Today’s announcement in the House of Commons should have been a cause for celebration.Indeed, in many ways it is. The Government has reaffirmed its commitment to introduce legislation to enable same-sex couples to marry. More than that, it has pulled back from earlier plans to prohibit religious groups from celebrating same-sex marriages. Both these are to be warmly welcomed.
But as I listened to the statement by Maria Miller today there were two areas which left me profoundly sad.Firstly, the vast majority of the statement was devoted not to joyful news for LGB&T couples, but instead to the level of protection for churches and other religious groups when the proposed legislation comes into force.
This is not, of course the Government’s fault. It is the Church which has forced its way to the top of this agenda. The Church of England’s response to the Government consultation earlier this year displayed alarming levels of defensive self-interest while ignoring or patronising the hopes and aspirations of same-sex couples. Statements by Roman Catholic leaders have been even more offensive.As a result, today’s statement, welcome as it was, said more about the Church than it did about the longing among many same-sex couples to express their love and commitment in the ultimate expression of Marriage.
My second sadness however, is more serious, as it comes from an announcement which will have far reaching consequences.While the opportunity will be created for churches in general to ‘opt in’ to celebrating same-sex Marriages, Anglican churches will not have this provision. The statement today made it clear that one of the ‘quadruple locks’ to protect religious belief and practice, will be specific legislation making it illegal for the Church of England (and Church in Wales) to conduct same-sex marriages.
For me and many others this will be a safeguard too far.It will mean that even when (in years to come) the CofE changes its mind, it will require a change in primary legislation before same-sex marriages can take place in parish churches. Unlike other religious institutions, the CofE will not be able to vote to ‘opt in’ – it will have to ask the Government to change to law.
This has been presented as a further reassurance to the Church of England (& Wales) but it only reassures those who want to stop same-sex marriage in the first place. There are many others who have been appalled by the Church response to these issues. We do not want the CofE excluded from the ability to ‘opt in’ when that view achieves a majority. We do not want to be treated differently from other churches and religious groups. We do not want to see such discrimination cast into law.If the Church of England welcomes these new ‘safe-guards’ the real effect of the ‘quadruple lock’ announced today will be to ensure that LGB&T couples are left in no doubt that the Church of England is locking and bolting the door to them for as long as it possibly can. It will send out a clear message – “You are not welcome here.”
If the CofE welcomes these safe-guards, once again it will be seeking to protect itself at the expense of others. Once again, it will be putting its own interests first.How far we have departed from the famous words of William Temple when he said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members”. If the CofE welcomes these safeguards today, it will be demonstrating that the Church of England only now exists to protect itself against social change – in relation to women, in relation to LGB&T people, and in relation to the State.
The trouble with locked doors is that they tend of keeping everyone out who doesn’t have the right key. Is that really the kind of church we want to be?