Government are wrong in introducing this Bill, then the worst that will happen upon the death of a married couple is that God will not recognise that marriages. It strikes me that if you are wrong, the worst that will happen is that people will perpetuate a discrimination that, on their death, God says is unjust. Have you ever considered the possibility that you might be wrong?
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: I think one of the characteristics of Christian life must be to always think that you may be wrong. That is true on every side of this debate as on every other. If there was not Christian humility in all of our churches and, pray God, in Parliament too, we would all be the most to be pitied.
If this Bill is passed, same-sex couples will have the choice of a marriage or a civil partnership; heterosexual couples will just have marriage. Do you believe civil partnerships should be extended to heterosexual couples?
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: I am here supposedly speaking on behalf on this variegated body of the Church of England, and it does not have any official position on equal civil partnerships. I can tell you, from my own point of view, it seems a strange anomaly that heterosexual couples cannot register a civil partnership. You have only got to look at the figures for marriage; there are now 100,000 fewer marriages in this country each year than there were 20 years ago. The figures are quite striking, and that has given much greater acceptance of remarriage after divorce. A great many heterosexual couples decide not to get married, and they do so conscientiously; it is not an accident. It may well be that heterosexual civil partnerships might fulfil a need for them. That is not something over which the Church of England generally would have an opinion, but I can understand, within this context, why you might argue that.
I must declare an interest as the son of Church of England vicar who would certainly agree that there is a variation of views across the entire Church. I have two points to raise. Ben Bradshaw raised a really important one, which I want to extend. I have a vicar in my own constituency who, I am sure, would like this to happen. If after this legislation goes through, a Church of England licensed vicar performs a wedding of a same-sex couple on licensed premises, be it Quaker or otherwise, within that parish, will that marriage be illegal after it has happened? Does it therefore effectively have to be annulled by the Church? How exactly will it happen?
Rev . Alexander McGregor: The Bill, as you know, does not extend to marriages according to the rites of the Church of England. The marriage, therefore, could not take place as a lawfully effective marriage using the rites of the Church of England. The scenario you have put forward is where a clergyman or woman of the Church of England went to another denomination and did some work there. That does not seem likely to arise. The general ecclesiastical principle rules that the clergy of the Church of England can use only Church of England rites and forms of services. That is the basic position. There is a special exception to that in relation to Churches with which we have formal ecumenical relations. As far as I am aware, none of the Churches with which we have formal ecumenical relations is proposing to opt in to same-sex marriage.
But on civil premises—if they did it in an hotel?
At what point does it become a non-marriage? All of this could happen. A Church of England vicar could go to an hotel. There could be an organist and all the trappings of what might have happened in the Church. He performs the ceremony, and the couple say that they are married, what happens then?
I just want to know at what point does it become a non-marriage. It is performed by a Church of England vicar. The couple could say that they were married by a Church of England vicar, even if it were on civil hotel premises with all the trappings. What makes it a non-marriage?
The Archbishop of Canterbury was widely reported after his installation as restating the Church’s official position, but given the lack of unanimity and the variegation in the Church to which you have referred, how do you feel that he and indeed other bishops will approach the issue in the years to come within the Church, and what scope is there for a change in position in due course if that were to be the wish of the bodies of the Church of England?
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: It is hard to tell, because this legislation has happened so quickly. We have not had a House of Bishops meeting or a General Synod working party of bishops to look at it. What the Archbishop said, if I have understood him correctly, was that he has to see this in the context of the worldwide communion. For us, quite apart from our own individual consciences and what we think the Church of England should do, what the Church of England does and what the Archbishop does and says is observed by a worldwide communion that he leads. It would be fair to say that for a great proportion of the Anglican communion around the world, this is not even a subject that has been discussed or thought about for understandable reasons. As for how quickly things might change, we have, at the moment, a working party being chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling looking afresh at our whole approach to issues related to human sexuality and indeed at our understanding of same-sex relationships. I think it is possible that our understanding of the status of same-sex relationships and how we treat them will change. Whether that would necessarily mean that you would then approve of same-sex marriage is another, quite different, issue. The tradition of marriage within the Christian church, which is shared with other world faiths, is so consistent over the centuries as being one man with one woman for life that I do not think that a change in understanding of same-sex relationships would necessarily lead automatically to the Church approving of same-sex marriage. However, I have to say that I am hazarding guesses here. You asked for evidence, but evidence on these things is a bit hard to come by. I can offer opinions rather than evidence; perhaps there is not a tremendous distinction between the two.
A recurring area of concern for my constituents has been the threat of legal challenge. Are you satisfied that the quadruple lock is sufficient?
William Fittall: I think that we accept the Government’s good intentions in terms of protecting the religious freedom of the Churches. That is obviously something that has to be done in a different way for different Churches, given that the starting point for us is different: our position in law is different from that of all other Churches. The Church in Wales, representatives of which you are going to see in a little while, is also, for historical reasons, in a different position both from us and from all other Churches. Then you have the other Churches and faiths.
In terms of safeguarding the ability of each Church and each faith to decide whether they wish to participate in same-sex marriages, certainly as far as the Church of England is concerned, we believe that the safeguarding of the position of canon law has been achieved. Clause 11 is a very wide, catch-all clause, which says that for all purposes marriage now means either mixed-sex or same-sex, and I think that there is still a drafting difficulty in clause 11(5), on the exemption for the Church of England. As I think the Government recognises, the Bill has been produced at huge speed; I do not think there is a difficulty of principle there, but there may be some further drafting to do on that.
I think overall, however, that the locks are okay. The thing that perhaps has not been said, but is a point that has been made in some of the memorandums that you have received and which also came up in your earlier session with Ministers, is that it is important not to underestimate the risk of litigation more generally in this area, in relation to the activities not just of religious organisations but of people of faith. Like it or not, this is an area of culture wars. We have seen over the past few years how people will bring litigation. The Secretary of State for Education said quite a lot this morning about common sense and the application of reasonableness. We would agree that if everybody approached this matter with common sense all would be well; the difficulty—and this is where some of the provisions may repay further study—is that not everybody does approach it with reasonableness and common sense, and you will get people on both sides of the argument who will want to test the measure. I do not think that this is particularly about the conducting of marriage; it is more about schools issues and the performance of other public functions. We may still have some concerns around the edge there, but the basic locks in relation to the Churches and ministers of religion we think have been done well.
If a member of a married heterosexual couple undergoes gender reassignment, under this legislation they would not be required to annul their marriage, but would remain married as a same-sex couple. How will the Church regard that same-sex marriage?
If they had had a church wedding as a heterosexual couple and that marriage continues but one member of the couple changes gender, will the marriage continue in the eyes of the Church?
The marriage will continue, but the clergy will not have to do anything.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: I can think of only one couple that I know—I am sure there are plenty of others—who are in that position. They are members of a Church of England congregation and are treated with all the honour and respect that you would expect. I suspect that that congregation do not think too much about what their legal status is. They see them as human beings who are connected with each other and are part of that Christian community.
I suspect that the couple may think about their status in the eyes of the Church.
I think you have answered this question in response to Mr Andrew, but just to be absolutely clear, even accepting your unease about some of the general principles behind the Bill, are you satisfied with the protections provided in the Bill to the Church? If you are, which is what I think you said in answer to Mr Andrew, I take it from that that you would be resistant to any attempts to unpick those protections during the Bill’s passage.
William Fittall: I think that is absolutely right. So far as the Church of England is concerned—whatever view you may have as individuals about its doctrine on marriage and, indeed, whatever view some individuals in the Church of England may have about it—that is the Church of England’s doctrine, which is reflected in its canon law. Clause 1 safeguards that position, which means that the Church of England will continue to be able to marry people according to its own doctrine. I think that any erosion of that would raise serious issues indeed.
The Church of England continues to marry, on average, some 1,000 couples a week. It marries them generally after banns. They do not have to go to the civil authorities at all for any preliminaries. They can simply go to the clergy, banns are read and the member of the clergy has to send off a copy of the register at the end of the ceremony. We value the opportunity to provide that service to people. The number of Church of England weddings in fact increased in 2010, as indeed did the number of civil weddings. We want to be able to go on providing that service to people, which is why, for example, any playing around with the locks and therefore unravelling of the Church/state position would be unattractive to us, because it would mean putting the quarter of the population who choose to get married in church through further procedure and bureaucracy, from our point of view, to no good end. We value the present position and the safeguarding is hugely important.
Just going back to Chris Bryant’s question, do you not accept, Bishop Graham, that the Church of England’s opposition—not yours, because you have an honourable position on this—to this has been blunted by its failure to welcome, support and celebrate civil partnerships?
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: The Church of England had a varied view in relation to civil partnerships. There were a good many people in the Church who were very glad that civil partnerships were introduced and supported them. There was a big distinction between how we were to regard civil partnerships in relation to lay people within the Church of England and the clergy. The relative ambiguity about civil partnerships in comparison with marriage and the fact that vows did not have to be made and that it was simply a registration caused us some puzzlement in trying to work all that out, which I am quite happy to recognise. You only have to read the pastoral statement on civil partnerships to know how anguished that debate was in preparation for civil partnerships. I recognise why you ask that question, and I would love the whole of the Church of England to take the view that I take, but I recognise that that is not entirely the case.
Coming back to the duty of the Church of England to marry whoever wishes to be married in a parish church, would the Church actually like that duty to be removed?
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: We are in a different place from a good many other Churches in continental Europe. It is true that in England we conduct a quarter of all marriages—and, actually, a third of all first marriages, because a number of people exclude themselves, thinking that they cannot be married twice in the Church of England if they are divorced, which goes back to an earlier question. We want to be of service to those who live within our parishes.
I think that a very considerable number of people in England look to their parish church as the natural place in which to be married. To add to the complexity by which they would get married, which is what you would be talking about if they had to go to the civil registrar and then come to church afterwards, would probably not be appealing to them. It would not be appealing to us, because we recognise that the relationships that are built up with couples at the time of their marriage are very important to them.
The Church of England has recently done—unusually for the Church—some extensive empirical research, the Church of England’s weddings project, and worked over two or three years with hundreds of couples in two dioceses as different as Bradford and Oxford. What we discovered, sometimes to the surprise of the clergy themselves, was that people did not want to be married in church because the church was beautiful. It was not aesthetics that caused them to come to the church; nine and a half out of 10 of all the couples who were married said that the most important element in their marriage was the vicar. Not pretty vicars either—you can be really ugly as a vicar in the Church of England. They had made a relationship with the priest prior to the marriage and had been prepared for their marriage, and when they came to church on the day, they knew the person who was marrying them, which is not the case in the same way with a civil registrar, and they felt that they belonged.
People’s criticism of us was that we did such a brilliant job preparing people for marriages in the case of most marriages, but we were not good at following up afterwards and maintaining the relationship on our side. That was very telling for us and we have been trying to build on that, because one of the things about marriage is that it is not an automatic relationship that builds society; people who are married need to belong to their communities and be connected with others. That is one of the things that the Church can do extremely well and that is the challenge to us. We want not just to do weddings better, but to actually support marriage better. If there is a criticism of the Church of England, it is that we have been very good on wedding ceremonies but less good on supporting marriage after people are married.
That was a very long answer to what was meant to be a brief question.
It was interesting, Mr Williams—we will come back to you if there is time.
It is rather charming, Mr McGregor, that you think that Anglican clergy only ever perform services according to the rites of the Church of England. I have been to All Saints, Margaret street for the installation of a new vicar or curate that has been performed in the middle of a service of benediction, which is not a rite of the Church of England and, effectively, contradicts the 39 Articles.
Indeed, and long may it be so. I hope that the Church will remain a Church and not a sect, and that is why I hope that you will continue to want to have the requirement that you perform marriages and so on. I suppose my point is really that, as a former priest in the Church of England, I hope that the Church will one day be able to change its mind more completely on this matter. When asked whether the Roman Catholic Church would ever have women priests, Cardinal Martini said, “Not in this millennium,” but that was in 1999.
And he is not around to be Pope any more. He is shaken, not stirred. I just wonder when you think the Church of England might change its mind. This is material to the Bill because we might think that all you have to lose is your locks.
William Fittall: Earlier you discussed the difference between evidence and assessment and opinion. I have observed our bishops in discussion around these matters, and the other bodies of the Church of England such as the Archbishops Council, and you have to recognise the fact that, as the Bishop of Norwich has said, the Church of England is obviously divided on the ethical issues around same-sex relations; there are those who want to be more affirming of civil partnerships and those in active same-sex relations and there are many others for whom that is off limits. You have seen that debate played out publicly.
I would have to say that, in the private discussions that there have been since the Government announced their intention to introduce same-sex marriage, there has not been that same division of view. Yes, there are some people—you have heard some members of the Church of England—who have offered a minority view, but I have to say that, as I observe it at the moment, among the bishops, with the exception of one or two who have gone on their blogs to offer their private view—
William Fittall: A personal view. I do not detect a strong debate among our bishops around moving to accept same-sex marriage. I think that you have to understand that if ever the Church of England were to change its doctrine, that would require a change to canon law, so there would have to be an amending canon that came through the General Synod and then had the royal licence, and in addition there would have to be a measure that went through the General Synod because it would involve a doctrinal change, which is currently rooted in the Book of Common Prayer, and that measure would also make the necessary changes to the Marriage Act. That would then make it possible for Church of England clergy to conduct same-sex marriages. So it is possible, but I have to say that my assessment is that it is nowhere on the horizon.
There has been a lot of correspondence about adultery and consummation. I am interested in how you feel about the fact that there is no plan to redefine that in the ambit of the Bill. Also, a question that has suddenly occurred to me is: if in a heterosexual marriage people commit adultery or are unfaithful with somebody of the same sex as themselves, is that currently covered by the definition? In other words, is there already an inconsistency that if a woman was unfaithful to her husband with another woman, does that already not qualify as adultery?
It sounds as though Mr Fittall’s long drawn-out process, as he describes, for the Church of England is unlikely to happen in this millennium either. Contrary to what the Culture Secretary said earlier, the Church of England has a unique position in the Bill in effectively being able to discriminate against marrying same-sex couples. If this law goes through, do you think that it will harm the image of the Church of England that it will uniquely be able to discriminate, as laid out in law?
William Fittall: I am not sure that I follow that it is in a unique position. It is only unique because the Church of England has canons that have the force of the law of land, it has the duty to marry and it has its own devolved legislature, so we start from a unique position in law, but in substance, what the Government set out to do is to create for us, as for all other denominations, the ability to continue to approach marriage according to our own doctrines and if, in due course, any denomination changes its view, it will be able to do so.
I do not think that we have a unique position. The only area where we have a worry that I think is unique to us is whether in due course the Strasbourg Court might take a view because we act as a public authority. As I explained earlier, you do not have to go through any separate state procedure in order to be married in a Church of England church. If there were to be litigation, the Strasbourg Court might take the view—not that it would compel the Church of England to conduct same-sex marriages; we do not think that that would happen—that such discrimination by a public authority might be contrary to Strasbourg jurisprudence. There is nothing to go on at the moment, and we flagged that risk. We think the Government have sought to do what they can in the Bill to mitigate that, but the simple fact is that if you change the law on marriage, there is a risk and we shall see what happens.
I understand that, but that is not my point. I do not dispute that. What do you think the effect on the image of the Church of England will be? The uniqueness of the position is as you have described. It would be a very long drawn-out process for the Church of England to be able to change its position, other than being able to opt in as some other Churches would much more simply be able to do. Do you think that this law, if it goes through, with the Church of England in the position of automatically not being able to include same-sex marriage couples, will be damaging to the image of the Church of England in the public consciousness?
William Fittall: I do not see why it should be. Underlying that question is the assumption that it is a deeply unpopular position not to be in favour of same-sex marriage. If you look at the results of the Government’s consultation and of the petitions that came in, and if you look at the opinion polling, this is a matter on which the country remains pretty divided. There are strong views around. People also respect faith traditions, whether they share those traditions or not, that have their own views and their own integrity.
I do not see a difficulty for the Church of England in having such a position. Indeed, I struggle a little bit to see how the law can be different unless, in the view of Parliament and Government, it should in a sense impose its view on the Churches. It is interesting what has happened in one or two Scandinavian countries, where the relationship between the Parliament and the state Church is different from how it is here. If you go back in history, Parliament legislated directly for the Church of England, because it did not have separate governance bodies of its own. But we have reached a place where we are regarded, like all other Churches and denominations, as having the ability to decide our own doctrine and to act accordingly.
Some other faiths will conduct same-sex marriages as a result of the legislation. What advice will you give teachers in Church of England schools on how they teach about the importance and nature of marriage?
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: We try always to respond positively to what the Secretary of State suggests in relation to the Education Act, which is to do with recognising the value of marriage. I suppose it is possible, although I was listening to what the Secretary of State for Education was saying, that a lot further down the line there might be some conflict there, which I think you were exploring. Our own view is that the promotion of marriage is part of sex and relationship education. What Church of England schools are good at doing, because the vast majority of them are community schools, is integrating the convictions of the Church of England with a recognition that the Christian opinions held in that school are not totally recognised within the whole of wider society.
There is a balance to be struck, and I think that the Secretary of State for Education was right to say that in teaching there will need to be a recognition that we have a society in which same-sex marriages—assuming the Bill goes through—are possible, and of course the teacher would also indicate why it is that within the majority of Christian traditions such marriages are not celebrated. My sense is that it is not going to be a huge part of sex and relationship education. My regret, if I am honest, is that in our schools and in most schools, marriage is not talked about very much at all. If we can reconsider how marriage is talked about within schools, that would be valuable. It is sometimes resisted for understandable reasons. I can think of a number of our schools where the majority of children do not come from homes with married parents. It is for that reason, and nothing to do with what the Secretary of State or the Church says, that teachers are very reluctant to teach about marriage. Whatever one makes of the Bill, if we could have better teaching about marriage in our schools, and the Bill could bring that about, I would welcome it. You have explored the area with the Secretary of State, and it is an area of potential tension in the future. I recognise that, but there may be some benefits, too.
Mr Fittall, I must correct you on the opinion polling and refer you to the very helpful document prepared for the Committee by the House of Commons Library, which shows that all of the opinion polls, except those with very leading questions commissioned by the Christian Institute, show clear majorities, including majorities of people of faith, in support of equal marriage. You raised the spectre of successful litigation, but how many divorced people have successfully forced the Church of England in the courts to remarry them in their parish church against the wishes of their local priest?
William Fittall: I did not suggest that we had any anxiety that we would be forced to marry people. I agree that I am not aware of any litigation of that kind. I think the issue is not whether we would be compelled, and we have expressed satisfaction about that. The issue is more the ability to act, as it were, in the shoes of the state in marrying people without any separate state formality.
For the record, that does not bear on the litigation as described by the questioner.
I apologise for being late. I came straight off the plane, and I am sorry that I could not be here on time. My apologies to the deputation, too.
The opinion polls I have clearly endorse the comments made earlier in opposition to the Bill. My question on the quadruple lock is probably for Rev. Alexander McGregor. Are you reassured as a Church and as an organisation about the quadruple lock? Do you feel it gives you the necessary legal security? Does it give security and job support to those teachers who might feel ill at ease with discussing the matter? I want to hear your opinions on that.
Rev. Alexander McGregor : There are two different things there, because the quadruple lock is not concerned with things such as the position of teachers; it is concerned solely with the position of a Church institutionally and with ministers of the Church in relation to the carrying out of marriages. As far as that is concerned, we think the provisions in the Bill are essentially right. There are one or two very small issues at the edges about which we will talk to the Government, but yes, we think the way that is drafted is generally okay.
Earlier we talked a bit about the position with regard to teachers in schools, and the Bill does not really go into any detail on that. The Bill simply changes the definition of marriage, and teachers will need to deal with that in a sensitive and professional way, but yes, people will be concerned about that. I think we have already said something about it in our evidence.
Thank you very much. We covered those subjects earlier, Mr Shannon, and Hansard will help you on that.
Thank you very much indeed to this set of witnesses, to Bishop James and his colleagues. Your evidence is much appreciated and very helpful. Thank you once again.