It is my pleasure to move the amendment in my name and that of my hon. Friends, and to share the batting crease with the hon. Member for Rhondda regarding this particular clause, concerning the whole issue of church sharing. Amendment 55 would simply remove provision for church sharing. It is a blunt amendment, and seeks primarily to probe the Government in relation to this issue. This continues the theme of the amount of care with which the Government have considered the particular situations that arise, not least in relation to church-sharing arrangements. As I understand it, the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda seeks to leave out the part of the church-sharing arrangements which allows the church with a conscientious objection to same-sex marriage to prevent their premises from being used for registration. We will have to see how that properly accommodates what has grown up over the years in relation to church sharing, and see whether that is really in the spirit of church sharing.
Church-sharing arrangements are important. They are built around principles of unity and co-operation, and I do not think they sit easily—or indeed at all—with the Bill, which is in many ways divisive in terms of church-sharing arrangements. This helpfully illustrates one key area of division that may well arise if this Bill becomes law. These church-sharing arrangements take place between Churches of different denominations which come to an accommodation, where out of mutual respect and attitude of service they share a building. The governing legislation is the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969, which provides a legal framework allowing two or more different Churches to enter into a sharing agreement. This agreement enables existing or new church buildings to be used by several Christian denominations which subscribe to doctrines and practices which, in the absence of the sharing agreement, would not be permitted by the Church that owns the premises.
Through amendment 55, and indeed amendment 43, we now see how these arrangements apply to the brave new world of same-sex ceremonies. The 1969 Act does not allow all Churches to enter sharing arrangements, and it is interesting to see which of those Churches are represented in the ‘69 agreement. There are the governing bodies of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance, or the British Evangelical Council, which have indicated to the body concerned that they wish the 1969 Act to apply to them. It is also worth noting that the overwhelming majority of the Churches represented are firmly opposed to same-sex marriage.
The provisions in the 1969 Act for adding other Churches to this body are important. There may well be new bodies that will want to take advantage of sharing arrangements. The 1969 Act is an important one, because it enables the determination of who will be party to the sharing arrangements, what consents are required, and who keeps a register of sharing agreements. It is interesting that while we have had the debate about registration and consents, there are already carefully laid-out agreements and processes in relation to church sharing. It is complicated, and was considered in great detail and care in the lead-up to the 1969 legislation, which has stood the test of time. This is something which at our peril we seek to get in the way of or divide, or indeed opt out of. There is the example of the Baptist Union, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford. That is a good example of a Church that did not come before the Committee to give oral evidence but is involved in sharing agreements over its premises. It has to consult with regional ministers, the association’s staff, the Baptist Union Corporation manager and the staff of the Baptist Union of Great Britain faith and unity department. It is important and instructive to take account of what the Baptist Union says should happen when it considers entering into a church-sharing agreement. We have to see how it applies in particular to the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda.
The Baptist Union says:
“The motivation for two or more churches to share buildings may come from a strong desire to work ecumenically and so present a united witness and engage in united mission. The reasons may also be more pragmatic and the sharing may be proposed out of necessity in a particularly challenging situation. It is vital to recognise, however, that the purpose of the Sharing Agreements is to enable two, or more, churches to share the use of the premises belonging to one of those churches. It can create a united church community where all the members are members of only the one local church. However, the identity of each of the participating denominations is retained…They will also remain a constituent part of their own denominational structures”.
There is great emphasis on the constituent parts of that sharing arrangement and the integrity of those denominations. It is important that this should stand the test of time and the rigours of this Bill as well, including the challenge posed by amendment 43 in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda.
The position is that this integrity is considered carefully through a joint constitution and joint council representing the sharing churches to settle questions about the times and use of the buildings, to advise on matters of management, maintenance and repair, and financial questions and organise proposals for raising common funds and facilitating joint action and settling questions of detail. The point of this sharing agreement is to work together to enable funds to be raised, so the Baptist Church will often share with a Methodist Church or guest congregation. I understand this often works very well.
It is important to say that this sharing arrangement is based on trust and sensitivity. The Baptist Union says:
“Sharing Agreements are essentially about relationships”— it mentions partnership—
“mutual understanding and sympathy, are essential and should be developed both before and after entering into the Sharing Agreement.”
It goes on:
“Not every possible eventuality will be covered in the documents - however carefully they are drafted - but it is hoped that they will suggest principles of co-operation and partnership which, when applied to any situation, will allow differences to be resolved with trust and sensitivity”.
The reason for looking in some detail at church sharing in schedule 3 is to consider whether the principle of enabling opting into same-sex marriage ceremonies will create division and undermine the sharing arrangements that have developed over time.
The hon. Gentleman has talked a couple of times about divisiveness and the threat of integrity to sharing arrangements, but he will recall the comments of Rev. Gareth Powell from the Methodists when he gave evidence to the Committee in an earlier session. He said,
“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”––[Official Report, Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Public Bill Committee, 14 February 2013; c. 127, Q324.]
Why is this any different from those questions?
We had a similar type of debate about individual conscientious objections to remarrying divorcees and whether it creates an issue. We are dealing with different situations. One cannot equate a doctrinal issue and the effect it will have on a particular denomination. In fact there may be differences because those have been accommodated. The reason why I am probing and looking into this in detail is that we are in a wholly different situation that may well cause concern. For example, the Methodist Conference has intimated that down the line its governing council may come to the view that it opts into same-sex marriage. It may be able to properly deal with that with the Baptist Union or they may have to part their ways, given that on its current record the Baptist Union may well be fundamentally opposed and unable to countenance it. In the way that doctrine has a greater foundational significance to them—[ Interruption. ]
Let me use the Church of England to show the difference, because the remarriage of divorcees is not an essential matter of canon law and no change was needed to that. The doctrine of marriage, which recognised the union of a man and a woman, is there, prescribed in canon law. It is distinct on issues such as remarrying divorcees, which shows that there is a difference in terms of how one accommodates different doctrines. However, when it comes to a foundation issue such as marriage, a Church such as the Baptist Union may find it hard to share a building with, such as the Methodists if they had decided to opt into same-sex marriage; that may result in a parting of ways. People may say that that is that Baptist Church’s problem, but it is a reality that is different from issues on different doctrinal views and baptism.
On baptism, there are situations where the trust deeds of many Baptist churches provide that the only baptism committed is the baptism of believers by immersion upon profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. An agreement between a Baptist Church and a Methodist Church will allow Methodists to practice the baptism of infants by sprinkling in that building. It is fair to say—hon. Members can ask the Methodists or the Baptists themselves—that one is dealing with a wholly different situation when one considers marriage.
That is my view and understanding from talking to Baptists. It would have been helpful if we had been able to ask the Baptist Union and others that question. Perhaps as the Bill progresses we will get that view, but I make the point that it is important to iron out these matters to see whether there is a foundation issue there, as I say it is, which may affect and cause divisions in terms of church sharing.
I am still struggling to understand the qualitative difference between the issues. What could be more doctrinally significant to the Baptists than baptism? Yet I am sure that there are church-sharing arrangements where Baptists engage with those who believe in infant baptism; I have been in churches where that happens. If we can get over that difficulty, I struggle to understand the qualitative differences that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. I do not want to assert my view on the Committee unnecessarily; indeed, it is a question to ask the Minister, as I am not the one who proposes the Bill and who seeks to redefine marriage. He can answer whether, in the considered and detailed deliberations that have taken place with all these organisations—I say that with some scepticism—they have addressed that point. I will be interested to hear what he says.
Moving to the point of my amendment, amendment 55, and amendment 43 in particular, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda, I wonder whether the principles that I have outlined of integrity, trust and sensitivity are present, particularly in amendment 43. Effectively, that amendment makes the point that one party can unilaterally register a shared building for same-sex marriages. While they would no doubt want to deal with those matters with sensitivity, trust and co-operation, the measure could ultimately lead to one party expressing a veto over another party to a church-sharing arrangement. I do not believe that that is the essence of the 1969 Act, which provided for church-sharing arrangements. I would urge the Minister in particular to reject amendment 43.
In conclusion, I want to ask the Minister this question: has there been consideration of the risk of serious disagreement between church sharers over same-sex marriage? Has that specific question been asked? I do not believe that that was in the consultation, because when that went out to all and sundry it did not consider the option of religious organisations being able to opt in or opt out of same-sex marriage. I do not therefore believe that we have had that detailed consultation on this issue, but I would be pleased for the Minister to tell me that I am wrong. That would alleviate some of my concerns that formed the basis of amendment 55.
I thought that the hon. Member for Rhondda would be called before me, but I am happy to speak now. By now, the cat is clearly out of the bag in respect of my position. I am very much a churchgoer. The Church has been important in my life since I was an eight-year-old when I gave my life to the Lord Jesus. It has been important to me for 47 years. It is important to the people of Strangford, and their importance to me is why I am a Member of Parliament. They have put their faith in me to represent their views in the House.
The introduction of same-sex marriages will have an impact on church-sharing arrangements. The best solution to such a problem is to delete the provisions on church sharing, as proposed by amendment 55 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate. One thing is certain: the solution will definitely not be found in the approach taken under amendment 43 tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda. It would undermine the position of the Church and mean that when two or more Churches shared a building and one wanted to register same-sex marriages and the other did not, the Church in favour of the same-sex marriage would get its way. It would be able to register the building for same-sex marriages over the heads and against the wishes of the members of the other Churches who worshipped there, an argument that was eloquently put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate.
Large parts of the Bill were drafted to cater for the fact that the overwhelming majority of religious organisations of all denominations regard marriage now and for ever as the union of one man and one woman. Irrespective of what some members of the Committee believe, the statistical facts are clear in that many members of Churches and religious organisations agree that the union of marriage should be between one man and one woman. We have heard much about the minority of religious views that regard same-sex marriage as acceptable, but we need to hear more about those who do not regard it as acceptable, because they are those whose religious liberty and religious conscience is jeopardised by the redefinition of marriage.
We must not forget that we are discussing the position in which Churches with differing beliefs strive to maintain friendships despite their religious differences. Their members share a building, some of whom will be so close in doctrine that they hold joint services, as was identified by some of our witnesses. Others maintain their doctrinal distinctiveness or indeed differences by holding separate services, but they are holding their distinctive beliefs in a spirit of charity and tolerance by actively entering into a binding legal agreement with another Church over the sharing of a building. I am sure that such action is a delicate balancing act, as hon. Members who represent different parties know. With respect to members of the Committee, under the coalition Government, we can see the difficulties that arise sometimes in the Chamber on policies. There are differing views among parties. We are used to rubbing alongside people of all shades of opinion, while at the same time maintaining our own convictions. That requires give and take and, given that there can be friction, we have a balancing act to maintain.
We received a written submission from Peter Scott, which is relevant to our discussion. He wrote,
“my son in law is pastor of a New Frontiers Church in Devon. The church does not have its own building and over the years has met in a variety of premises, including local schools. Recently the church started to meet in a town centre hotel which proved to be an ideal venue. However, they were asked to leave because the hotel is used for Civil Partnership ceremonies and the owners of the hotel did not want a church using the same venue because they are known to be critical of homosexual relationships.”
That is a small example of what could happen when there is not tolerance.
Same-sex marriage is an important and, in some cases, divisive issue. Differences of conviction over marriage run deep and the approach under amendment 43 to dealing with those deep differences of opinion would be to allow one Church to force the others to go along with something with which they profoundly disagreed. That would mean that their place of worship—their sanctuary, or whatever they would call it—would become a venue for same-sex marriages.
Everyone in the community would know that, but the outside world would not understand the difference between the view of the Church that opposed same-sex marriage and that of the other Church that shared the building. People would think that both Churches approved of same-sex marriages, which would clearly not be the case. The non-same-sex marriage minister might even find himself getting inquiries from same-sex couples who wanted to get married in the building. What is he meant to do? Would the so-called quad locks or quin locks—or whatever numbered locks they may be—protect a minister in that situation? For one Church to register a building against the convictions of the other Church or Churches that share the building would wreck the delicate balance that they had achieved.
I am struggling to understand the objection to the proposal. Is the nub of what the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Government are saying that religious premises will somehow be defiled if a same-sex marriage takes place there contrary to the beliefs of another denomination that simply shares the same physical space?
I am certainly not saying that. What I am saying is that religious groups that share a building, which previously had their own convictions respected, will feel under the new legislation that same-sex marriage will impact on their general use of the building. The clear point that I am trying to make—hopefully the hon. Gentleman can take this point on board; if not, we will have to agree to differ—is that the change in legislation will impact on those with different religious views who share use of a hall.
For one Church to register a building against the convictions of the other Church or Churches that share the building would wreck the delicate balance that they had previously achieved. We are concerned that if there has been a successful working relationship between two religious groups that share a hall, amendment 43 might impact directly on that. The hon. Member for Rhondda has been quite vociferous in support of the amendment, but why should one Church be able to veto the religious freedom of another?
Will the hon. Gentleman explain whether he feels more strongly about same-sex marriage occurring in shared premises than he does about other doctrinal differences between religious groups, which, as I mentioned, have been dealt with under sharing arrangements? Such differences are often quite significant, but Churches agree to work together on them in a spirit of ecumenism. Does he feel more strongly about this matter than about other doctrinal differences, or does he have similar reservations about them?
There are clear doctrinal differences between different denominations. I was baptised as a baby—I could do nothing about it—in the Church of Ireland, and I was baptised in the Baptist Church at the age when I became a Christian. That is a doctrinal difference between the two Churches. I experienced both, but at the end of the day I am a Baptist, and, more importantly, I am a Christian. As I explained, joint services take place in some buildings, and different religious groups can work doctrinally together, but sometimes it does not work that way. There are differences, which we have to accept, and hopefully we can all understand that.
Unfortunately, I believe that amendment 43 would allow a pro-same-sex marriage Church to veto the objections of other Churches with which, until now, it may have had a working relationship. We have to weigh up the relative losses. A pro-same-sex marriage Church that was prevented from registering a shared building would be frustrated because it could not register same-sex marriages in its own building, and if someone in the congregation wanted a same-sex marriage they would have to go to another church. Given the small percentage of people who are in same-sex relationships and the even smaller percentage who want to get married, I suggest that such a scenario would come up only rarely. If a same-sex couple from outside wanted to marry in the church, they would have to be directed somewhere else. Again, that would happen only occasionally. That is the loss that a pro-same-sex Church would suffer under the current provisions.
However, a knife cuts both ways when it slices. What loss would non-same-sex marriage Churches suffer as a result of amendment 43? The answer is that their sanctuary of worship would become associated with something that they regarded as profoundly wrong, on which they had a clear doctrinal opinion. That would cause great offence to them.
The witness to the local community would become confused if people assumed that they went along with same-sex marriages. The character of their religion itself becomes muddled and confused in the minds of some of the people in the community, many of whom will instinctively share their view that marriage is heterosexual and may be less inclined to visit a church that appears to think differently. This does not just happen occasionally; it happens day in, day out and it will become the new reality through the change in the Bill. I suggest that their loss is greater than that faced by the pro-same-sex marriage Church. Members of the Committee may not sympathise with those views, but we do not legislate only for those with whom we sympathise: we legislate for everyone. That has to be where we are coming from.
Amendment 43 would greatly upset the delicate balancing act that takes place when two or more Churches share a building. It would give the minority view a veto over the majority view and cause heartache and upset and might result in Churches parting company altogether. That would be one of the worst scenarios. It would be better to keep the veto in place so that the status quo is maintained. Churches that take a differing view about same-sex marriage but also currently share a building will no doubt continue to do so. If one Church wants to be involved in same-sex marriages, it can find a way of doing so in co-operation with a neighbouring Church without jeopardising the existing arrangement. If the law gives the power to one Church to register its shared building against the wishes of everyone else it would be a recipe for upset and division. I hope that the Minister will confirm that she will not accept amendment 43.
The first point relates to the 1969 Act, which unfortunately provides quite specifically that cathedrals and peculiars cannot be available for sharing by Churches. However, in certain circumstances the dean or the provost can, if he or she wishes—we have some female deans and provosts, although not yet bishops—allow, within the cathedral, space for a Church other than the Church of England to worship on a constant basis. But that is not officially termed a sharing.
The same, I presume, could apply to a peculiar. So just to feed the Minister’s letter writing to the palace, it might be a good idea to write to the person who is undoubtedly responsible for the peculiar of St Mary Undercroft—Her Majesty—to suggest that there might be some sharing arrangements such as are available to a dean in relation to a cathedral. An area might be set aside as happens in a cathedral, where same-sex marriages might be able to take place under a different religious dispensation than the Church of England’s, although preferably not the closet.
The tenor of amendment 43 is quite simply to ensure that nobody has a right of veto over somebody else’s conscience. The Minister of State said earlier that he was getting a bit sick of conscience clauses. This is the one conscience clause that we want to assert so that no one can prevent everybody else from exercising their conscience in favour of performing same-sex marriages. It seems odd that this is the only veto that a Church could exercise over another Church where they share a building.
The hon. Member for Strangford believes in the Westminster Confession. The Church of England briefly held it as a view for some 17 years in the 17th century. The Presbyterian Churches around the world believe in it. The Westminster Confession describes the Pope as
“that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition”.
It also says in chapter 29 that the Catholic mass
“is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice” and that transubstantiation is
“the cause of manifold superstitions” and “gross idolatries,” and that anybody who believes in it is an “ignorant and wicked” man. However, Churches that subscribe to the Westminster Confession share buildings with other denominations, some of which believe in transubstantiation, acknowledge the Pope as the head of the Church of Rome and do not believe that he is a “man of sin” or a “son of perdition.” Why would someone not want a veto on those elements of theological teaching, but would want a veto solely on whether same-sex marriages can be conducted?
More importantly, paragraph 2 of schedule 1 to the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969 says: “An application under the” 1949 Act
“shall be made by a representative (as hereinafter defined) of a sharing Church other than the Church of England, and, if there are two or more such Churches, the registration shall be deemed to have been made on behalf of the congregations of all those Churches, whether or not their representatives joined in the application.”
Contrary to what the Minister says, there was no feeling that there should be some kind of veto, so that Churches could say, “Yes, you may want to be able to conduct a marriage, but we don’t want to be able to conduct or solemnise marriages in this building, and consequently you aren’t allowed to do it.” There is no such veto.
If the matter is of enormous significance to a Church that does not want to conduct same-sex marriages and the other Church sharing the building does want to, I suspect that they may not want to remain sharing that building. To put in statute that the sole veto—the only thing that could divide Christians—is over whether same-sex marriages should be conducted is to misunderstand the ecumenical movement of the past 100 years and put in law something injurious to the long-term regard of Christianity in the country.
Yes, that is the one. Is it not the case that the scenario the hon. Gentleman tells us about is one where a church-sharing arrangement leads to a membership becoming one membership? The membership is one and they are able to come to a judgment together. In a situation with separate memberships and separate integrity on doctrinal beliefs, the amendment he proposes would reduce liberty and liberty of conscience in a manner that is not in line with the intention of the original statute.
I reiterate: even in 1969, they did not believe that one Church in a sharing arrangement should be able to make determinations on behalf of the other part—“thou shalt not be able to conduct the solemnisation of marriages in the building we share”. We are not bound by what happened in 1969, however; many things have moved on. We have female clergy in the Church of England and even Cardinal O'Brien now thinks that there should be women priests in the Roman Catholic Church. The amendment is not about limiting the conscience of one set, but about enhancing the liberty of another.
In the end, we come back to what the Minister said earlier about balance. I think that the Government have the balance a tiny bit wrong in this schedule. I do not want any denomination or Church to be prevented from being able to conduct same-sex marriages. As the hon. Member for Bristol West said, there is a sense that somehow or other, if we were suddenly to have same-sex marriages in the building we share, it would defile the building, make it less sacred or invalidate other marriages. That is the argument that, in the end, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate and others need to own up to.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, extending the analogy to civil marriages, if the Bill passes we could have same-sex civil marriage on registration premises where people have to go to register births and deaths? Is the logic put forward to defend this viewpoint that somehow that building will be defiled as well, and that people might not want to register a birth or death there, which is their legal obligation?
Absolutely. Similarly, different Churches have different views on suicide, yet there is no provision that states categorically that in a sharing arrangement one Church should be able to specify, “Thou shalt not perform a funeral service for a suicide on the religious premises.” That would have been standard for the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church well into the 1960s. That is why the argument is completely and utterly flawed. I think I heard one member of the Committee—I cannot remember who, but I think it must have been the son of a vicar—say earlier that one had to accept the rules of one’s Church.
I hope that the Church is always there to be reformed. I passionately hope that there will be people who campaign for the Church they hold dear one day to perform same-sex marriage. I do not worry about that, just as I hope that many people’s campaign for the ordination of female bishops will be successful. Enlightenment comes day by day, and God is slowly working her purpose out.
I support amendment 43, put forward by my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda and for Stretford and Urmston. I hope the Government will give adequate consideration to it. I am conscious of the sensitivity around such issues and the spirit of ecumenism needed in Churches over all sorts of doctrinal and other issues of practice. For me, the concern is fundamentally the matter of the veto inherent in schedule 1, on page 18, lines seven to 12.
I urge the Committee and the Government to refer back to the remarks made by the United Reformed Church and the Methodists in their evidence. They seemed to me to raise concern; that has been further confirmed by conversations I have had outside Committee with representatives of ecumenical sharing arrangements and others who feel that the provision goes too far in providing a veto in the opposite direction.
I remind the Committee that Dr Augur Pearce of the URC said that
“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.”
He later said:
“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…before the law becomes fixed.”––[Official Report, Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Public Bill Committee, 14 February 2013; c. 127-8, Q325.]
I am quite worried about the possibility of any veto provision and think the issue needs to be handled with respect and agreement at a local level rather than providing a rather tempting stick to be used. As I mentioned in my intervention, that already happens on other controversial issues of doctrinal practice. I refer again to the comments made by Rev. Gareth Powell from the Methodists.
I know of Churches with building-sharing arrangements where one partner has already indicated willingness for civil partnerships on the premises; in due course, if the denomination’s governing body agreed, it would want to hold same-sex marriages. However, it shares premises with a different congregation that is likely to take a very different view. It is concerned that that denomination could veto its decision, although it is the host Church, to hold those marriages.
It would be a tragedy if one denomination felt compelled or encouraged to use a veto, as currently provided in the Bill. That would be to use a big stick instead of engaging in careful and prayerful consideration of differing views, which is the purpose of local ecumenical partnerships. That could be used to find a suitable accommodation to allow their building-sharing or a deeper partnership.
There are, of course, six degrees of ecumenical partnership. Obviously, the sensitivities around a single congregation are far greater than those around the sharing of a building. All that has to be considered carefully. As I have said, it has already been done in other circumstances.
I want the Committee to reflect on some of the information provided by bodies such as Churches Together in England, Cytûn in Wales and others. I found an interesting document, provided by Churches Together in England, which referred to sharing arrangements under the 1969 Act and the principles of ecumenism. It is important to reflect on those at this stage as we discuss the Bill. The document states:
“The journey towards Christian unity is one of repentance and renewal...As Christians join together in a spiritual ecumenism of worship, prayer, study, and service in the community, so together they are confronted by the demands of the Gospel. From whatever tradition each has come, they enter into a deepening dialogue with one another, and so acquire the confidence to be open to each other about their failures to follow Christ as faithfully as they should. Out of that shared repentance comes the will to support one another along the path of renewal, ‘with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’ (Eph. 4:2-3).”
It is also important to reflect on the purposes, interpretation and indeed the intent of the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969. I found another helpful document, provided by Churches Together in England, which reflects on that in terms of giving advice to Churches that are entering into agreements. It points out a series of advantages in a church building sharing agreement, one of which was that
“marriage services can be conducted according to the rites and ceremonies of the parties to the Sharing Agreement”.
That would require full and frank discussion of the visions and prospects for the future of the shared church and indeed a series of other matters. Also, it reflects on the purposes of the Act as a whole. It makes it clear that the aim of the Sharing of Church Buildings Act is that
“in a shared building, each church may do whatever would be permitted in its own building. Since sharing buildings is an expression of ecumenical movement, what begins as two separate congregations worshipping at different times in the same place may develop into a greater visible unity.”
“Sensitivity is needed to the different extent to which Christians are ready to worship” and practise together
“ in unfamiliar ways.”
That strikes me as a sensible and measured approach to ecumenism and sharing arrangements, but one that I do not feel is reflected by either the Bill as it currently stands or the amendments tabled by other hon. Members.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, which is really welcome. Amendment 55 effectively seeks to take out clause 3. Did the hon. Gentleman say that that was one of the options—to go back to the drawing board and bring it back in secondary legislation? Is he, in a sense, supporting that? If he cannot succeed in his amendment, at the very least he might want to support my amendment.
I was referring to comments made by Dr Augur Pearce. I made it clear that my view was that there should not be a veto provision. He was reflecting on a wider view about regulations. That was his view and not necessarily mine.
The issue requires respect and sensitivity, but that has to work both ways. As I have said many times, overall I am pleased with the Bill. It does not compel any religious institution to do anything that it would not wish to do. At some points in the debate, we have forgotten that. Equally, I do not believe that the Bill should allow one religious denomination to veto the activities of those with whom they share a physical space. Instead, I think we need to promote ecumenism, discussion, mutual respect and practical solutions. Vetoes in such a context would represent a breakdown of relations and that spirit of ecumenism, so I would encourage the Government and members of the Committee to look carefully at the amendment.
Amendment 55 would remove all provisions governing the registration of shared religious buildings for the solemnisation of marriages of same-sex couples. Amendment 43 would remove subsection (6) of proposed new section 44A of the Marriage Act 1949, which requires that all religious organisations that share a building under a formal sharing arrangement must consent to the registration of that building for the solemnisation of marriages of same-sex couples.
Paragraph 3 of schedule 1 is an important aspect of the opt-in procedure and forms part of the quadruple lock of protections in the Bill. By providing that all religious organisations that share a place of worship under a formal sharing arrangement must consent to the registration of the building for the solemnisation of same-sex marriage, the Bill ensures that religious organisations can act in accordance with their beliefs. An important feature of this provision is that it enables a sharing religious organisation to consent to the registration of the building for the conduct of same-sex marriage, even when the religious organisation itself, according to its right, does not wish to solemnise same-sex marriages.
I just want to remind the Minister of some of the evidence that we heard during our morning sitting on Thursday 14 February. I had asked Mr McAuley of the Unitarian Church about the issue of making someone do something that they did not want to do. The Unitarians were clearly in favour of same-sex marriage and they would let it happen in their churches, but he said in answer to that question:
“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”.––[Official Report, Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Public Bill Committee, 14 February 2013; c. 113, Q282.]
Considering that that organisation was in favour of same-sex marriage, how does the Minister respond to it saying that no one should be forced to do anything that they do not want to do?
I do not think that organisations are being forced to do anything that they do not want to do—that is the whole point of these protections. Under the schedule, the requirement for all to agree ensures that everyone has a say, and that is a part of the religious protection.
The provision ensures that all religious organisations that are party to a sharing arrangement have a say in the use of the building as regards marriages of same-sex couples. It provides a mechanism to help sharing religious organisations to come to an agreement between themselves, enabling them to respect each other’s beliefs and thus safeguarding the ecumenical arrangements. It provides protection for those religious organisations that do not wish to conduct marriages of same-sex couples while facilitating such marriages when there is agreement. Not addressing the different position for shared premises, as would be the result of amendment 55, is not an acceptable position. There is already legislation relating to the sharing arrangements between religious organisations, which means we must address this particular situation faced by religious organisations in those agreements.
Amendment 55 would mean that any religious organisation that was part of a formal sharing arrangement could apply for the registration of a shared religious building to solemnise marriages of same-sex couples without the knowledge or consent of the other sharing religious organisations, providing that the building had a proprietor or trustee. If the religious organisation does not have a proprietor or trustee, it would have to apply using one from the other organisation sharing with it. In effect, that would require the agreement of the other religious organisation.
The removal of subsection (6) of proposed new section 44A of the 1949 Act, which would be the effect of amendment 43, would remove the requirement for all the sharing religious organisations to give their consent before a place of worship could be registered for the conduct of same-sex marriages. That would allow any religious organisation in a formal sharing agreement to register the building to conduct same-sex marriages without the consent, or even the knowledge, of the other religious organisations that share that building. The Government do not believe that that is an acceptable position to leave religious organisations in, and we also believe that it would create considerable uncertainty and unfairness.
Hon. Members have made several observations and remarks during the debate, and the nub of the issue seems to be about agreement, or the risk of serious disagreement. The argument of protection versus freedom is always difficult, and the provision certainly tilts on the side of protection. However, these sharing arrangements can be renegotiated. They can be terminated, changed and left, and new ones can be formed. Of course, if any arrangement or agreement is to work, it requires good will and reasonableness on the part of all those sharing. Other assistance in the Bill will help to meet that agreement. The schedule separates out the distinction between consenting to same-sex marriages and consenting to the use of a building. That important distinction provides for each religious organisation to respect the beliefs of others. Proposed new section 44A(10) also allows regulations to be made, and the Government will be able to consult religious organisations to discuss concerns that they might have.
Finally, I want to pick up on an important point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth. Rev. Gareth Powell pointed out that precedent already exists to help and encourage Churches to reach agreements under the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969. The Government do not want religious organisations that disagree with the marriage of same-sex couples to feel no longer able to share their buildings with religious organisations that do agree with it. We need to allow organisations to reach agreement on the use of the building, and that is what the provisions on shared premises in the schedule provide. I therefore hope that hon. Members will not press the amendments to a Division.
I will not take up much of the Committee’s time. This debate has been useful because we have come at the issue from different angles, as we have discussed the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda as well as that in my and my hon. Friends’ names. However, there was a meeting of minds on the fact that the provision is just one more example of where further consideration and scrutiny are required.
I welcome the sharing arrangements, which often bring Churches together for pragmatic reasons. Sometimes, with evolution over time, the doctrine emerges. However, it is also in the spirit of working together that Churches move on.
The Minister said, in that spirit, that the consent of both parties is required to accommodate same-sex marriage. I am with her on that principle, but I recognise that problems can arise. I shall not press my amendment to a Division, but I want the Minister to take note of this issue and understand that there is need for further deliberation and further conversations with the Methodists, the Baptists and others that are involved in important church-sharing arrangements to determine whether the provision can be improved.
We have heard about whether the Queen should be involved in relation to both cathedral sharing and St Mary Undercroft. I will be going to Buckingham palace later this afternoon—[Interruption.] The Queen is back from hospital, but I am not sure that she will be there. However, the Duke of Edinburgh will probably be there, and it will be interesting to get his view on same-sex marriage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.