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The Archbishop of Canterbury made a good speech against the gay marriage Bill: but why did he grovel to the government?

The contribution of the Anglican bishops was feeble: what are they there for?

By on Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby (Photo: PA)

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby (Photo: PA)

So, why was the contribution of the Anglican Bishops when it came to the vote on gay marriage, so feeble? There are 25 of them: only three currently active bishops, apart from Archbishop Welby, made any kind of contribution to the debate: and less than half of them turned up to vote against the Bill, though most of them are supposed to be against gay marriage. Archbishop Welby’s speech wasn’t exactly earth-shattering, though he made one or two quite valid points. But what was so awful about it was its cringe-making attitude of groveling subservience to the secular order. He was, he said, “deeply grateful to the DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) teams – and especially to the Secretary of State for the thoughtful way in which she has listened and the degree to which she has been willing to make changes in order to arrive at the stage we’ve reached today”.

But the stage we had reached was a disaster, achieved by the said Secretary of State, the egregious Maria Miller, with absolute ruthlessness. Changes? What changes, that actually made any difference to the disaster the government has visited upon us? Archbishop Welby, far from expressing his thanks to her, should have raged at her wanton destruction of the institution of marriage. He went on and on, being obliged and gratified, Uriah Heep-like, ever so ’umble. “We are thankful for the attention that government and the other place have paid to issues of religious freedom” he gushed; “—deeply grateful”. Deeply grateful? What’s he so deeply grateful about? The government has repeatedly trampled all over religious freedom in “the other place”. Dr Welby expressed his support for the idea of a “new and valued institution alongside marriage for same gender relationships” which, he said, would “strengthen us all”. Why, precisely, would it strengthen us all? And how would it differ from civil partnerships, which he and the Anglican bishops all supported, in sharp contrast to the Catholic bishops’ conference (though of course with the embarrassing exception of Archbishop Nichols).

It’s not as though Archbishop Welby doesn’t understand what is at stake here. His arguments were sound enough, as far as they went. The Bill, he said, “has within it a series of category errors. It confuses marriage and weddings. It assumes that the rightful desire for equality – to which I’ve referred supportively – must mean uniformity, failing to understand that two things may be equal but different. And as a result it does not do what it sets out to do, my Lords. Schedule 4 distinguishes clearly between same gender and opposite gender marriage, thus not achieving true equality.”

[I interpolate here that in schedule 4, for instance, under the heading “Divorce and annulment of marriage”, to Section 1 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 (divorce on breakdown of marriage), the following amendment is added: “Only conduct between the respondent and a person of the opposite sex may constitute adultery for the purposes of this section”. In other words, in gay marriage, there’s effectively no such thing as adultery.]

“The result”, Archbishop Welby rightly said, “is confusion. Marriage is abolished, redefined and recreated, being different and unequal for different categories. The new marriage of the Bill is an awkward shape with same gender and different gender categories scrunched into it, neither fitting well. The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as covenant is diminished. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society – as we’ve already heard – is weakened… this Bill weakens what exists and replaces it with a less good option that is neither equal nor effective. This is not a faith issue… it is about the general social good.”

There’s more to be said, of course, but what Archbishop Welby did say was well said. So why the exaggerated respectfulness and submissive language to the government which is inflicting all this? “And so with much regret”, he concluded “I cannot support the Bill as it stands”. Cannot SUPPORT it? As it stands? Does that mean that with a few amendments he WOULD support it? He shouldn’t even have contemplated the possibility of supporting it. If this is opposition to the government, it’s of a remarkably toothless kind.

So what is the point of the bishops’ right to sit in the Lords? What good do they do there? What are they there FOR? Archbishop Welby made it clear that he was simply giving his own view, and not the corporate view of the Church of England, because, of course, there’s no such thing in the C of E as a corporate view about anything. So the bishops are not in the Lords to express any kind of definitive Christian standpoint, just their own personal opinion. Trawling around to try and discover what any of them apart from Archbishop Welby had said in the debate, I came across this report in the Independent of Frank Field last month calling “for most of the 25 bishops who sit in the House of Lords to lose their seats because they play ‘gesture politics’ but rarely turn up to vote. Frank Field, a former Labour minister and ex-member of the Church of England General Synod, has launched a stinging attack on bishops who criticise government policies and yet do not bother to vote against them when they have the chance.”

What does that remind you of? Mr Field thinks the C of E should give up most of its seats in the Lords: and after their latest feeble performance, so, too, do I. Better still would be complete disestablishment; but we would probably have to wait longer for that.