Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 14th February 2013.
We will now hear oral evidence from the Religious Society of Friends and the general assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. For the record, please introduce yourselves to the Committee.
Before I call the first Member to ask a question, I again want to remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick strictly to the timing in the programme order agreed by the Committee. I hope that I will not have to interrupt mid-sentence, but I will do so if need be.
If this legislation passes, is it the intention of your organisations to offer same-sex marriages, and if so, why it is important for you to be able to do that?
Michael Bartlet: On behalf of Quakers, yes, we would definitely want to offer same-sex marriages. For us, it is a question of both liberty and equality. We see the legislation as removing barriers to same-sex couples being able to marry in just the same way as heterosexual couples currently can. Since our yearly meeting in 2009, we have been seeking exactly this kind of legislation. We are delighted that the Government are making it possible and, it appears, in such a way that it will not create additional administrative burdens, as civil partnerships in religious premises have.
Derek McAuley: The Unitarian general assembly is supportive of the legislation. Unitarians have been undertaking same-sex blessings for probably 30 years. We were one of the very first Churches to do that. Our general assembly, throughout the past 20 years, has supported the increasing inclusion of LGB—lesbian, gay and bisexual—people within society and within religious bodies. We are very supportive: the very first religious premises that was registered for civil partnerships was a Unitarian chapel, and in fact the very first civil partnership in a religious premises was also in a Unitarian church. We are very supportive of the legislation.
If you have celebrants who are not willing to conduct the marriages, how would you handle that?
Derek McAuley: In our case, all our congregations are autonomous and independent, as are all our ministers and authorised people, who may be lay persons as well. It will be an individual choice. The fact that the general assembly is supportive does not mean that every Unitarian chapel, minister or lay person will conduct the ceremonies; it is down to individual choice. We promote and support that view for other Churches and take that view for ourselves.
Michael Bartlet: From the point of view of Quakers, the problem would not arise. In Quaker weddings, it is the couple who are getting married who marry each other, and those in the meeting are but witnesses to that. One of the witnesses is the registering officer who is appointed by the local meeting, so the problem would not arise for us.
And are you confident that the protections in the legislation will work in terms of ensuring that you are able to offer these celebrations without challenge and equally, in the case of the Unitarians, that individuals can refuse to conduct them if they wish?
Derek McAuley: From our perspective, as far as we are concerned, the definition of the authorising body allows us to say that the individual churches and chapels will authorise and make the decision on, first, whether to register the building for same-sex marriage and, secondly, whether to appoint an authorised person, be that person a minister or lay person. So I think that those safeguards apply for ourselves as for others—the legislation is clear. We welcome the fact that the processes are similar to marriage, but with an additional step, so there will not be the bureaucratic burden that there is with civil partnerships on religious premises. Also, I hope that there will not be the cost, because one of the big impediments against civil partnerships on religious premises has been the fact that local authorities are sometimes charging £1,000, £2,000 or £3,000, which is way above what is reasonable in many circumstances.
Michael Bartlet: From the point of view of Quakers, we are very comfortable with the legislation. We also feel it is important that no denomination is compelled to do something that they would not do. From our point of view, we feel that the legislation strikes a fair balance between different denominations in enabling those who would like to, such as ourselves, to be able to, while not compelling others who do not currently feel that that is what they want to do.
Can I just explore the Quaker position a bit, Mr Bartlet? I am not as familiar with it as perhaps I should be, particularly as I have a group of Quaker constituents who are persistent in writing to me on a regular basis about all manner of things. You said that you do not marry people; members of the Quaker Church are only witnesses. That was set down by George Fox in 1669. I gather that what he said exactly was that
“Friends cannot consent that they should join them together: for we marry none; it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.”
Can you explain to me the process that happened, so that in 2009 you became in favour of being witnesses at same-sex marriages?
Michael Bartlet: Yes. First, on the point of being witnesses to a marriage, I think, properly, that is also the theological understanding more broadly in the Christian Church since the Council of Trent—that it is actually the couple themselves who make the commitment in the presence of God.
From the point of view of Quakers, since at least the 1960s we have been concerned by the problems that gay people have suffered in society. For a long time—since a book written in the 1960s, “Towards a Quaker View of Sex”—we have been concerned that gay members of our community should be able to play as full a part as heterosexual members.
We make decisions at our annual body—our yearly meeting—to which all members of the Society of Friends are admitted and can attend. In York in 2009, it was a remarkable experience. We were not expecting at that stage to go as far as asking specifically to be able to marry same-sex partners, but there was an overwhelming consensus. I was there myself, and I think that what really influenced the yearly meeting in session were the stories of gay people and the ways that they would like to be able to celebrate the fullness of their loving, committed and faithful relationships in exactly the same way as our heterosexual members can.
Can I just follow that up? I fully appreciate that; what I am trying to get my head around is what really changed. I am particularly keen to investigate what changed between 2004, when civil partnerships came in, and now, that we need to go on to full-blown same-sex marriage. Was there unanimity in 2009? Is it possible that at your yearly meeting in the future you may reverse that decision? Are there a number of your celebrants who disagree with that situation and who may refuse to participate in these ceremonies in their Friends meeting houses?
Michael Bartlet: Talking from the point of view of Quakers in England and Wales, in the Britain yearly meeting there was an overwhelming consensus. Those who felt uncomfortable about it may have had personal reservations, but recognised that it was the overwhelming will and sense of discernment of God within the society that that is what we were asking for. I think the idea that we would want to go back on that is as unlikely as us feeling that women would not play as full a part in the society as men. It is really a sense of our settled religious experience that we would like to be able to marry our same-sex partners in our worshipful meetings.
So you think it will happen in all premises of the Quakers around the country if this becomes law.
Michael Bartlet: We are a society with quite an ageing profile, and even heterosexual marriages do not take place in every meeting, but I do not feel that there would be meetings that would in any sense be opposed. As I was explaining earlier, we do not have a celebrant; we have a registering officer appointed by the area meeting who is the witness and reports the marriage legally to the state.
I have three Quaker meeting houses in Bristol West and a Unitarian church, so I very much look forward to same-sex weddings taking place in all four of those locations later this year. Do either of you favour the extension of the right to marry loving couples to other organisations such as humanists?
Derek McAuley: Similarly, the Unitarian general assembly has not discussed that, although if one goes back in history, to the extension and creation of civil marriage, Unitarians were very supportive of civil marriage because it enabled atheists to get married rather than, then, having to go to only the Church of England—apart from the Jews and the Quakers. The logic of that would point to supporting that, as in Scotland, where humanists and other groups can carry out marriages.
From the information we have, it seems as though—it says here—there are about 23,000 Quakers across Great Britain. I just wondered how many Unitarians there were and whether you have assessed how many weddings are likely to take place in the foreseeable future in your meeting houses and churches.
Derek McAuley: There are about 5,000-plus members, plus attenders and friends, so our community is very small. We have always been small in numbers. Even back in 1851, in the great census, there were 26 million Anglicans and 46,000 Unitarians. The freedoms that we were aspiring to then were that we wished to have a Unitarian marriage Act so that Unitarians could get married in the same way that Quakers could. Until 1837, Unitarians had to be married in the Church of England, even though that was in many ways offensive to our religious views.
We are open in terms of who we will marry. You do not have to be a member of the Unitarian denomination to be married in a Unitarian church. We were very receptive in the 1960s to divorced couples—we still are—who could not get married anywhere else. We were also very receptive to mixed-faith couples who found themselves in a situation in which neither of the religious groups to which they belonged would marry them. People have come to Unitarian chapels and churches seeking a marriage with a religious element because they believed that having just a civil marriage was not sufficient. The way in which we perform marriages clearly complies with the legal requirements, but the minister or authorised person will discuss with the individuals the nature of that marriage and the flavour that we can integrate within it. We are very flexible, and we anticipate that with same-sex marriages, as with the very few civil partnerships that have taken place on religious premises, we will adopt a similar approach.
I think you may have answered my question, Mr McAuley, but I wanted to ask whether it is currently the case for both of you, and will be the case with same-sex marriages, that you do not have to be a Quaker or Unitarian to have the ceremony on your premises.
Michael Bartlet: Quaker marriage procedure is not an alternative form of marriage for the general public. Although many people who marry at Quaker meetings may not formally be members, it is something for people who are in sympathy with Quaker views and see themselves as adherents. Part of the process of preparing for marriage takes place in the context of our area meetings. It is not for the general public, but for those who share Quaker values.
Some of the other religious organisations we have heard from that are opposed to the Bill base their opposition on their approach to Scripture and doctrine. How has your approach to Scripture and doctrine led you to a different conclusion?
Michael Bartlet: From the point of view of Quakers, we see the Gospels and the Bible as very important, but not in any sense as literal truth. They must be read with a spirit of love and in the context of time. Over the past three centuries, just as there has been a move among the general public to accept much greater equality of women, there has been a move to understand that wrongs in the 17th century, such as slavery, are no longer seen as they were then. We see a similar process happening with our understanding of gay people and human sexuality. We do not in any sense see that as being against the spirit of the Gospels, but we do not take the literal views that some Christian denominations might.
Derek McAuley: In terms of Scripture, the Unitarian approach is that we came out of, and are based within, the Christian tradition. Many Unitarian services look like a traditional Christian service with hymns, a sermon, prayers and reflection. We draw on the traditions of not just Christianity; we draw on humanist tradition, the creative work of artists and musicians, and science. We draw on a lot of spiritual insight, not just the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Although historically, for Unitarians, the figure of Jesus as a man was significant, in this century we also draw on other historic figures.
Mr Bartlet, may I come back to you with a couple of points? How many members do the Quakers have at the moment?
That will do; do not worry. The 23,000 figure is fine. What I am interested in is that your name, along with the Unitarians and the liberal Jews, has been prayed in aid an awful lot by the Government and the proponents of the Bill. On my rough calculation, your combined congregation amounts to 38,000 people. What is your relationship with, and what is the Quaker view of—in my experience of dealing with the Quakers, it is slightly different from that of other religions—the Government, the role of Government, and how beholden you are to Government?
Michael Bartlet: Thank you. That is a very good question. Since the time of the Commonwealth, Quakers have always had a relationship with Government that has not been entirely easy, in that we have always had a high view of conscience and the importance of following your conscience. That, however, also goes alongside a deep respect for government and the rule of law. I do not think that Quakers have ever tried to justify a legislative change that we have sought on the basis of numbers. For instance, Quaker marriages were first implicitly recognised in Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1753, and then explicitly recognised in the Marriage Act 1836. If you were looking in the 19th century—I can give exact figures if you want—I would be surprised if there were more than around 100 Quaker marriages a year. It is not something that we ask for on account of numbers; it comes from a sense of the indivisibility of religious liberty and the sense that if the established Church and the Roman Catholic Church should be able to follow their religious leadings, so should smaller religious groups such as Quakers and our Unitarian brothers and sisters.
I do not dispute that. I am trying to get at why you need the Government to legislate that marriage can now be a different thing—between same-sex couples. What is to stop your particular faith, which is a bit different from other faiths we have had here, performing the ceremony—I want to follow on by asking about that—and saying that these two same-sex persons are now Quaker-married, regardless of how the Government would view it, because you do not believe that the Government should trump your view of what marriage is, as you are only witnesses to it, because it is something that God gives those two people? So why do they need to be married in the eyes of the Government?
Michael Bartlet: Those were not exactly my words—the use of “trump”—but to go back to the 17th century, when Quaker marriage developed at a time of persecution, we felt that there was the need to provide pastoral oversight as well as a sense of recognising the important experience that was taking place in a marriage between a couple who were committing to each other in the spirit of God—the importance of holding together that inward religious sense in a spiritual ceremony and having careful, considered reports of those marriages that would be recognised by the state. Right from the early days of Quakers, the spiritual and the legal have been indivisible in marriage. Indeed, that is recognised in the Marriage Act 1949 with our ability to appoint our own registering officers. It is both the relationship that is inward and spiritual, and the outward and legal concomitant. What matters for us today is that we would like same-sex couples to be open to the same process so that we do not discriminate and so that barriers are removed and they can access marriage just as heterosexual couples can.
I do not want to hog the questions, although we could have this fascinating debate all day. I do not think that you have answered my point as to why you still need marriage to change in the law for you to be able to marry same-sex couples under Quaker ceremony.
The other point that I want to ask you about quickly is on when you say that it is down to the two people who decide to get married and you are just witnesses to it. Can they tailor-make their ceremony? I have not been to a Quaker wedding, so I do not know how it works, but could they effectively say, “We want our Quaker wedding ceremony not to have any mention of God in it”?
Michael Bartlet: To start with it takes place in gathered silence, but there is also a very clear, prescribed form of words that has to be used at the time the couple make their commitment to each other. They stand in the quiet of the meeting and say, “Friend, I take this my friend to be my husband or wife, promising, through divine assistance”—or, if they prefer, they say, “with God’s help”—“to be unto him or her a loving and faithful husband or wife so long as we both on earth shall live,” and the register is signed. That is a form of words that needs to be used.
To come back to your previous question, if I did not answer it fully, the importance for Quakers is that the spiritual, and the legal and practical, are all brought together into that one form of commitment.
Thank you very much for that full answer. An aspect of the Bill that I am particularly interested in is the protection it gives the Church of England, in that it has essentially been ring-fenced. I wanted to know what you thought about that special protection for the established Church.
Michael Bartlet: As a denomination, we feel it is important that the state provides equally for denominations and recognises their own religious insights. On a personal view, I wonder whether quite so many locks are necessary, but that is not the view of my denomination. We are comfortable with the legislation for Quakers and recognise that it is important that other denominations can also be comfortable with it.
I want to put the same question to both your organisations. I believe you referred to having about 10,000 Unitarians at this time. Is that correct?
And for the Quakers it was about 23,000. I do not want to take anything away from your Churches, and your opinion is obviously important to the Committee, but you are small, minority Churches, and I just want to put matters into perspective. First, in relation to 10 or 20 years ago, would you say that your numbers have fallen greatly? Secondly, as organisations, although I am sure that you have been able to have blessing ceremonies for same-sex relationships over the past number of years, if, inadvertently, you supported legislation that made things difficult for large Churches with millions of followers across the whole United Kingdom, would you feel that what you were doing here today would be wrong?
I think you mentioned about 100 marriages over the last period of time. I would be interested to hear how many marriages have been carried out in Unitarian churches over the last number of years, and do you see those numbers decreasing?
If a legislative change came through the Committee and was ultimately passed by the House and, by what you are saying to us today, you were inadvertently complicit in a change that had an impact on larger Churches—those with millions of followers—how would you feel about that?
Derek McAuley: Ultimately, we have our own perspective. We put forward our views. We believe that Parliament should allow us to conduct same-sex marriages. Parliament should address the concerns of other denominations in the same way, taking the principle of religious freedom. We recognise, in answer to the previous question, the particular situation of the Church of England and the Church in Wales, given their legal responsibilities. We feel that the legislation shows a way forward that can address our needs and the needs of our members, and the needs of those Churches that do not wish to perform same-sex marriages.
My question to you was this, Mr McAuley: how would you feel if the Bill impacted on all those other larger Churches and the millions of followers that they have, and if they felt victimised, discriminated against, annoyed, angered or displeased—whatever terminology you want to use? How would you feel about that? You have not answered that question.
Derek McAuley: Unitarians, over the centuries, have been discriminated against and persecuted. We are only celebrating this year the 200th anniversary of when legislation was passed by Parliament to allow Unitarians to hold their beliefs. We are conscious of how other people will feel, and I would hope that Parliament will take account of that in the legislation and that no one will be forced to do what they do not want to do, either as institutions or individuals.
My last question was on how many marriages you have.
Derek McAuley: We do not know. Because our congregations are autonomous, and we are an assembly of autonomous congregations, we do not collect that information centrally. I am aware that there are some churches that are very popular and will do 10, 15 or 20 marriages. There are some churches that will do very few, because they are in rural locations or city centres. We do not actually know, in terms of marriages.
Michael Bartlet: Briefly, in response from Quakers, looking at 2010 and 2011, the most recent years we have records for, while the number of adult members has fallen slightly, from 14,260 to 14,031, the number of members and attenders has increased slightly, from 22,875—sorry, can I give you those figures in a written note afterwards? I am not sure whether they are accurate. We would feel that, in other countries that have accepted same-sex marriage, such as South Africa and Spain, the sky has not fallen in, even for those denominations, such as Roman Catholics, who are who predominantly wholesale opposed at the moment. What we value about the Government legislation is that it seems to provide a possibility for those denominations, such as the Church in Wales, that might in the future want to opt in, to do that at a time when they feel ready and comfortable to do so.
The Unitarian Church will opt in to perform same-sex marriages. Is that right?
Where a Church, whether the Unitarian Church or otherwise, has collectively opted in to perform same-sex marriages, but an individual minister does not want to conduct them, would you share the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s concern, based on its legal opinion—we will examine this later with the commission—that
“the bill in its present form could amount to the state acting unlawfully by interfering with the freedom of religious organisations…to enforce their religious doctrines within their particular organisation…the bill does not clearly provide for the freedom of religious organisations to ensure its employees or officials act in accordance with its ethos under Article 4 of the European Union Framework Directive”?
Do you share those concerns, particularly given the rich heritage of conscientious objection among the Quakers?
Derek McAuley: We certainly consider that the process, which is based on the current marriage legislation, where the building is registered, and then you appoint an authorised person—those are the rules that we currently apply to marriage—is being supplemented by a second step in both cases. So, the building has to be registered for same-sex marriage; the fact that you are registered for marriage is not sufficient, and there are some Unitarian chapels—I am aware of at least one—that are not registered for marriage, let alone anticipating registering for same-sex marriage, because they do not want the hassle of the administration. They will perform same-sex and opposite-sex blessings. The second stage, in relation to the individual—the celebrant or the authorised person—again gives a safeguard. So, if the safeguards apply to marriage to protect individuals, those safeguards will be reinforced for someone who does not want, for their own personal reasons, to be the authorised person for this particular situation.
More generally on conscientious objections, do you have any concerns—this is directed to the Quakers as well—that go beyond the church ceremony and into people’s workplaces, schools or the like?
Michael Bartlet: I do not think, from the point of view of Quakers, the problem of conscientious objection arises on this issue. Again, I was fully satisfied by the evidence that I heard from David Pannick and Helena Kennedy. The Government have clearly sought legal advice over the compatibility with convention rights. To me, the Bill would seem to strike a good balance between article 8 rights to family life, article 9 rights to freedom of religion, conscience and belief, the article 12 right to marry and article 14, on the prohibition of discrimination. So, this seems to us to be a balanced Bill that provides for those religions that want to celebrate same-sex marriage to be able to do so; at the same time, it is a permissive Bill that does not compel any one individual or denomination to do so who does not wish to do so.
Have you had a chance to look at the legal advice of Robin Allen QC, who expresses reservations
Finally, in terms of impact assessments, have you considered any impact—certainly, positive impact—of the open doors that there will be for same-sex marriage ceremonies on your congregations? Have you given any thought to that?
Derek McAuley: People who attend Unitarian services, particularly weddings, often find, “Ah, this is something different from the mainstream. This is what I’m looking for.” And they come back and become regular attenders and members. But we are not doing it in order to grow; we are doing it because we believe it is right, and it needs to be done, and we need to redress a genuine grievance.
You have both given some extremely illuminating evidence, explaining why your organisations—your congregations—both support same-sex marriage. You will be aware that one of the objections, or concerns, from those churches that are against same-sex marriage has been about how teachers with strong religious views will deal with the subject of marriage in the classroom once this legislation is passed. Can I ask how you believe the subject of marriage should be dealt with in the classroom, given—I am sure—your own concern for your own religious views being treated with the same sort of respect that you would hope for any others?
Derek McAuley: Again, this would be a personal view. I think we have to trust the teachers. Teachers are professionals. Teachers who teach in this area of personal relationships will be professionals. They will have adequate guidance. We certainly have views on how religious education is taught, and it needs to be religious education rather than religious instruction in schools. Even in faith schools, they should be inclusive. But we can trust the teachers—that would be my view.
Michael Bartlet: From the point of view of Quakers, we would hope that the kind of pastoral advice that would be given regarding marriage, whether of a same-sex couple or a heterosexual couple, is that there is a commitment to a loving, long-term, lifelong relationship of fidelity. And I think that that would be the same regardless of sexuality.
What I would hope, in terms of teaching more broadly across the curriculum, is that there is room for teachers both to explain the law as they see it but also, in a reasonable, detached and open manner, to be able to explain that a diversity of views is possible, and to put their personal view forward in a way, provided it was not in any way proselytising.
Can I just clarify if you are both satisfied with the opt-in procedures set out in the Bill?
Michael Bartlet: Just briefly, and I am not speaking on behalf of Quakers, but I recognise from some of our non-conformist friends—among Welsh non-conformists, for instance—that there may be a complexity for their opt-in, and it might be helpful to pursue that issue with them. But for ourselves, we are certainly happy.
It seems that the hierarchical churches have had a more difficult process to come to changing their minds on these kinds of issues. Opinion polls seem to suggest that in the Church of England and elsewhere members of the pews support change, but the hierarchy does not. Do you ever hold your meetings in other people’s religious buildings?
The reason I am asking is because one of the ironies may be that we pass all this legislation and the one place where you will not be able to have a same-sex marriage is in the Palace of Westminster. I just wondered whether Quakers or Unitarians would like to have the same opportunity afforded to the Roman Catholic church of holding services in St Mary’s Undercroft?
I have had the pleasure of attending a number of Quaker services over the years. Truly they have been some of the most moving and beautiful services I have attended—sadly mainly funerals—but remarkable. I have not had the pleasure of going to a Unitarian service but I hope to at some point.
You raised an issue, Mr Bartlett, about complexity for non-conformist churches in Wales. Could you just explain that a little bit more? I did not quite understand.
Michael Bartlet: I do not in any sense speak on behalf of non-conformists but I am just aware of the difficulty for some denominations who do not have the clarity of decision-making process that the Quakers or Unitarians or indeed the larger churches have. That is something that may well be worth talking about to the free churches to make sure that the variety of their religious decision making gives them room to opt in to the Bill.
Following on from my question about your relationship with the Government, Mr Bartlett, what would the Quakers’ view be if the Government reintroduced conscription?
No I am sorry, you cannot explain why it is. It is not relevant to the Bill.
This is a question for Mr McAuley. If a lesbian or gay couple came to you and wanted to bring their priest who wanted to marry them, but whose own church forbade that, how would you handle that situation?
Derek McAuley: No, because the congregation governing body will appoint an authorised person, so it would not be someone in another denomination. However I could see a situation where a Church of England vicar could be invited to participate in and contribute to the service but it would have to be according to the Unitarian views of how a Unitarian marriage is performed.
This may have to be the last question, it is now 12.13 pm.
Thank you, Mr Hood. It was actually on an earlier question from Mr Loughton—that was in order—on the size of congregations and whether Parliament should take note of minority viewpoints, no matter how small. Would you agree with me that actually Quakers and Unitarians have been at the forefront of holding minority opinions in their time, including setting up the world’s first anti-slavery organisation in Clifton in Bristol in my constituency in 1783, which of course was not at all a popular view at the time? Sometimes views that are held by a small number of people to start with can change the world. That is partly what your faith is about?
Derek McAuley: Yes. Unitarians have been at the forefront of social reform. We may be small in number, but we have had an impact more than our size, and often we speak for a much wider constituency rather than simply ourselves. Over the years we have worked with the Quakers around slavery. I am thinking of William Smith MP. We also worked on slavery with William Wilberforce, not just with the Quakers.
Michael Bartlet: Thank you for that question. We see our commitment to same-sex marriage as one aspect of equality. Equality, for Quakers, is something much deeper, on both a religious and a secular basis. We are concerned that everyone in this country has access to the full goods of society as much as is possible.
Order. I am afraid that that brings us to the end of the time allocated for the Committee to ask questions of these witnesses. I thank you on behalf of the Committee. We will now hear oral evidence from the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church.