Understanding the Bishops

There’s been a lot of nonsense written about what the statement from the Bishop of Leicester following the Second Reading in the Lords of the Same-Sex Marriage Bill actually means, chiefly down to the spin that the Telegraph put on it. However, if you read the statement carefully you can see that the Church of England has not surrendered on the Bill and in fact may very well continue to oppose it in Committee stage and at a Third Reading.

Let’s read what the Bishop actually wrote, not what others are implying he wrote.

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 “.

Is this a “surrender”? Hardly. It’s simply a statement of the fact that both Houses have voted by large majorities to support the Bill. But the use of the word “principle” is very interesting, especially in the light of what may yet happen in the Lords. The principle of the Bill – that same-sex couples should be able to marry – has been broadly agreed by Parliament, but despite this there is a clear need to see how the Bill can “be put into better shape”. That implies that there are aspects of the Bill that are poorly drafted or have dangerous implications, and these still need to be addressed.

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.

So the Bishop indicates that the concerns are valid, are easy to understand and that Parliament cannot argue it has not heard them or does not need to engage with them.

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.

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The second paragraph here is key. The issues around consummation, adultery, defining parenthood (biological and accidental) through marriage need to be faced and dealt with. In these two sentences the Bishop of Leicester lays down a very clear marker that the Church’s understanding of marriage is still rooted in the Biblical teaching of matrimony as a procreative union and that the new definition of marriage that is proposed by the Government destroys that notion. The use of the word “virtues” is very clever, because by indicating that the new marriage definition should contain within it “as many as possible of the virtues of the understanding of marriage it will replace”, the Bishop clearly argues that the new definition does not at present uphold as many virtues as the current definition. This is an incredibly clever way of saying “Gender-neutral marriage is a really poor moral vehicle for our society”.

And note the first paragraph – “the issue now is not primarily one of protections and exemptions for people of faith, important though it is to get that right”. This is not saying that issues of freedom of conscience are going to be ignored. Rather, it is saying that these issues will be explored at Committee Stage, but that as well as this the House of Bishops is also going to turn its attention to highlighting the issues around removing the procreative assumption from marriage.

And why would it seek to do that if it didn’t think it had some good grounds to challenge the Bill on these matters?

Remember what the Bishop said in his speech to the Lords.

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.

So the position of the Bishop is (i) the Bill does not produce public goods for society that outweigh what is lost by changing the definition of marriage, (ii) that debate has not been undertaken in society on this Bill in a manner that means as a collective whole we have truly contemplated what this means for us as a nation, (iii) that the Bill does nothing for social cohesion (and indeed may even damage it). And on that basis he couldn’t support it at the Second Reading were there a division.

And the last sentence of the first paragraph is the best gem of all.

 Lastly, at this stage, is it appropriate to frustrate the clear will of the Commons on this Bill?

One does not suggest that it is inappropriate to frustrate the will of the Commons “at this stage” if one cannot contemplate the possibility of voting down the Commons’ proposal at any particular stage.

Rather than signalling a surrender, it seems to me that the Bishop’s statement on behalf of the House of Bishops in the Lords indicates that the Lords Spiritual are preparing to pull up their sleeves and get stuck in. I would anticipate a number of interventions during the Committee and Report stages and the very real possibility of a collective No vote at the Third Reading if the Bill remains the legal morass that it currently is.

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