Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:34 pm on 14th February 2013.
Good afternoon to our next two witnesses. Thank you very much for being here. We know who you are, but please introduce yourselves for the record.
Do you think it is the role of the Government and Parliament to redefine marriage in the way the Bill is doing?
Dr John: I wish that it were not Government and Parliament doing it alone in the face of objections from the Church. I do not actually agree that the Bill redefines marriage. It seems to me that marriage stays the same as a result of the measure; we are simply making a decision about admitting a different kind of person to it. I would compare it with the ordination of women in ’92. When the Church of England ordained women priests, we did not say that we were redefining priesthood or the sacrament of ordination; we were simply admitting the other half of the human race into it. It is that kind of change. It is a much less radical and revolutionary change, theologically, than it has been presented as.
Jeffrey John, I have asked every other representative of a religion this question. Some of those opposing the Bill base their opposition on their understanding of Scripture and the role of tradition in their faith. How has your understanding of Scripture and the role of tradition led you to a different conclusion?
Dr John: That is potentially an extremely long answer. I have written on this at some length. Essentially, I do not think that the sayings about marriage in Scripture—certainly in the New Testament, which is obviously more relevant from a Christian perspective—really address the situation that we are in today. Paul, for example, who is really the person who counts in the New Testament, since he is the only one who ever addresses the issue of homosexuality in any sense, clearly never takes into account the situation of two adult Christians wanting to commit to each other for life.
I think that Paul makes two assumptions about homosexuality, which make what he says not directly relevant to where we are. First, Paul clearly believes that homosexual acts are committed by essentially heterosexual people. That is why in Romans 1 he talks about exchanging “the natural use”. It is quite clear in the way that that is written that people have chosen to do that; it is not that they are homosexual by nature or orientation. He simply does not work with that concept.
Also, I want to argue that Paul was attacking the prevalent forms of homosexuality that he saw in the Greek society around him—namely pederasty and paedophilia. I have no wish to defend either of those.
My understanding is that you would support the Church of England opting in to this law. Do you not think that that is a rather distant prospect, given that it does not even yet properly recognise civil partnerships?
Dr John: I do not know; we live in hope. I am hoping that the Pilling report, which you know is coming out shortly, may recommend some acceptance of civil partnerships. There are already noises in the wings suggesting that the bishops are moving round to becoming much more positive about them. I think we saw a bit of that on Tuesday. I am hopeful that that will be the first stage, but I hope that we will go beyond that ultimately—I am sure we will go beyond it ultimately, actually—to blessing same-sex marriages. We will get there, but I think the delay is more political than theological at the moment.
I am keen to get your ideas in relation to how this will affect teachers and registrars. Would you support there being sufficient protection in place to safeguard teachers who may have to teach something that they are unhappy with from a religious point of view? Would you support that in relation to registrars as well? I know the Church has a very set opinion at the moment. I would like to hear what protection you think could be put in place to ensure that teachers and registrars are protected.
Dr John: I would certainly want to defend the conscientious right of any teacher to state his or her own Christian conviction about marriage, even if that disagreed with mine. I think that is fine. It is important, though, that such a teacher also puts forward the other opinion. We would expect that in a good teacher, whichever direction they were coming from. Of course, it is important to protect children in schools—children from same-sex families, for example—from belittlement, criticism or bullying in school. A teacher would have to be very careful not to foment that kind of negative attitude to any children in the class in the way that he or she taught their view.
That is your opinion on teachers. Do you feel there should be similar protection for registrars in local councils in relation to marriage?
You will have to come to Northern Ireland to learn the accent. Do you feel that registrars should have equal protection?
This is directed at the Very Rev. Jeffrey John. We have what is called a quadruple lock so, as I understand it, if two people of the same sex who are Church of England parishioners wish to get married in the Church of England, and their priest wishes them to be married and is quite happy for them to be married in his or her church, that is impossible under the Bill, is it not? What are your thoughts about that?
Dr John: I think it is highly regrettable that the Church feels the need to have these triple or quadruple locks. My main worry about it, frankly, is the image of the Church that it puts to ordinary people. My fear is that people will judge God by the Church on this issue. God is infinitely more compassionate and positive about gay people than the Church, in my view. The love of gay people comes from God, and I think God wants to bless, strengthen and protect that love, desperately. I think the Church is horribly misrepresenting God in opposing that, so I am very unhappy. Given the political situation of the Church, I can understand why that lock has been demanded, but I am very fearful that the Church is forgetting its own Gospel in making that demand.
So if you had your choice, in terms of amending the Bill, you would remove the quadruple lock, would you?
I have a question for Alice Arnold. You have a very high-profile civil partnership, which always seems, in all that we read about it, an incredibly happy partnership.
Probably, like most partnerships, it has its moments. Can I ask a very simple question: what would the ability to get married add to your life?
Alice Arnold: It would be a massively important thing. When someone says to me, “Are you married?”—a very common question, which we are all asked—I say, “No, but I am in a civil partnership.” I would love not to have to say, “No, but—”; I would really love just to say, “Yes.” For all intents and purposes we are married, in the sense that everybody understands the word “marriage”. We have lived together for 10 years, we have joint bank accounts, we do everything together. Our nephews and nieces regard us as married; everybody we know, including our parents, regards us as married. But we have never used the term because—I used to be a magistrate—we are not allowed to, so I have to say, “I’m not married; I’m in a civil partnership.” I would love not to have to say that. I would love to just be like everybody else and say, “Yes.” That is the difference it would make.
There are a couple of anomalies in the Bill in terms of the way that same-sex married couples will be treated, as opposed to opposite-sex married couples. For example, we heard earlier about the differences in pension rights that the Bill proposes. There are also differences in the significance of the consummation of a marriage. What is your view on those anomalies? Do you have concerns about them?
Alice Arnold: I do not have concerns about consummation—this is the divorce element of the Bill. I think that is quite clearly covered—there is an allowance for either desertion or unfaithfulness, which would be unreasonable behaviour. It is not that difficult to say, “My partner’s left me for somebody else; that’s unreasonable behaviour.” We do not have to go into the sexual ins and outs of that. It is fairly clear to everybody that that is an irretrievable breakdown of the relationship. I cannot see that it would cause a problem—I cannot see a gay couple saying that they will have to discuss consummation in front of a court in order to get divorced. I just do not see it as a problem. I think the definition is there, in “irretrievable breakdown” and “unreasonable behaviour”.
Let me ask Jeffrey John, one of the points that was made to us earlier in the week by some representatives of the Churches was that procreation was one of the fundamentals of marriage in the eyes of their Church. What is your view on that argument?
Dr John: Procreation is clearly not a sine qua non of marriage. Scripturally, it is not even the first purpose of marriage. God makes Eve for Adam because it is not good for man to be alone; indeed, in modern marriage services the companionship element of marriage is now put first. And of course, the Church has always married couples who are beyond the age of child bearing—this point has been made again and again—so I do not really understand why people cling to that view.
Can I say something about the previous question? I am worried about the continuing inequality in the Bill as regards civil partnership. I do not understand why civil partnership remains for gay people, but not for heterosexual couples. My worry is that civil partnership may bring about the very thing the Church says it fears, which is that somehow the idea of faithfulness and monogamy will be diluted. The danger of civil partnership, if it is there alongside marriage, is that it will be seen as “marriage-lite”, as it were, with a lower standard of fidelity. That seems to be a real danger. I was quite surprised when Maria Miller said on Tuesday—or hinted, at least—that civil partnership is continuing because the Church is asking for it. I find that quite ironic, because the Church will be accomplishing the very thing it says it wants to avoid, which is to undermine the call to unbreakable fidelity in marriage. I very much want to stick to that call to fidelity, and I am worried that continuing civil partnerships only for gay people will undermine that.
So do I understand that you are saying not that you want to see civil partnerships to be no longer possible, but that you think they should be equally possible for opposite-sex and same-sex couples?
Unavailable—okay, thank you. What would you do, therefore, about people who are currently in civil partnerships?
Let me take a view shared by another individual—who speaks not on behalf of the Church of England, but on behalf of an individual in the Church of England, like yourself—who said in submission to the Committee that he is disappointed by the Marriage Bill. He says:
“Adopting this bill gives us another anachronistic law in that it allows same sex couples to marry but the laws around the consummation and dissolution of those marriages remains strictly heterosexual. It feels to me a bit like the Deed of Union in 1536 when Welsh people were ‘accepted’ as English citizens as long as they gave up their Welshness!”
He then says:
“What the equal marriage Bill doesn’t say to LGBT people”— this is different, indeed, from what Alice Arnold said—
“is ‘you are accepted as who you are’ it says ‘you are acceptable because you conform’.”
Do you agree?
I am simply saying what Mr Jones says. He is basically saying that there are still inequalities in the Bill and there is still a need to conform to a “hetero-normative ideal” of marriage.
Alice Arnold: I think that whatever marriage is will be up to the couple that are married. I am not sure that a gay couple would be thinking, “Oh gosh, I’ve got to conform to the heterosexual ways of marriage,” whatever they are—I assume they are different for every heterosexual couple; I do not know. I do not think most gay people I know would feel moulded by having to conform to something.
I do think there is the issue with civil partnerships that some women particularly, straight or gay, feel very strongly that marriage has a patriarchal overtone that they do not like. That could be a bit of an issue for some people. I am not sure what my conclusion is on that. Clare and I would get married—that is what we would do: we may not have a big celebration, but we will certainly get a piece of paper—but I do not think that would make us conform to anything other than what we already are.
Dr John: It was a bit difficult to follow what the chap was saying. He sounded a bit like the 1960s or 1970s early radical gay people who wanted to say that, somehow, promiscuity was inherent in being gay and perhaps one ought to conform to that. I am extremely hostile to that view. I think the vast majority of people need the kind of covenant framework in which to live and love someone else in order to achieve their maximum fulfilment and happiness in life, and I think it applies equally to gay people and straight people.
Just to go back, would you say that the concern about this anachronistic law in relation to consummation and adultery still has to be dealt with, or is it fine as the Bill says, or should we move to a point where we do not make a big deal of this in relation to marriage per se?
Alice, you mentioned earlier that you would like to marry Clare Balding, but you also admitted that you are not particularly religious. I wondered what sort of wedding you would like to have.
Feel free not to answer. This has nothing to do with the Bill.
There was a serious question: would you like a humanist wedding, for instance?
Alice Arnold: No. For people going forward who have not done a civil partnership, obviously they would get married. I have to say, as a couple who have done our civil partnership—it is a horrible expression but we are civilly partnered—we actually already had a ceremony in a registry office with a registrar and witnesses, and we had a massive party. We both feel quite strongly that we probably do not need to do all that again, and I am not one for retaking vows—I think that you make a vow for life and we made them—so we do not need to do it again. We will get a piece of paper and then probably throw a party. Humanist, religious—none of that comes into it for me. People going forward will not have to deal with the changing over of the piece of paper and paying £20 or whatever. They will get the married thing straight away, and good for them. I wish we could have done.
And no presents either, I suppose, if you do not have a second ceremony. Dr John mentioned the politics of the Church on several occasions. Is the Church of England’s resistance to going down this line more to do with the international dimension of trying to keep African Churches in particular on board? Is that why the Church of England is in such a tangle over its attitude to homosexuality, or is it an intra-Church of England schism?
Dr John: It is both. There is a significant minority within the Church who are vehemently opposed to any sort of same-sex relationship and who fairly frequently threaten to secede in one way or another. Of course, it is the case that the majority, or nearly the majority, of Anglicans are now in Africa, many of them in Anglican churches or living under Governments that are severely homophobic—I think I can use that word in that instance—and where gay people are in some danger. I fear that it is the case that what the Church of England does about this subject in various departments is far too much conditioned by a wish to appease the churches in Africa.
Dr John, following on from that, are you a lone voice in the wilderness, or are there others clearing the way in the Church of England for same-sex marriage?
Dr John: I am certainly not a lone voice. There are a lot of people who agree with me. I suspect that it is now a majority of people in the Church who would agree with me. Certainly a very great majority would agree that there should be some kind of recognition for civil partnerships, such as a blessing ceremony or whatever. We are very much moving in that direction. I think that quite a significant part, if not the majority, of the Church’s leadership agrees with me, but many—most of them—feel that they cannot say that in public. One of the problems that we have in the Church of England is that there is a real divergence between the teaching that is put forward publicly on these issues and what is said and done privately. We have a real gulf between the public morality of the Church and the private morality that is used by bishops and Church leaders in the study, as it were. That is very worrying. It is one of the most corrosive things at the heart of the Church, which we need to address.
Just two brief questions for the dean. First, with respect to maintaining civil partnerships for same-sex couples, do you not accept that there might be a case where there would be a number of same-sex couples who would accept that the orthodox teaching of their Churches as currently stated is that marriage is not for them? They would therefore accept that civil partnerships are the right thing for them until the position of their orthodox Churches changed.
Secondly, taking you back to St Paul, do you consider that St Paul’s teaching might have been more informed by his experience of the public sexual indulgence, both heterosexual and homosexual, associated with temple cults and prostitution, which, in effect, amounted to a form of idolatry, and that it was that which informed his epistles, rather than individual relationships?
Dr John: May I take the second part first? Clearly, Paul does associate this with idolatry in Romans I. As I mentioned, I think that Paul had in mind the prevalent forms of homosexual practice that he saw in society around him, namely pederasty and paedophilia. We do not know so much about what really went on in the temple cults, so I am not sure about that. Would you remind me of the first question?
It was on continuing civil partnerships for those people who would accept the Church’s current teaching on marriage.
Dr John: I could sympathise with them, but I would disagree with their theology, because the fact is that there is no theology that would justify a civil partnership that was sexually active and not based on the kind of marriage covenant theology that underpins marriage. There is not really a difference, theologically. Provided the covenant is absolutely faithful and based on monogamous promises, I would say it is de facto a marriage anyway. So there is not really a theological difference that they ought to be taking a stand on. What I think is going to happen, however, politically is that the Church will first of all bless civil partnerships and will ultimately bless marriages. In doing it that way, it will be completely incoherent theologically, but that does not really stop it.
That certainly would not be a first for the Church of England. Given what you say about, in your view, the majority of ordinary members of the Church of England and many senior clergymen and parish priests being sympathetic, and given the experience of what happened when divorcees were remarried for the first time, you say that you would not want the Church to be forced to do anything. What about a permissive regime in the Church of England that allowed individual parishes that wanted to do so?
Dr John: I think that would be marvellous, and I think it would be more genuinely Anglican. I hope that is where we end up. At the moment, of course, there is a complete block on any progress whatsoever, and that is what is so inequitable about the present situation. It was slightly annoying on Tuesday listening to the exchange with the Bishop of Norwich, because everyone, in a rather jocular way, was talking about the wonderful breadth and comprehensiveness of the Church of England, but on this subject it is not at all broad or comprehensive; it is extremely exclusive, and I think we would be in a much more genuinely Anglican and Christian position if people were allowed to follow their conscience on this.
Although to be fair to the Bishop of Norwich, he made it quite clear that he did not agree with the Church’s official position on civil partnerships.
May I ask a broader question? We have heard from a lot of religious representatives in the course of these two sittings. What strikes me, as a member of the Church of England and someone who would like to be married, is that these different religious representatives seem to me to believe completely different things but they all call themselves Christians. There seem to be those who, for dogmatic reasons or reasons of adherence to literal readings of Scripture, could never countenance a change. There seem to be others, however—you, the Quakers, the Liberal Jews and even the Bishop of Norwich—who are edging towards a different place. How are these positions ever going to be reconciled?
Dr John: I am not God. I do not know. Religion is fissiparous by nature, and I do not know how they will be reconciled. On this subject, I think they will be reconciled by seeing that love works in exactly the same way between two people of the same sex as between two people of different sexes. It is seeing it that will convert people in the end.
I have two questions for the dean. Carrying on from your wish to have, perhaps, a pick-and-mix situation in the Church of England, I think logically that is absolutely right, but who would determine whether a parish could have a vicar who would conduct same-sex services? At the moment, we have this rather dodgy arrangement whereby certain dioceses are reserved for very conservative bishops, including my own, which has broken down in one or two cases. Would it be up to the parochial church council? Would it be up to the bishop? Where such appointments are in the hands of the local squire, as was indeed my father’s parish when he was a practising vicar, would it be up to the squire? Who would determine it?
And if there is a discrepancy between the bishop and the PCC, they get the veto, do they?
My second point—before I get cut off again—was that you made the point about registrars, a completely different issue, and you said, and I entirely agree, that we should be able to make individual arrangements for registrars and not single them out. Of course, that cannot happen in law; it has been challenged in the European Court. Do you think that to achieve that we would need to change the Equality Act 2010? I think we should. Do you think that would strengthen the Bill? Would you support and campaign for that?
It is not backed up in law, as we have now found out.
So, would you like to see it backed up in law?
Just to check a point. In the light of the formal position of the Church of England that we heard on Tuesday, do you think that the current provisions in the Bill relating to the quadruple lock are sufficient? The Church’s present position is that it is not in favour of same-sex marriage. Do you think that the locks in the Bill are sufficient and adequate?
You say that the majority of the Church of England are with you on your view. Do you have any evidence for that?
Dr John: No, not apart from such statistical surveys as have been taken. I did a quick review of them yesterday. Some of them are a bit ambiguous, I have to say. On the whole, I think there is evidence of a very clear movement towards the direction of acceptance. The clear majority of the Church would be in favour of some sort of blessing or dedication service that would accept civil partnerships, as a way of affirming gay relationships. Whether a clear majority is yet in favour of same-sex marriage I am not sure.
If the Church were to accommodate your view of same-sex marriage, would that mean the church service and the vows would have to change?
Would that reflect on a change in the meaning and purpose of marriage?
Thank you. The last two questions are from Simon Kirby and Stephen Doughty gets the final question.
My question is to Alice. You and Clare are two high-profile people. Apart from marriage bringing the two of you joy, what message would it send to younger people?
Alice Arnold: That is why I am here, to talk about that. We think we don’t know very many homophobic people. You may think that Clare and I swan through life without any homophobia. I would encourage any of you to search our names on Twitter on a Saturday night and have a look at what you see there. It is really filthy and incredibly hurtful. I do not let Clare see it most of the time, but it is really out there.
So, you can live your life as a gay person, surrounding yourself working for institutions that have equality and feel quite happy about it, until you see that, and you realise how vicious it is out there. Any legislation that brings us true equality will affect the generation below us. It is not going to help us. There are still those homophobic people out there. I hope it will help people in 20 or 30 years’ time, who will see that we are truly equal, and some of that homophobia might disappear. That is my plea.
I could not agree with you more, Alice. I am a practising Christian but I do not believe my faith has a monopoly on marriage. There is a crucial thing that we are missing. We have got into a lot of debates about the impact on churches and religious organisations, but one of the crucial aspects of the Bill is the opening up of civil marriage to same-sex couples. As a non-religious person, reflecting on what you have heard of the debate, what do you feel when you see that going on? Do you think that bit is being lost?
Alice Arnold: I do. Everything seems to centre on the religious objection, but two thirds of people don’t get married in a church—two thirds. Yet all the debate seems to centre around religious objection. Loads of us do not have a religion. It is not important to us; what is important to us is the law, and I believe that that should be separate from religion. Of course for people who want to get married in a church or have their civil partnerships blessed or whatever, that is their choice, but the law of this country has to be equal to everybody. People make a choice about whether to be religious or not; I don’t make a choice about whether to be gay. There has been far too much weight put on the religious argument. I think we should get back to what an ordinary person feels.
Thank you very much indeed to both witnesses. You have been very helpful and informative and we are very grateful to you. Thank you for coming and we wish you well.