Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:32 am on 14th February 2013.
For the record, could you introduce yourselves to the Committee?
Could both of you just clarify whether that is for England or England and Wales?
That sounded a bit like one-upmanship—you were listing more places. Do you want to lay out the formal position of your two Churches?
Rev. Gareth Powell: The position of the Methodist Church is that our doctrinal standards and our liturgical texts hold the traditional Christian viewpoint that marriage is between a man and a woman. In addition, over quite a long time, the Methodist Church has sought to engage in broader conversations about the involvement in the life of the Church of people who are in same-sex relationships and has committed itself not only to continue that work, but to value faithful relationships in the life of the Church. There will, of course, be a wide range of views in respect of that particular position. Our position, therefore, in terms of the Bill is that we are, at the moment, bound by the view of the Church in respect of marriage, but have been content with the provisions that have been made in the Bill for protection of those religious bodies that are, at this juncture, unable to support the main thrust of the Bill.
May I reply to that and come to the URC in a moment? It sounds quite fudgy, if you do not mind my saying so, but perhaps that is deliberate. I see from the smile on your face that it is deliberate. So you kind of want to like gay people, but you do not want to marry them?
Rev. Gareth Powell: I think the point is that the Methodist Church recognises that the question of same-sex marriage has been raised as a result of Government legislation, not as a result of the Church itself raising the question as to the interpretation of marriage. That is rather unlike the question about the support and provision for same-sex relationships in the life of the Church prior to this legislation, because that conversation arose long before there was a legislative programme in place.
Dr Pearce: The URC came into existence in 1972, when two religious traditions united. Both of those traditions have, in their historic documents, statements that marriage is something that happens between a man and a woman, as you probably would expect of that period. Since then, the URC has made no clear definition of marriage at a denominational level and today the General Assembly, our governing body, has still not pronounced on the matter. It has not had time since the issue came on to the serious political agenda.
That is not the end of the story, however, because in our tradition we lay a lot of stress on subsidiarity. A lot of matters are dealt with at other levels of the Church than the General Assembly. It has been recognised that there is considerable diversity of opinion on same-sex relationships generally within our denomination. We went so far as to recognise the sincerity of the different opinions and commit ourselves to live together.
When it came to civil partnerships, the General Assembly gave a green light to local churches taking their own decision on whether to host civil partnerships on their premises. It is possible—we cannot predict this, because the General Assembly will not meet again until 2014—that the same decision may be taken in relation to same-sex marriage. Therefore, there may be local churches that wish to host and facilitate same-sex marriage. There are certainly many that would not. I do not for one moment deny that there is a considerable feeling that same-sex marriage is not ontologically possible and would require a major change of fundamental theological principle. There are others who interpret the essentials of that principle in a way that could accept, under modern conditions, same-sex marriage as a possibility.
I congratulate you on using the word “ontologically”. You are the first, of all the religious people we have had before us, to use that word. Not even the Catholics got that in. Mansfield college chapel has Cicero and Dante and all sorts of people on its walls. It seems odd that a denomination that has that breadth of theological and soteriological attitude would not want to have the same attitude towards LGBT marriage.
Dr Pearce: There are feelings that the unity of the Church is important and that, to preserve that unity, the URC must avoid giving its denominational blessing to a step that many would find unacceptable. There are also feelings that this is a matter of conscience, that individual consciences are reflected in the membership of local churches and that local churches should do their own thing. I repeat: I cannot predict whether local churches of the URC will in fact be free to do their own thing or not, but we have a concern that the Bill should not place artificial obstacles in their way, if that is denominationally possible, and that is why we have evidence to give here.
A general question: what role do you think a Government have or Parliament has in defining marriage, which for your Churches is a sacred ritual? I wanted to get some impression of that.
Rev. Gareth Powell: Prior to this legislation, that was not a question that the Methodist Church was actively considering in terms of a legal definition of marriage. I think, however, that the Methodist Church would recognise that the situation in respect of civil marriage and its civil registration has always been based on a rather broader understanding of marriage than that which has previously been defined in statute. This legislation, in the particular context of the jurisdiction of this Methodist Conference, has brought into rather sharper focus a question that has clearly been around in a number of other European countries for a very long time, when there has been a greater separation between civil and religious marriage.
Dr Pearce: If marriage is going to produce legal effects, I think that the legislature and democratic society have an interest in determining what exactly will produce those legal effects.
The legal effects have differed over time. At some point in time, they involved one spouse ceasing to have any control over her property while the other one had all the control. That does not happen now. There is still, for example, an obligation to support, which the law has an interest in. There are responsibilities in relation to children, whether adopted or natural, which the law has an interest in, and so on.
The further interest that I think the law now has, in a climate where equality is considered to be important, is to ensure that legal institutions do not, by themselves, perpetuate inequality unless there is a very good reason for it. I think it is inevitable that the law has come to focus on marriage as one of the ways in which it has to strike the right balance.
Clearly, with respect to this legislation, there is a tension, is there not, between the state, and how the state defines marriage, and the religious denominations that we have? This is manifested in the quadruple lock, which is a phrase that I have never heard of before, but which clearly has been designed for this Bill. How secure do you think the quadruple lock is? From my point of view as a Member of Parliament, it seemed odd that, if we were going down this route of equality, we should be ring-fencing and protecting the Church of England. What do you think about that?
Dr Pearce: One of the four limbs of the quadruple lock is solely concerned with the Church of England. If I could leave that one on one side at the moment, since the URC has not asked me to speak about the Church of England—if you insist, I will come back to it—the other three limbs are themselves really two. One says that Churches can opt in and another says that Churches will not be compelled to opt in. Really, you could regard that as two sides of a coin. Then you have the equality-law aspect of a lock.
My view is that if you have confidence in one of the locks, you have to ask why you need the others. The Equality Act 2010 provision, which takes the form of a new section 25A that the Bill will insert in the Equality Act, is, as far as I am concerned, the all-important thing, because it is only equality law that could ever, to my mind, make the owners of buildings feel that they are bound to acquire a certain licence for those buildings. The owner of a grocers shop is not forced to get a licence to sell alcohol simply because the possibility is there. It is because of equality law that there are fears that religious groups may be forced to exercise what would otherwise be entirely in their discretion.
Hence, I believe that the important thing should be to get all the protections you need into section 25A, so that equality law cannot be used to force a religious group into something it conscientiously cannot do. If you do that, the other part of the quadruple lock becomes unnecessary. This is represented by clause 2(1), which says:
“A person may not be compelled”.
Furthermore, there is a concern with the way that the subsection is now drafted. The subsection is the product of, obviously, a lot of work in the Department concerned, and it has been cut down from an earlier wording that said, “A person shall not be compelled by this Act” to do various things. That wording did not mean very much because the Act is a permissive Act; it was not going to compel anyone to do anything anyway.
What was necessary was that a person should not be compelled by equality law to do those things, and new section 25 does that. If the wording simply states that a person shall not be compelled, you have the difficulty that forms of compulsion with which the law should not be concerned can be challenged in court—for example, compulsion under the internal rules of a religious body, which should be free to decide for itself what its ministers, other office bearers or members should do, and compulsion in the sense of the enforcement of the trusts of religious buildings.
I will explain that latter point. Trustees are creatures of the law; they are not creatures of the rules of internal religious traditions. The sort of thing that internal religious traditions have are the Chief Rabbi, a bishop, a council of a Church, as in the URC, a prophet or whatever, but it is the trustees to whom the marriage legislation gives the power to apply for buildings to be registered. There needs to be something, therefore, that binds the trustees to the directions of a religious authority, and if the Bill, as it stands, becomes law saying that a person cannot be compelled, we may have trustees going one way or the other without any religious control.
My rather cloudy conclusion—I followed most of what you said, but not everything—is that you do not feel that the quadruple lock, as provided in the Bill, is necessarily as watertight as it could be.
You left the Church of England to one side, but just for the interest of the Committee, what is your personal view about the protection for the Church of England?
Dr Pearce: I am reluctant to answer that question, because the URC has appointed me to be its witness on matters concerning that Church. Although I have a view in relation to the Church of England, I know perfectly well that my view is not shared in the councils of the URC. Possibly, therefore, you would not want to hear my view here. If you really want a personal view, I can, of course, give it.
Gentlemen, thank you for coming along. I am keen to hear comments from both of you. In relation to the Methodist Church, have you had from your congregation concerns from teachers and registrars, for instance, on how they feel about the so-called quadruple lock?
Order. Mr Shannon, I am sorry to interrupt, but Members up here are saying that they cannot hear you. If you ask your questions through the microphone, we will all hear you.
Can I ask a question in relation to teachers and registrars? You have people in your Methodist Church organisation who will clearly have opinions on how the quadruple lock ensures that they are not impacted in their jobs. We have heard evidence individually and collectively indicating that many teachers have concerns. Have those concerns been expressed to the congregations of the Churches that you are in? You say that you do not have direction over the Methodist Church in Northern Ireland, but have you talked to that Church to gauge its opinion?
My question to you, Dr Pearce, is on what I have read in the background information, which refers to the polity advisory group. You mentioned the Baptist Union and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Do you have direct contact with those two Churches? When you come here to express your opinion, are you expressing an opinion on behalf of those Churches, too? I hope that was a wee bit clearer, Mr Hood.
Rev. Gareth Powell: My office has not received any written submissions in respect of Methodists who may be teachers and registrars. I am sure that, in time, some of those will be articulated in a way that we will hear. I would rely on the professionalism of teachers to make the distinction between their own personal beliefs and that which they are required to teach as part of a curriculum, recognising that, from time to time, I dare say, some of us have not always said things that we ourselves personally believe. There is a requirement on people in those particular professions to discharge the duties required of them by their employment.
In respect of your question about Northern Ireland, we have not initiated a formal conversation with the Methodist Church in Ireland, which covers the whole island of Ireland, but we will do at some point when the progress of the Bill becomes clear and at an appropriate point in the life of the two Churches.
Dr Pearce: On the question of teachers, I am not personally aware of particular concerns from URC members who are teachers about what the Bill might or might not require, but of course there is no reason why I should be aware of them. Apart from my law and polity role, I am basically just a member of a local church, and those concerns would not come to me.
On the question of teachers, I very much agree with what Mr Powell has said. A teacher has to prepare children for the world that exists around them and out into which they will go. If that is a world in which people of the same sex marry each other, just as it is a world in which divorce sometimes happens, teachers should prepare children for that. That does not mean that they have to advocate same-sex marriage or divorce.
You asked me about the Latter-day Saints and the Baptist Union. I think the only context in which I mentioned them was simply as illustrations of different types of Church polity. The Latter-day Saints is very much a top-down institution in which doctrine and policy are ultimately determined in Salt Lake City and carried out by individual wards all over the world. The Baptist Union is a federation of independent congregations where ultimate decision-making lies at the local level. The URC is somewhere between the two. That is the only point that I was making regarding them. I have not contacted them in any way. That is simply fairly general knowledge for those who know those traditions. Was there another question?
You mentioned teachers in school preparing people for life. If teachers had a genuine religious conviction and opinion that prevented them from conveying perhaps the full teaching—the full indication—of what same-sex marriage wanted, do you feel that guidelines should be set down for teachers so that teachers with religious convictions would not be impacted inadvertently or wrongly by any legislation coming through?
Dr Pearce: There may be a case for that in some instances. I do not have enough briefing on the detail of what might or might not be required of teachers to answer that with any specificity. By and large, obviously, schools should not be compelling teachers to say something that they do not believe. Whether they should have to deal with a subject that they find distasteful is a slightly different question. Perhaps, in some cases, it is necessary in order to do their job.
Can I ask you both briefly what your two Churches’ attitudes towards homophobia are? Do you think that homophobia is a big problem in this country?
Rev. Gareth Powell: The Methodist Church abhors homophobia; I think it is as simple as that. The slightly longer answer that appeared as fudge is a reflection of that. The Church has engaged in a process whereby some of the fears inherent in homophobia and the consequences felt as a result of it are rather better and more clearly understood in the life of the Church and in society as a whole. Clearly, one’s experience of homophobia will, I would have thought, be largely defined by one’s particular experiences and the sorts of circles that one moves with and even perhaps one’s own sexuality. We would acknowledge that there are occasions when there are significant instances of homophobia and that that is simply unacceptable in life and in seeing creation as being valued by God.
May I ask a follow up and then perhaps hear Dr Pearce’s view on that? Do you think the Bill will do anything to address the problem of homophobia?
Rev. Gareth Powell: It will, in certain contexts, yes. The key point that we have observed in charting the piece of legislation is the inordinate difficulty of being able to have a conversation about the merits of the legislation in—I would not want it to be an hermetically sealed unit, but seeing it outside the debate of whether one thinks homosexuality is right or wrong. It has been a great shame that the merits or otherwise of the legislation have not been clearly understood. It has been coupled to another conversation, in some instances for other reasons.
Dr Pearce: On homophobia generally, I am not sure I can add a great to what Mr Powell has said, because the United Reform Church also believes in treating people with respect and it sees no reason to be frightened of homosexual people. It does have an equal opportunities policy, which would make it unacceptable for those who work for us to insult people, for example, on the basis of their sexual orientation. We do not regard the holding of a serious conscientious view that same-sex relationships are wrong as homophobia. Many of our members hold that view and that is equally respected. I am not sure I can say a great deal more about that question. Could you remind me of the other issue you raised?
My take on all this is that we still have a problem with homophobia in society and that is what needs addressing. I am asking whether the Bill can add to that.
Dr Pearce: I believe that this Bill is one of a number of measures that over the years may normalise same-sex relationships. It would provide a context in which they are less different than they are at present. In the case of divorce, it became possible to get a judicial divorce in 1857, but it was still very much sort of beyond the pale for anybody in polite society to do that. Divorce became a lot more frequent as a result of changes in 1936, and gradually, over the years since then, children are no longer stigmatised because their parents are divorced. People are allowed to do all sorts of things as divorcees that they could not do before. It is that sort of gradual change, with the law not actually forcing anything, but simply terminology leading the way people think—terminology is very important in this. Obviously, that is unfortunate for those who think that same-sex relationships are wrong, just as the change with divorce was unfortunate for those who thought that that was wrong, but in terms of gradually making homophobia less prevalent, it will slowly but surely have an effect.
I am not sure whether either of your institutions marries people in premises other than your own, such as armed forces chapels or chaplaincies. If the legislation passes, all denominations using a particular building would need to agree that any one can hold same-sex marriages in those premises. As you may not decide to offer same-sex marriages, do you envisage that you would want to prevent others from using the premises to do so where you also use those premises to conduct marriages?
Rev. Gareth Powell: Presumably, you are thinking there of premises that may not be subject to a sharing agreement under the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969, but are nevertheless commonly used. As it currently stands, the 1969 Act recognises some of the tensions that are inherent in different practices. Armed forces chapels are the most obvious example. That would clearly need to form part of the Church’s consideration of the whole question of same-sex marriage. I do not mean that to be another fudge; I think it is genuinely part of the process of discernment in which the Church would be engaged. The Church would recognise, however, that it had no legal authority over those particular chapels. The Methodist Church could only make such a decision with regard to those premises that are either held in the model trusts of the Methodist Church or are deemed to be Methodist premises.
So you would not want to control the behaviour of other institutions in premises such as armed forces’ chapels and, therefore, that would effectively require you to give consent to others conducting same-sex marriages on those premises if they wanted to?
Sure, yes. That is a different question. For the Unitarians?
Dr Pearce: They begin with the same four letters, yes. I am really grateful to be asked this because this is the issue over which we have the greatest concern—not so much from the point of view of the United Reform Church if it should decide not to solemnise same-sex marriage or even the point of view of an individual local church that decides not to do that. If a local church allows another group to use the premises, and that group wishes to have same-sex marriage under its auspices, it would be perfectly possible for us to make it clear that it was the guest group and not the United Reform Church that was doing that. I imagine that if the Bill becomes law in its current form and a consent to use is required from us, that consent to use might well be forthcoming. I cannot speak for the General Assembly, but I think it might be. Our concern is with the other side of the coin. What happens if the General Assembly says yes, and there are local churches that wish to solemnise same-sex marriage, but they meet in a building that is jointly used? At present, as you rightly say, whether it be under the consent to use mechanism or the consent to same-sex marriage mechanism, one way or the other, the other users of the building would have a veto over our ability to do that, and that we find unacceptable. For example, if a guest church is using the United Reform Church’s building because its own building is being renovated or because it consists entirely of asylum seekers who have very few resources and could not afford their own building, or even if a hospital chapel, which does not belong to any religious group, is used for worship by United Reform Church members at one time and Roman Catholic members at another time, the idea that one denomination should have a veto over the activities of the other is something that we find very troubling. We find that troubling even though the United Reform Church may never wish to do that. It is still possible that other religious groups may, and we do not see that that makes sense.
I have two questions about protections, which we have discussed previously. Do you agree with Lord Pannick that it would be difficult to craft improvements to protections currently contained in the Bill? Secondly, do you agree that for both the Church of England and the Church in Wales, there is a need for a different route to opt in in the Bill because of their obligations under common law and, in the case of the Church of England, canon law?
Dr Pearce: I have already agreed, at the Chairman’s suggestion, that I put in something in writing regarding the Church of England. If I could leave my comments on that, and the Church in Wales, to my written comments, I would be very grateful. But so far as other religious denominations are concerned, I totally agree, respectfully, with what Lord Pannick said on Tuesday.
Rev. Gareth Powell: I would broadly concur with Lord Pannick’s view. We recognise that there would be some strengthening in terms of identifying the relevant governing body in a schedule as being the Methodist conference; that would simply mirror existing legislation in respect of the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969 and the Methodist Church Act 1976. In respect of the Church of England and the Church in Wales, it is for those bodies to comment. We recognise, however, their very particular position in common law and ecclesiastical law with respect to marriage duties.
To follow on from the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston earlier about sharing, how many examples are there across the country in terms of sharing between Methodists, the United Reformed Church and the Church of England in some cases, whether that is in military chapels or, indeed, in church buildings? I have seen quite a few, but I would like an idea of the scale.
Rev. Gareth Powell: I do not have the numbers available, but I can provide those if that would be helpful to the Committee. The majority of sharing agreements from the Methodist point of view would be with either the Church of England or the United Reform Church. Of course, the question in respect of forces chaplaincies would, I imagine, be pretty common across those bases where we have a presence. Again, I could check that for the Committee.
Is it just the buildings that are shared, or is anything else shared? I have been to one of those locations and seen literally the same congregation turning up but having a slightly different service or a different minister each time.
Rev. Gareth Powell: Yes. Without taking us down the path of the six categories of local ecumenical partnerships—mostly because I can remember only three—there will be a variety of situations. In some instances it is simply a sharing of the building by separate congregations, but in other instances there would be one congregation sharing a building. There would be more of the former than the latter.
How would the decision-making process work when more is shared than just the building? If one congregation wanted to opt-in that happened to be more dominated, say, by the URC, how would those opt-in arrangements work? Would there have to be agreement among them, or could it be vetoed if, say, the Methodist Church did not agree to go ahead with same-sex marriage but URC members did? How would that work?
Rev. Gareth Powell: That would be part of the consideration of the whole question and the series of questions raised by the Bill if and when the Church came to address that question. It is not without precedent in that there is some permission within the Sharing of Church Buildings Act for that already and, of course, in some instances where congregations share worship and/or buildings, some level of accommodation has already had to have been made around the questions of the marriage of people who have previously been married and infant baptism. In terms of considering the implications of the Bill, we would look to the precedents created there.
Could you share some further information on how those decision-making processes work for the marriage of divorcees, for example?
Dr Pearce: I am afraid that I am no more helpful on statistics than Mr Powell. The Bill, in what it is putting into the Marriage Act 1949 in new sections 44A to 44D, describes three different categories of building in joint use: there are those subject to a formal sharing agreement under the 1969 Act, and then those covered by section 6(4) of the 1969 Act. I suspect that, since that section is not quoted anywhere, most people will have skated over it; that section is actually a catch-all that repays careful investigation as to the type of situations where the veto would apply if the Bill as it stands becomes law.
Then there are other shared buildings. In respect of those, the whole question has been left to be dealt with in regulations. I would like to see, if there is to be any veto provision at all, the whole thing to be dealt with in regulations so that religious bodies can come together and talk about their real concerns—both positive and negative—before the law becomes fixed. The sharing agreement situation is the one in which there is the greatest moral case for a veto, because that is where different churches have agreed to act co-operatively in sharing one building and to consult each other on what they do. My main comment there is, if they are going to do that in a formal agreement, why cannot that agreement also provide for the question of same-sex marriage, and why, therefore, can the Bill’s veto not be made subject to what a sharing agreement says?
In terms of the buildings, just to take it a stage further in a different direction: say, down the line, the conferences decide they want to opt in to same-sex marriages; and knowing that your buildings are well used by a variety of organisations and Christians of different denominations; knowing, also, that there are those that use the premises for weddings, and that those denominations also will continue to hold a traditional view of marriage; would that impact on their continued involvement in your buildings, if, down the line, you come to a view that you uphold same-sex marriage? Also, any other organisations and charities that will use your buildings—say, for example, a marriage guidance charity that similarly upholds a traditional view of marriage: will that affect their continued involvement?
Rev. Gareth Powell: Under the provisions that we have for use of our buildings there is a requirement that nothing takes place on the premises that is not in accordance with our standing orders. The question, of course, of what is taught by other religious groups that use our premises is also covered by internal legislative provisions, so that nothing can be taught that is contrary to Methodist Church doctrine.
The particular point of interest that you raise would be, for example, an organisation that was providing marriage guidance or marriage preparation. I think that is one of those areas that we would need to return to once the Church had reached a decision on its view of same-sex marriage, and how it sought to accommodate—which I think, on a number of other areas, it already does—differing views that it might not totally agree with, although it recognised the need for a particular group to have use of a community space.
Have you sought legal opinion in relation to your earlier reservations concerning clause 2? I was very interested to hear your concerns in relation to the issue of compelling Ministers to participate in same-sex marriages. Have you sought your own legal opinion as a Church?
But it is also the opinion of Robin Allen QC on behalf of the EHRC.
It may be interesting for you to discuss with them some of your concerns on clause 2, in relation to concerns on religious freedom.
Mr Powell, we heard from your Anglican colleagues that they are actively reviewing their whole theology of human sexuality, under the review under Sir Joseph Pilling, and that there may be changes in their approach to civil partnerships. Is the Methodist Church undergoing a similarly active review, or is that in prospect?
Rev. Gareth Powell: As it happens, the Methodist conference last year was asked to reconsider the Church’s position in respect of the blessing of civil partnerships on Methodist Church premises. Knowing at that stage—the Conference met in July—of the potential existence of the Bill, the Methodist Council, which meets between Conferences, took the view that it would put a pause on that piece of work, simply because it would seem more sensible to undertake the work in light of the Bill. The short answer is yes. It is in the context of a particular question about civil partnerships, but it would now seem very sensible to take the two items together.
Order. That brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions of our witnesses. I thank Rev. Powell and Dr Pearce on behalf of the Committee.