Convenor of Lords Spiritual: Statement
last updated on: 5th Jun 2013
Following the debate in Parliament on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill on 2 and 3 June 2013, the Bishop of Leicester as Convenor of the Lords Spiritual makes the following statement.
"Both Houses of Parliament have now expressed a clear view by large majorities on the principle that there should be legislation to enable same-sex marriages to take place in England and Wales.
It is now the duty and responsibility of the Bishops who sit in the House of Lords to recognise the implications of this decision and to join with other Members in the task of considering how this legislation can be put into better shape.
The concerns of many in the Church, and in the other denominations and faiths, about the wisdom of such a move have been expressed clearly and consistently in the Parliamentary debate.
For the Bishops the issue now is not primarily one of protections and exemptions for people of faith, important though it is to get that right, not least where teaching in schools and freedom of speech are concerned.
The Bill now requires improvement in a number of other key respects, including in its approach to the question of fidelity in marriage and the rights of children. If this Bill is to become law, it is crucial that marriage as newly defined is equipped to carry within it as many as possible of the virtues of the understanding of marriage it will replace.
Our focus during Committee and Report stages in the coming weeks and months will be to address those points in a spirit of constructive engagement."
Read speech by The Lord Bishop of Leicester on 3 June 2013 (Taken from Hansard) from the House of Lords debate below:
My Lords, having conducted some 400 weddings as a parish priest, making the journey with couples as they anticipate a lifelong commitment has been one of the great privileges of the ordained life. I have witnessed personally the stability, fulfillment and anchor for life for so many, which has been transformational. However, I have also observed that the open and public recognition of gay relationships that civil partnerships now provide displays many of the very qualities for which marriage itself is so highly celebrated. I speak as one whose respect for and appreciation of gay clergy is deep and who recognises in them sacrificial lives and fruitful ministries. I also recognise the need for some humility at this moment in speaking on matters of equality from these Benches. I add my appreciation to that of the most reverend Primate for the way in which the Secretary of State and her colleagues have tried to accommodate the Church of England’s concerns at every point in this process. I entirely endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and others have said about the need to continue to make progress on the inclusion of gay people in our society, and I entirely accept what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has said about change and development in our understanding of the institution of marriage.
Yet I cannot support the Bill and, from the post bags of those of us on these Benches, the reasons why are shared by many who do not hold the Christian faith and by the great majority of the leaders of the other world faith traditions. I want to highlight three reasons.
First, this legislation does not resolve the decades-old debate about when undeniable differences between men and women matter and when they do not. Modern political discourse tends to recognise as public goods only things that can be equally appropriated by any given individual, regardless of difference. This involves a difficulty in entertaining notions of public rights and obligations that might pertain to one sex rather than the other, or to one sexual orientation rather than another. As Professor John Milbank has written in a paper for the ResPublica think tank:
“The risk of this exclusive focus on individual rights is that the needs and capacities of people in their specific differences, which may be either naturally given or the result of cultural association, tend to be overridden. And so it is that injustice can arise in the name of justice”.
I could not help noticing in the debate in this House on International Women’s Day the underlying assumption that women bring a special quality to the public square and that the complementarity of men and women is what enriches and stabilises society. Yet, in the realm of public discourse, assertion of sexual difference in relation to marriage has become practically unspeakable, in spite of the fact that it is implicitly assumed by most people in the course of everyday life. Equal marriage will bring to an end the one major social institution that enshrines that complementarity.
Secondly, the Bill, introduced in haste, has not allowed enough time for a weighing of gains and losses to the well-being of society. Do the gains of meeting the need of many LGBT people for the dignity and equality that identifying their partnerships as marriage gives outweigh the loss entailed as society moves away from a clear understanding of marriage as a desirable setting within which children are conceived and raised? In traditional Christian societies, the price you pay for getting married is, in principle, a heavy one—sexual fidelity till death us do part and, for some, a responsibility for the socialising and educating of children. As the ResPublica paper on this subject pointed out:
“As people become more and more reluctant to pay that price, so do weddings become more and more provisional, and the distinction between the socially endorsed union and the merely private arrangement becomes less and less absolute and less and less secure”.
As sociologists regularly observe, this gain in freedom for one generation may imply a loss for the next. Regardless of the best intentions of advocates of equality, if we detach the procreation of children as being one of the core purposes of marriage, then no social institution enshrines that purpose for the generations ahead. This is not, of course, to say that those who cannot or do not wish to have children are any less married.
Thirdly, as others have said, there is a difficulty here in the use of language. Put simply, there are two competing ideas of marriage at play in this debate. The first is perhaps traditional and conjugal, and extends beyond the individuals who marry to the children they hope to create and to the society they wish to shape. The second is more privative, and is to do with a relationship abstracted from the wider concern that marriage was originally designed to speak to. As the most reverend Primate has pointed out, this category error lies at the heart of this Bill as drafted.
In deciding whether to give this Bill a Second Reading, I have to ask myself several questions. Is it clear that it will produce public goods for our society that outweigh the loss of understanding of marriage as we have known it? Has the debate in the country and in Parliament been conducted in a way that will enable our society to adapt wisely to a fundamental social change? At a time of extreme social pressure, is this innovation likely to create a more cohesive, settled and unified society? Lastly, at this stage, is it appropriate to frustrate the clear will of the Commons on this Bill?
I have concluded that the answer to all these questions must be no and therefore, if it is the unusual intention of this House to divide at Second Reading, I shall have no alternative but to abstain.