Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:19 am on 12th February 2013.
We resume our deliberations by welcoming another set of expert witnesses. I invite you to introduce yourselves for the record.
Rt Rev . John Davies: Thank you, Chair. Good morning.
I am the Right Reverend John Davies, the Bishop of Swansea and Brecon in the Church in Wales. My role on the Bench of Bishops in Wales is to have something to say on matters relating to Church and society. On my right is John Shirley, the provincial secretary of the Church in Wales, and on my left is Charles Anderson, the head of legal services of the Church in Wales.
Thank you. With your permission, we will move straight to our questions.
Rt Rev . John Davies: Chairman, I hate to disagree with you right at the beginning, but I wonder whether it might be helpful if I said just a little about the reason why the Church in Wales has been invited to participate, just in case there is any confusion.
One of the things that has not always been recognised is that in relation to the law of marriage, when the Church in Wales was disestablished in the 1920s, the Church’s common law duty to marry was retained. So from that perspective the Church in Wales is in the same position as the Church of England. We have a duty to marry parishioners regardless of any religious affinity. That is in the briefing paper that we sent in, but I wanted to make it clear.
They are not just expert witnesses, they are Welsh expert witnesses, which makes them far more expert. I merely point out that in 1885, Mabon, the first Labour MP for the Rhondda—in fact, there have only ever been Labour MPs—argued for the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, but he recognised that we should still have the important legislation that has been provided for.
When the first version of the Bill was published there seemed to be a briefing that the Bill would make it virtually impossible for the Church in Wales ever to change its mind on the matter, and it seems as if you want to keep the door at least a little bit open.
Rt Rev . John Davies: Yes. There are two caricatures of the Church as a whole, one of which is that it exists to give the elderly something to do for an hour on a Sunday. The second is, “Here come the Christians. They must be against something.” That runs entirely counter, as I understand it at any rate, to the ethic of the gospel, which is that the Church exists to bring fullness of life to as many people as possible, rooted and grounded in the kind of love made evident in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus. That is the business we are in. In terms of our mixed-up relationship with the law of marriage, that does not always appear very evident.
From the perspective of the Church in Wales and its ability to change, because of its disestablished nature but nevertheless our duty to marry, had the Bill, as originally presented, been passed without any provision for the Church in Wales, it would have required a separate Act of Parliament to alter the Church in Wales’s position on same-sex marriage. Is that clear to members of the Committee? An analogous situation arose in relation to the changes introduced in 2010 on the location in which people could be married. Fortunately, Lord Rowe-Beddoe and Alun Michael MP were able to put a Bill through Parliament that changed the position from our perspective.
The Church of England’s position is that it can pass measures in General Synod that become—subject to parliamentary approval—the law of the land. That is not the situation in relation to decisions of the governing body of the Church in Wales. We might have said, “Yes, we will marry people of the same sex,” but we would not have been able to do so without an Act of Parliament changing the Bill as originally published.
The Churches opposed the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century and then moved on. When do you think the Church in Wales might perform its first same-sex marriage?
Rt Rev . John Davies: I am not gifted with the ability to read crystal balls or tea leaves, but the procedure is that the governing body of the Church in Wales would have to debate same-sex relationships, and it has not yet had the opportunity to do that in relation to this measure. The Bench of Bishops in Wales, although we are small in number, has not had an opportunity to produce a detailed statement on the provisions of the Bill. What we have been able to do is make our concerns on the procedure known to Government officials. We are extremely grateful for the very hard work put in by those officials, together with Mr Shirley, Mr Anderson and others just before Christmas, to produce what is now clause 8 in the Bill, which takes account of our rather difficult and strange position. I am afraid I cannot give you an absolute answer.
Mr Bryant gave you his context. I was brought up in Abercynon in south Wales and went to Moriah English Baptist Church; which means, for the benefit of others, that services were conducted predominantly in English rather than that the people who attended them were English. At that point there were many chapels in all south Wales villages, but sadly that is no longer the case. In many cases, ironically, the Church in Wales building is the only operational religious premises in each village; in Abercynon, that would be St Donat’s. How many marriages in Wales are now conducted in Church in Wales churches?
John Shirley: As a proportion, it is just under 30%. The last year for which we have statistics from the Office for National Statistics for the total number of marriages in Wales is 2009, when there were 12,500, of which 3,500 were conducted in Church in Wales churches. There were another 1,300 in religious premises of other denominations.
To get a like-for-like comparison with what the Church of England said earlier, is that first marriages or all marriages?
You mentioned clause 8. I wanted to test with you whether you feel that the clause is strong enough. There is a risk inherent in it, I guess, that a Lord Chancellor could refuse to issue the order even if the Church changed its mind. Do you think the clause is sufficient or does it need to be amended or strengthened in any way?
Rt Rev . John Davies: Charles Anderson will say something about that. We would probably prefer the clause to say “shall”, so that there would be a requirement for the Lord Chancellor to make the necessary order bringing into effect a scheme that presumably would have been approved in advance by our governing body and the Bench of Bishops. It may be a slip of the pen, but we would prefer “shall”.
With the exception of the “may” or “shall” question, are you quite satisfied with the procedure set out in clause 8? If those issues were dealt with, are you quite happy that the clause would allow the Church in Wales to conduct same-sex marriages if it chose to do so in the future?
Rt Rev . John Davies: If it chose to do so, after the debate, discussion and decision of the governing body; but I think that we would want to be very clear about the nature of the life of the Church. As I indicated earlier, the Church is not simply about giving elderly people something to do for an hour on a Sunday; it is a broad church, if you will pardon the repetition, and contains people who can interpret scripture, doctrine and tradition with great integrity but in a variety of different ways. Having said that, if the governing body were to decide that the Church in Wales would conduct same-sex marriages, there will obviously be people who, because of their interpretation of scripture, would still have a difficulty with that. As with the legal position in relation to the remarriage of divorcees, we would want to be satisfied that those who held conscientious objections or had difficulties with what would be, for some, a radical change, were protected from challenge or from being coerced into conducting same-sex marriages. On that basis and if those safeguards were in the scheme, I cannot say that we would do it, but we would be in less difficulty. Does that help?
Yes, it does. Thank you.
Under the legislation, same-sex couples will have the choice of marriage or civil partnership, but for opposite-sex couples, only marriage. This morning, the Secretary of State said that marriage is the gold standard. Does the Church in Wales agree?
Rt Rev . John Davies: I cannot speak on behalf of the entire Church, but for myself, without being too anecdotal, I can tell you that I always begin—Bishops do not conduct many marriage services, but when I do—by making the point, in welcoming people, that the Church and society recognise all manner of loving relationships and would want to affirm people in all manner of loving relationships. But, certainly in the present state of the law, the marriage between a man and a woman would be what you called the gold standard. It might be an ideal to which all might want to aspire, but to which not everybody can; nobody can achieve every ideal to which they seek to aspire, but I think I probably agree with you—
Can I take you back to the point that you were just talking about, which is protection for people who may take a different view? If we think about people who work for the Church in Wales, do you think that the Bill as it stands offers them sufficient protections that they will not be compelled to do something that they are strongly not happy with?
Charles Anderson: It is difficult to look ahead to something, which at the moment hypothetical, and say that it will or will not cover a situation that has yet to arise. The legislation as at present drafted tries to address a number of possibilities. We are aware of concerns that have been addressed in our organisations that there could be possible difficulties, but the Church in Wales as a body has always tried to find a way of accommodating people who have particular problems with any particular set of circumstances.
Bishop, do you think that the clarity of the Churches’ message on marriage—yours, the Anglicans, and the Roman Catholics we heard from earlier—has been blunted by their opposition to civil partnerships? What is your Church’s position on civil partnerships?
Rt Rev . John Davies: In relation to civil partnerships, the Bench of Bishops issued a statement in December 2005 that we revised in March last year. It is quite brief and I will read a couple of sentences from it for you:
“The Bishops of the Church in Wales cannot and do not wish to prevent what the law allows for Church members, both lay and clerical.”
That is in relation to civil partnerships and as far as we are concerned, that would be our position.
Is that your intention, or are you waiting for the Pilling report as well?
The Pilling report. Are you involved in the Pilling report that was referred to earlier?
You mentioned that the Church affirms itself to loving relationships and that is good news. Can you tell me and the Committee what the opinions of your parishioners are in relation to same-sex marriage and the redefinition of marriage? Are your parishioners unhappy with the proposed changes, or do they feel that they should go through? As somebody who does not come from Wales, I am keen to hear your opinion in relation to that.
Rt Rev . John Davies: First, I should say that we have not conducted any survey of Church members, so again one cannot speak in terms of any particular statistics. All I can say personally is that since the debate in Parliament on Second Reading of the Bill, I have received two e-mails from people in my own diocese asking me if I would “clarify my position”. I received one e-mail from someone who takes a rather more conservative view. I will not exactly tell you what they suggest should happen. The sense I get from that is that the opposition might not be as widespread as some might think it.
As one of the parishioners, I think I can say that I am in favour of it, but obviously I fully respect that the Church has to come to its own decision in due course, and that will require a great deal of thought and prayer and reflection. It seems from the comments that you have all made that you see the Bill overall as a permissive and protective piece of legislation that is not compelling you or the Church to do anything that you would not wish to do. Do you feel that some of the other organisations that submitted evidence or have spoken today may be taking slightly the wrong tack?
But would I be correct in characterising your position as seeing the Bill as a permissive Bill that has the right protections?
Rt Rev . John Davies: Somebody already mentioned slavery. If one takes the Church’s attitude towards that in the 19th century, or if one takes the attitude of the Church towards divorce in the mid-20th century, things have moved on a great deal. In one of the caricatures that I put before the Committee at the beginning, I said, “Here come the Christians, they must be against something.” Constantly, we are interpreting scripture. Constantly we are keeping under review the traditions of the Church alluded to earlier. Goodness knows what happened in fourth-century Rome, I do not know. What the Patristic fathers said is again something that is being reinterpreted. It goes without saying that one of the greatest reinterpreters of the law was Jesus himself, who placed women on a much higher pedestal than the Torah did, and went out of his way to mix with those others considered beyond the pale or unclean. The Church in Wales wants to be helpful in progressing a discussion, but does not want itself painted into a corner when it has to do something it does not feel appropriate at a particular moment in time.
John Shirley: The Bill has developed a long way in the past six weeks. At the time of the Minister’s statement in December, there seemed to be significant unclarity about the position of the Church in Wales, so an awful lot of energy has gone into making sure that the Bill contains the procedures that we wish to see there to enable the Church in Wales to make its own decisions. Our focus has been very much on that in the past few weeks rather than on the principles underlying the Bill itself.
I have been quite surprised by the level of concentration on inconsistencies or apparent inconsistencies around the definition of adultery and consummation. A lot of people corresponding with me seem very bothered about these issues. Do you have any comment to make about that?
Rt Rev . John Davies: I am not entirely sure that I do. Without wishing to bypass the question, we are getting into a very technical area. In terms of the reforms of divorce law, the level of evidence that used to be required for adultery—the man with the trilby leaping out of the cupboard with a camera—that all changed. Quite how you deal with specific matters of proof is detail that I would not wish to go into unless anyone else wishes to.
In the interests of consistency, I would like to ask a question that has been asked of previous witnesses this morning. On the issue of the possibility that civil partnerships could be extended to heterosexual couples, there seemed to be no objections from either the Catholic bishops or the Church of England. Is there a view that you would like to express?
I was wondering about your e-mail. I had 1,700 people who contacted me who are against the redefinition of marriage and only 17 for. People have taken their time to express that viewpoint and I wish to express that here. Has the Church looked at all at the quadruple lock and have you sought legal opinion on whether it is substantial enough? If so, do you feel that it protects the Church from either domestic or European court decisions that may go against it?
Rt Rev. John Davies: I heard the end of the evidence being given by the Roman Catholic Church. The view that they seemed to be expressing was that they did not think there was sufficient protection. The Government have indicated that they will draft legislation to ensure that there is a “negligible” chance of a successful legal challenge. One anxiety that we might have in that regard is that because of the common law duty to marry, our role might be interpreted not as that of a private members club, if I can call it that—a separate private organisation—but as perhaps an arm of the state in relation to marriage. Therefore, we would want to accept the Government’s assurances that the protections are sufficient. Whether we are convinced about the nature of those assurances and their strength, I am afraid that I am not in a position to give you a definite yes or no, but we would want to ensure that those protections were sufficient.
I have a technical question. As much as I love the Church in Wales, I had not come across the governing body of the Church in Wales.
Another bishop earlier today thought that blogging was a private matter.
The Bill explicitly refers to the governing body, and I am not sure that the governing body is referred to anywhere else in statute. You have just changed the number of people who attend. As politicians, we are used to counting the vote, and we know who is on our side and who is not—we have whipping arrangements and all the rest of it. If you were internally allowed to change your rules, the Lord Chancellor might want to say, “Hang on, I don’t think you have gone through the process properly.” My question is how is the governing body—its statute and all the rest of it—governed? I do not think it is in statute law, is it?
Rt Rev. John Davies: It would have been set up under the Welsh Church legislation of disestablishment, but effectively, under the Welsh Church Act 1914, the Church governs its own affairs, so in terms of the size of the governing body and its make-up, the Church in Wales—or the governing body—decides its own size.
One thing that it might be helpful for members of the Committee to know is that the weighting of the membership of the governing body is that lay people are in a majority of two thirds, and clergy, one third. In terms of the kind of change that we might envisage the governing body having to consider, this sort of legislation—if I can call it that—that would go through the governing body would follow the same procedure as the Church of England and indeed, Parliament. There would be a Bill, First Reading, a debate on its principles, its details, and so on.
Does that mean a two-thirds majority in all three houses?
We have two questions left for this set of witnesses. David Burrowes and finally, Kate Green.
Apologies if this issue has been raised this morning when I was not here, but do you see any impact on teachers in Church schools in Wales in relation to same-sex marriage?
Rt Rev. John Davies: In relation to Church schools in Wales, there are a significant number. The legal position, as I understand it, is that in terms of the teaching delivered in those schools—particularly in relation to religious education, which would encompass a broad spectrum these days—it has to be delivered in accordance with the trust deeds of particular schools, and those trust deeds would say that the teaching should be in accordance with the doctrines and tenets of the denomination. If there were no change—if I can go back to the Minister’s mention of a gold standard—I think that one would say that in terms of marriage at the present time, “This is the way in which it is taught.” Were there to be a change and were the governing body to change, I think that, as is probably the case now, teaching in terms of human relationships would be dealt with across the board sensitively and kindly, as I think you said earlier. Does that answer your question?
I am not sure. I was asking whether it will be an issue in Church schools.
In terms of Church members, the Church itself might occupy buildings that are not wholly owned by the Church itself. It might be under the governance or ownership of a local authority as a public building. In such circumstances, in those activities, do you see any impact on any public sector equality duty arising from the Bill?
Can I turn to adultery? I am one of the atheists on the Committee, but I think I am right to say that adultery is forbidden under the ten commandments.
Given that the legislation, and indeed the position now, is that adultery can take place only between two people of opposite sex, but this will create one more anomaly in relation to same-sex marriages when the legislation is enacted, what would the attitude of the Church in Wales be if the concept of adultery were simply removed from law altogether and ceased to be seen as grounds for divorce?
On a point of order, Mr Streeter. May we ask Rev. Davies where his church is and what time the services are?
Copy it to all members of the Committee. Thank you very much for your excellent evidence, which was both informative and entertaining.