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.

12 Comments on “Understanding the Bishops

  1. Good points well made, Peter – dread to think the amount of angry calls that will be going the way of the bishops as a result of the campaign emails that have gone out on the back of the Telegraph’s spin on the statement.

  2. Bishop Tim’a a shrewder man than most. Quite simply , he can now introduce an amendment that forces the government to explain why a presumption of paternity cannot be equally applied to a gay couple.

    Such an amendment could not be opposed by those who clam that any disparity is a lack of equal marriage. It is, by far, the bravest move of Spirit-filled intellect that I’ve seen in years. Sheer genius!

  3. This is all very commendable, Peter, and you are perfectly right, of course, but this doesn’t alter the public perception that the Church of England has caved in over gay marriage.

    In my view public perception is everything. I was fiercely opposed to Civil Partnerships because I thought they would be perceived as gay marriage in all but name, which turned out to be true, and now the public at large (who don’t care very much about the issue at all) cannot see much difference between the two, and therefore think that gay marriage will not make any difference. Most people are not like you, Peter – they do not have your analytical mind, nor would they go to the trouble of scrutinising what the Bishop of Leicester has actually said, which looks pretty much on first reading like a cave-in. As for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech, well …

    I think that gay marriage will go ahead, despite what the bishops have up their sleeves. If it
    does, what price the Church of England’s subtle nuances then? They will merely be seen as weak and ineffectual, unable to stand up for their own doctrines.

  4. Nope, they are resigned to the bill becoming legislation, and from what I’ve heard in some very reliable noises off, they’ve committed to helpful amendments, not wrecking amendments. And that’s a sensible choose, whatever the variety of their private views: no point in throwing yourself in front of a moving train if there’s no chance of stopping it. Sure, there will be a long romp through definitions of faithfulness, but with a view to working something out, not to looking for an opportune moment to throw up their hands and say ‘ah well, we just can’t solve it, so let’s throw out the bill”.

    I’m sure you’ll dispute this – but we’ll be through the committee stage in a month (or two?) so the suspense will not be long!

    • I think Sarah has the reality of this, while I agree that Peter is following more closely the intention of the statement. I must say that I had thought the Telegraph piece was based on more than the bald press release, but rereading I now can see no reference to an interview or briefing.
      Two committee days is going to strictly limit what might be attempted, but any changes are now less likely following the crushing defeat of the disastrous strategy of the Dear amendment. I cannot imagine what inspired Canterbury and others to vote for this.

      • The other relevant thing that I read somewhere this week (and I think it might have been in relation to the Bishops not turning up to vote against David Cameron crushing the poor) was a statement where a Bishop said that it’s never the C of E’s intention to field bishops in the HoL to the extent that they form a blocking political group: that they are rather there to represent the Church’s position.

        You can see the line they are treading – the presence of Bishops in the Lords is a longstanding secularist gripe – if they make too much of a nuisance of themselves the government could throw all or some of them out = no more platform in the Upper House for the C of E. I’m not saying that the Bishops wouldn’t join a convincing rebellion against the bill at committee stage – but they are certainly not going to be seen to be personally leading an unsuccessful one. Peter still seems to think that the phrase ‘at this stage’ in the last para implies that they are all plotting to pull something out of a hat. That seems to be hanging an awful lot of optimism on a very fragile peg.

        And yes, you’re absolutely right – what the extremity of the Dear amendment seems to have done is mobilise Baroness Thornton et al to chivvy lots of neutralish or mildly friendly people to the debate who might otherwise have been out grouse shooting, so that what might have barely passed gained a convincing victory. Now it has loads of momentum.

        • The fact remains that the House of Lords will have to address the critical issue of what was actually meant by Schedule 4 Part 2 of the bill:

          Presumption on birth of child to a married woman.

          2(1)Section 11 does not extend the common law presumption that a child born to a woman during her marriage is also the child of her husband.

          (2)Accordingly, where a child is born to a woman during her marriage to another woman, that presumption is of no relevance to the question of who the child’s parents are.

          If the bill becomes law, it is important to note that the only presumptions of female parenthood apply to those civil and marriage partners who undergo assisted reproduction treatment through an HFEA licensed clinic, or make a surrogacy arrangement in accordance with HFEA guidelines.

          Otherwise, the couple will still have to seek a full adoption which, in order to establish the same-sex couple as joint legal parents, severs the relationship between the child and both the birth mother as well as the legal father.

          In respect of adoption, English law distinguishes between married and unmarried men. The unmarried genetic father’s consent is not needed for his child’s adoption to proceed.

          The reality remains that the bill does not allow partners in same-sex marriage to found a legally resilient unit of family automatically unless they use licensed methods of assisted reproduction.

          So why is this restriction in place, unless the law continues to uphold the reality that a gay relationship per se is incapable of imparting the automatic shared parental responsibility needed to found a family through marriage?

          Of course, same-sex marriage proponents remind us that marriage is just about two people who love each other. Good. So, let’s keep the law focused as it is on just the couple, rather than their joint claims to parental rights.

          A Pyrrhic victory, if ever there was.

  5. I think they would be committing a real own goal if that’s what they end up doing. There is no real enthusiasm for religious interference in public life, and after the vote was so convincing – and does reflect emerging public opinion – it will just make them appear petty, bad losers.
    Really, they need to accept that same sex marriage is coming, that secular society does not accept the church view on marriage, and what that means for the church. And that’s something which its only appropriate for them to sort out

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