Equal marriage confusion: owning up

Confusion and dismay continue over plans for a ‘quadruple lock’ of legal safeguards to protect faith groups from being forced to celebrate marriages between same-sex couples in England and Wales.

While it is clear that others can opt in to equal marriage if and when they choose, the Church of England and Church in Wales were singled out for special ‘protection’, which has embarrassed them. While the government has some responsibility, church leaders and others too have played a part.

“Church of England and Church in Wales protest at gay marriage ban”, according to a headline in the Guardian newspaper. According to Sam Jones’ report, neither of these Anglican churches had been consulted beforehand over culture secretary Maria Miller’s announcement in Parliament that, “Because the Church of England and Wales have explicitly stated that they do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages, the legislation will explicitly state that it would be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples.”

Apparently, “Tim Stevens, bishop of Leicester and the Church of England's lead spokesman in the Lords, told a closed meeting of bishops, Lords and MPs that... the church had never sought the government's so-called ‘quadruple lock’ on gay marriage.” According to Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, Stevens “was very upset about it because it gave the impression that the Church of England were unfriendly towards gays."

An explanatory note issued by Church of England officials after the legislation was announced had claimed that it would not in fact face a ban.

Instead “The effect of what the Government has proposed is to leave decisions about the doctrine and practice of the Church of England with the Church of England.” General Synod could amend canon law to allow equal marriage, which would require parliamentary consent, but “it would not require separate, additional legislation on the part of Parliament to enact any change to the Church's practice on marriage.”

This would not however apply to the Church in Wales, which is not established. Its own earlier request, during consultation on equal marriage, to be treated in a similar way to the Church of England would appear to have backfired, perhaps because it did not anticipate these kinds of measures.

The government would appear to have blundered in its attempts to head off the more alarmist opponents of equal marriage. But it cannot be blamed for the perception that the C of E is “unfriendly to gays”.

Church leaders have openly and persistently discriminated against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people, to the extent of asking lawyers to come up with excuses for blocking even celibate gays who seek full inclusion from being considered as bishops.

They have also criticised other Anglican provinces for treating LGBT people equally, and sought to give greater power to anti-inclusive churches to hinder progress in other countries.

The official consultation response on equal civil marriage was not only heavily negative but also raised alarms about human rights law and the position of the Church of England as an established church.

Exaggeration and misinterpretation of these warnings was not properly addressed by church authorities unwilling to admit in public that many at all levels of the Church of England want greater inclusion.

Instead, headlines such as “Archbishop says the Church will resist Government moves on gay marriage” (about the Archbishop of Canterbury) and “Sentamu: don't force churches to conduct gay weddings” (about the Archbishop of York) seemed to sum up the stance of top church leaders.

Many of us share some responsibility for confusion over what exactly the government is proposing, including journalists and those of us discussing the proposals via social media.

If all involved own up, we can maybe help to shape draft legislation that fully protects the religious freedom to celebrate, as well as refuse to offer, marriage to same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples. For "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1.8).

See also:

* 'Archbishop condemns ban on same-sex weddings for Church in Wales'. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17598

* 'Wedding ban for Anglicans in Wales and England', by Simon Barrow. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17599

* 'Marriage equality confusion for Anglicans in England and Wales', by Simon Barrow. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17607

* 'Should equal marriage be rejected or celebrated by Christians?', by Savitri Hensman. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17245

* 'Equal marriage: churches sharing or burying good news?', by Savitri Hensman. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17606

* 'Anglican exemptions violate the principle of marriage equality', by Peter Tatchell. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17593

* 'Miller's marriage mess-up reveals ministers' ignorance and contempt', by Symon Hill. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17602

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a Christian writer and commentator who examines, religion, politics, theology and Anglican affairs. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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