Friday, 14 December 2012

The Church of England, #equalmarriage And The Truth

The media narrative: The Government has, without consulting the Church of England, unnecessarily banned them from performing same-sex marriages. The Church of England is outraged at being told they will be banned. Omnishambles all round. 

The truth is a little more complex. Let us follow the chain of events (ignoring the Church in Wales stuff, I feel that needs its own blog post which I'll do later).

Between March and June 2012, the Government began a consultation regarding how to implement civil equal marriage. They received many responses, including a thoughtful one from the Church of England with a rather detailed legal opinion as well.

Sadly, for the Church of England, the Government did listen to them. They complained that the Government was only focussing on civil marriage and this was legally dubious. So the Government has included religious marriages in the proposals issued this week. They ignored the Church of England's absolutely clear opposition to any marriage equality for anyone, and decided to focus on protecting the Church of England from the legal attacks it was so worried about. I feel that is a compromise worth making to protect religious freedom and individual liberty.

The Government intends to introduce a "Quadruple Lock" to protect religions who don't want to perform same-sex marriages. A triple lock for most, and the "Quadruple Lock" for the Church of England and the Church in Wales:

• Ensure that no religious organisation or individual minister can be compelled to marry same-sex couples or to permit this to happen on their premises.
• Provide an opt-in system for religious organisation who wish to conduct marriages for same-sex couples.
• Amend the Equality Act 2010 to reflect that no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple.
• Ensure that legislation will not affect the canon law of the Church of England or the Church in Wales. As a result, if either church wanted to conduct a same-sex marriage, it would require a change to primary legislation at a later date and a change to canon law.
So only consenting representatives of a consenting religious organisation will be able to perform same-sex marriages which seems quite reasonable to me. Thus Catholic priests are just as unable to perform these marriages as are Church of England clergy.

The Church of England was quick to explain that the Government was not giving them any extra protections but respecting their right to opt-in constitutionally if they so wished. Their press release is here (it is their second version. The first was entitled "Equal Marriage and the Church of England". Obviously that couldn't stand, so it has been changed to "Same-sex Marriage and the Church of England. Note the "Same Same Marriage" reference in the left hand sidebar which I like to think suggests someone at the press office wasn't happy with the need to change the title! *EDIT* They have changed it again now to "Same-sex marriage". Sneaky.). An excellent explanation of the Quadruple Lock and the Church of England's position can be found here. But let us quote from the press release.

For Parliament to give the Church of England an opt-in to conduct same sex marriages that it hasn't sought would be unnecessary, of doubtful constitutional propriety and introduce wholly avoidable confusion.
The Church of England, on the 11th, was extremely clear they didn't want an opt-in as they already had one.

There was a great deal of confusion over all of this which I discussed in my blog post here.

Sadly it would appear that some within the media, in the opposition to the current Government and within the Church of England have decided to use the issue of marriage equality to further their own agenda rather than debate the facts.

This Guardian article is an example of all three groups meeting together and spinning things into an omnishambles.

Now the main issue the Church of England representatives have is that they were not consulted on the details of the proposals. Given their initial press release afterwards (where they expressed satisfaction with what the Government was proposing in terms of legal protections) I find this very disingenuous. Do these representatives want marriage equality in the church? The Bishop of Leicester, quoted in the story, certainly doesn't.

Let us be clear: the Government is not "banning" the Church of England from conducting same-sex weddings. It is simply putting the ball firmly in their court. If they want it, then (just as with women bishops) they will need to internally vote for it and put it into Canon Law and send this to Parliament for rubber stamping. 

Ben Bradshaw, no friend of this blog or equal marriage, then decides to put the boot into the Government.

The Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, who was at the Lords meeting, said Stevens' revelation that the church had not been informed had drawn "audible gasps" from members of all parties.  
"It's absolutely extraordinary," he said. "The government gave the clear impression that this had been done at the request of the Church of England … but the bishop of Leicester said: 'We didn't ask for it' … and was very upset about it because it gave the impression that the Church of England were unfriendly towards gays."  
Asked why the government had chosen to propose the "quadruple-lock" guarantee, Bradshaw said: "The only explanation I can think of was that they thought it would help placate some of their homophobic backbenchers. But it seems to have backfired massively because the rightwing homophobes were out in force anyway and the Church of England now appears to be extremely upset that not only was it not asked, but it's added to [the] general misery over women bishops and now this. It makes the Church of England look much more reactionary and unreasonable than it actually is," he said.
It really isn't hard to make a church that is opposing an issue of equality look reactionary. And even less hard to make them seem unreasonable when you give them what they want and then members of the church still moan.

Ben Bradshaw's comments seem almost gleeful at the prospect of the Government screwing up equal marriage and, I'll admit, left me even more angry with him than I was earlier this year!

Rather than allowing the Church of England's civil war between liberals and traditionalists to destroy the prospects of marriage equality, perhaps we can get some clarification from the Church of England. Do they want the protections or do they not? What would they prefer? I can't lambast the Government for destroying their religious liberty if officially the church says they agree and unofficially they moan about it.

I have to think the Church of England is just trying to undermine marriage equality by making the Government look bad! Heaven forbid.

Right now it is not the Government's proposals that are an omnishambles but the Church of England's response!

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1 comment:

Lou said...

The CofE, to my best knowledge, have to marry couples who live in their parish if the couple request. Surely the 'quadruple lock' is to ensure that they can't be taken to ECHR in the future based on the fact that they are refusing an actual service to the community whereas the RC church has no such place in society and are generally very selective about who they will and won't marry (one must be Catholic, often a non Catholic converts, children must be raised as Catholics, can't be divorced etc). As the CofE have a specific role in society and can't rule people out based on theology they would be genuinely denying same sex couples a service/right held by opposite sex couples