Where does the Lords debate on equal marriage leave Lord bishops? The Telegraph reckons that “top officials” have told them to stay away on Tuesday, to avoid a constitutional showdown on the subject:
Officials in Church House are said to have urged bishops to limit their numbers to around six at the most for the controversial debate. It is thought that up to 10 of them could defy the advice and vote against the bill.
This may well be sage advice. An interesting analysis of the constitutional implications came my way recently from an impeccable source, Dr Iain McLean, Professor of Politics at Oxford University, Fellow of Nuffield College, and Vice President for Public Policy of the British Academy.
There are reports that the Lords Spiritual, or some of them, will support Lord Dear’s “fatal motion” to deny the Bill a second reading. This would be disastrous to the mission of the Church of England. The Bishop of Leicester, as Convener of the Lords Spiritual, should do all in his power to ensure that at least a majority of the bishops present do not support the fatal motion.
The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, who has led the bishops in the House of Lords on the issue, said: "We clearly cannot support the Bill because it is contrary to the Church's historic teaching on the nature of marriage." He said, however, that he would want to recognise "that the Government has done a great deal to accommodate some of the Church's concerns, and to make it clear that individual clergy cannot be proceeded against by anybody". "Hard work" had been done "to ensure that the Canons of the Church of England will not contravene the civil law of England"…. Bishop Stevens said that the House did not traditionally take a vote at this stage, but that this might happen. Individual bishops would then have to decide how to vote (Church Times 24.05.13)
The Bishops of Leicester and Chester have put their names down to speak in the debate, as have Lord Carey of Clifton and Lord Harries of Pentregarth.
Six reasons why supporting the fatal motion would be disastrous for the C of E’s mission.Heeding Professor McLean’s advice, however sensible, will annoy irreconcilables who want the Bishops to be the last ditch against the destruction of civilisation. It will at least prevent a situation where the bishops run the whole establishment onto the rocks in the name of a policy many of them didn't really believe in anyway, but were too afraid to say. It's a historic dilemma.
- The core proposal is to allow same-sex civil marriage. The elected house of Parliament supports this by a majority of 2 to 1. The people support it by a stable majority. Although religious people are less supportive than non-religious people, Anglicans are close to evenly divided. The unelected house needs to move very cautiously in the face of these figures. The statutory regime for civil marriage in England & Wales was created in 1753 and has been changed numerous times, with civil divorce being permitted since 1857. The civil marriage regime is not a creature of canon law, despite a recent mistaken claim by the Archbishop of York.
- Success of the fatal motion would violate the religious freedom of those who in conscience wish to solemnize same-sex weddings: currently the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Unitarians, Liberal Judaism and Reform Judaism. All of these have suffered from religious discrimination in the past. British Quakers came to unity in 2009 in support of same-sex marriage in Meetings according to the usage of Friends. The Quaker method relies on discernment of the inner Light, not on majority rule. If there is not unity as to the leadings of the Light, Quakers do not take a position. Their position on this matter should therefore be given considerable deference. An explanation of the Quaker theology behind it is here.
- As the bishop of Leicester’s reported remarks acknowledge, the Government has put very substantial protections in place for the religious freedom of those whose conscience does not permit them to approve of or take part in same-sex religious weddings. If the fatal motion succeeds, the Lords Spiritual will have no further opportunity to improve the protection of conscientious objectors because the bill will be enacted under the Parliament Act without Lords’ consent (see below).
- The Church of England often states that the role of the Lords Spiritual is to provide a religious perspective on current moral issues. But on this subject religious opinion is divided. See above; also the recent letter from the Bishop of Salisbury to Lord Alli. When religious opinion is divided, the only proper course for a religious representative in the legislature is to plead for freedom of conscience. That must mean, equally, the freedom of Quakers to conduct same-sex marriages, and the freedom of Anglicans to refuse to conduct them.
- Opposition to the will of the Commons (on this matter, and on the matter of women bishops) imperils the future right of bishops to sit in the legislature. If the bishops, or their convener, support the Dear motion, it is extremely likely that a proposal to remove them from the legislature will be in both the Labour and the Liberal Democrat General Election manifestos for 2015.
- If carried, the Dear motion will lead only to the Commons’ use of the Parliament Act 1949 to pass the Bill without Lords’ consent. Even if the Prime Minister does not want to invoke the Parliament Act, there is a sufficient majority in the Commons to ensure that it will be invoked if needed. The Lords Spiritual should consider what happened in 1832 and in 1911.
Premium Members of the English aristocracy have faced Gay Juggernauts with equanimity in the past, and lived to tell the tale: