THE HOUSE of Lords debated a Private Member’s Bill seeking to remove a provision in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 excluding clergy from having to solemnise same-sex marriages.
The amendment, brought by Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lord Collins of Highbury, was opposed by the Bishop of Chelmsford who spoke during the debate on two amendments to the Bill. The first was an amendment to enable the conversion of civil partnerships to marriage. The amendment was passed after debate.
The second, to remove the provisions in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, was withdrawn after debate.
The Bishop of Chelmsford told peers that regulations being made for civil partnerships to be converted “into marriage and vice versa”, would ‘require quite a bit of consultation with the Church of England and the Church in Wales’.
The Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell stated that ‘the Church of England seeks to welcome all people’, including those in civil partnerships and same-sex marriages but explained that ‘the reason we are having this discussion is that there are questions about how this welcome can be expressed’.
He said that the amendment introduces ‘a discordant note into your Lordships’ consideration of a Bill which is otherwise uncontentious and likely to receive clear support’.
He said that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 ‘seeks to strike a balance between the right of individuals to marry a person of the same sex, and the rights of churches and other religious bodies — and of their ministers — to act in a way consistent with their religious beliefs’.
“No religious body or minister of religion is compelled to solemnise such a marriage,” he said.
He pointed out that in its second report on the then Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said that ‘religious liberty, as granted under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights is a collective as well as individual right’.
It stated that religious organisations have the right to determine and administer their doctrinal and internal religious affairs without interference from the state.
The European Court of Human Rights has held that the autonomy of religious organisations is ‘indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society and is thus an issue at the very heart of the protection which Article 9 of the Convention affords’.
“The Joint Committee went on to say that the Government have an obligation to protect the rights of religious organisations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It concluded that this was a justification for the provisions now contained in the 2013 Act, which provides for religious organisations to decide whether or not to conduct same-sex marriage. Said Bishop Cottrell.
He said that the 2013 Act ‘treats the Church of England and Church in Wales differently from other Churches and religious organisations pointing out that the Joint Committee ‘concluded that this difference in treatment was justified’.
“I accept — of course I do — that many noble Lords deeply regret the Church of England’s current position on the marriage of same-sex couples. However, that position is based on the doctrine of the Church of England set out in canon law — which in turn forms part of the law of England — and in the Book of Common Prayer,” said Bishop Cottrell.
He pointed out that any change to the Church of England’s doctrine that marriage is between one man and one woman to be changed could only be achieved by ecclesiastical legislation passed by the General Synod and then by Parliament.
“This amendment … would not remove the need for that legislative process to happen, so I believe it would only make matters more difficult for the Church, not easier,” he added.
“Even for those within the Church who want to see change, this is not the way to help that,” he said.
He explained that requiring the removal of provisions from the 2013 Act ‘will put marriage legislation at odds with ecclesiastical law’ and more significantly’ would ‘unbalance the 2013 Act so that it ceased to respect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’.
Conservative peer Lord Elton questioned whether the exemption being removed would place clergy ‘under compulsion’.
The Bishop argued that it would ‘introduce compulsion’ that would be ‘very unhelpful’.