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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.

  • $24570317

    You are doubtless talking about the article by John Bingham.
    But the Bishop of Leicester’s speech in the Lords has been given a Telegraph spin, even in so far as the title of Bingham’s article is concerned.

    The traditionalists in the CofE are right in accepting the will of parliament, which, in this case, is also consistent with EU policy in the matter – to which this country is obliged to conform.

    I hope the Catholic Church decides, sooner rather than later, not to continue to divorce itself from the world on this issue.

  • $20596475

    Untrue. It is going to change legally, whatever your mindset is. Only those, such as yourself, who cannot accept that fact will go on believing that the change has not happened. It has nothing to do with whether you approve of the change. It has everything to do with the law.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    I referred you to the actual statement by the Bishop of Leicester and gave the URL. It starts by saying:

    “Both Houses of Parliament have now expressed a clear view by large majorities on the principle that there should be legislation to enable same-sex marriages to take place in England and Wales.

    It is now the duty and responsibility of the Bishops who sit in the House of Lords to recognise the implications of this decision and to join with other Members in the task of considering how this legislation can be put into better shape.”

    This statement was issued after the Lords had voted to reject the Lord Dear amendment. I understand this statement to mean that they are no longer going to oppose the bill as a whole but are now merely going to try and improve it. It would seem that the evangelicals take the same view that this is a fundamental change of direction.

    As for the EU the sooner we detach ourselves from it the better.

    I can assure you that the Catholic Church will not be changing its view despite the fact that many disloyal clerics therein have and no doubt will promote the contrary. The Church of England is a creature of the English state and whilst at one time, at the height of the British Empire, it may have seen itself as a world-wide church it has declined alongside that Empire and will follow the world-wide collapse of Protestantism into oblivion.

  • $24570317

    Yes, thank you, I have read both the Bishop’s speech and Bingham’s article for myself. I pointed out that the newspaper put its to-be-expected spin on the matter, even down to the tabloid-like title. Had they been interested in purely factual news they could have simply printed the Bishop’s speech in full. The speech was composed in excellent, clear English – more than can be said IMO for Bingham’s effort.

    I don’t believe that the UK will detach itself from the EU in the foreseeable future. None of the mainstream parties, thankfully, would ever contemplate doing this.
    Perhaps the CofE will have a rough ride ahead; although the Catholic Church too will pass through troubled times. The CC desperately needs to make its teachings meaningful in today’s world – and without doing so too slowly.

  • $24570317

    I agree, a good marriage is an excellent thing.

  • Benedict Carter

    Excellent post, Patrick. The use by Catholics of Catholic titles for heretics who have no valid orders can only lead to a approximation in the minds of the simple faithful of those titles with the views of the men who falsely use them.

    For this reason too Rome forbade Catholics to attend non-Catholic religious services.

    In both cases, we have seen the damage of the ‘generous’ approach over the last fifty years. I for one refuse to call an Anglican minister “Father”. Some of them may be effective ‘ministers of the Word’, but are not priests.

  • Benedict Carter

    What astonishes me is the “Great Silence” from the Catholic Hierarchy throughout this debate on the subject that matters most: that men and women engaged in this behaviour will lose their eternal souls.

    I know, I know: the Bishops don’t talk about sin; they argue the Natural Law position only, because they try to cover everyone but … shove the Divine Law under a cushion and you will face ruin.

    They should have been shouting about the blasphemy of this law and how it will provoke the wrath of God towards the nation (which it will. As if the cup wasn’t running over already!), but no – what we get is an argument on the basis of Natural law only, which patently hasn’t worked as your modern atheist rejects even the existence of Natural Law.

    It would be better to warn those involved in such a gravely sinful mockery of marriage and family that their souls are in immediate peril and then let the chips fall where they will.

    At least one’s position would be clear and coherent.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    But do the Catholic Hierarchy believe “that men and women engaged in this behaviour will lose their eternal souls.”? Or are they not universalists believing that we will all go to heaven regardless? Even so what about purgatory and the shriving that will take place there which is supposed to be somewhat painful? Or are they not even worried about that and are prepared to let some suffer?

  • Miriam

    Have the bishops lost their faith? It does seem they have, indeed!
    Have they ever heard of S:t Thomas Moore and S:t Fischer?
    Sheperds who fail to protect their flock and the church, will have a lot to answer for…

  • Benedict Carter

    One wonders if they believe in God at all, to be frank about it, Nicolas.

  • $24570317

    “At least one’s position would be clear and coherent.”…..
    …..And possibly wrong – thereby storing up problems for the future. One of the thoughts that the Bishops might have in mind is the fact that this has happened in the past.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    But the essence of the Catholic Faith is that the Church on questions of faith and morals possesses the truth. If a Bishop does not subscribe to that notion and believes that a long-held teaching can somehow be modified to suit modern mores then he should seriously consider his position.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    There seems to be some sort of automatic censoring of comments on this blog. From experimentation I have discovered that if you use certain words (for example naming a sin whose name is based on that of a place near the Dead Sea) it will automatically be tagged as requiring monitoring and in due course disappear. Thus euphemisms are the order of the day but how long before a euphemism becomes a forbidden word?

  • $24570317

    The essence of religious experience and faith is surely the individual’s relationship with God.
    ” the Church on questions of faith and morals possesses the truth.”

    As always, statements such as these beg for interpretation. In my view interpretation should consider the age, the state of the world and society, current (at the particular time) knowledge of the world (including man) and his place in Nature and other matters dependent on the particular issue. It cannot always be something glagolitic or set in stone (this is not a swipe at the Commandments – they too need interpretation in the above manner).

    It is not a matter of modification, but of interpretation.

  • $24570317

    But today your “forbidden word” has become the euphemism. In the modern world it is basically employed in anger and/or in strong, critical disapproval (by some, mainly orthodox religious, people). It today carries much superfluous content.
    The modern, non-pejorative word is the appropriate one to use.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    In the Catholic Church the interpretation rests with the Magisterium and not with the individual. It is not therefore open to an individual bishop to openly preach something different from what the Church teaches. It is a protestant idea that every individual can interpret and leads to relativism.

    The individual’s relationship with God is surely defined by Jesus’s saying that we will have eternal life if we believe in him and follow his commandments. He went on to found a church which infallibly teaches what is right and wrong in faith and morals i.e. what those commandments are.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    I fail to see how the word has become a euphemism. Take a word like “murder” which describes an evil act. It is inevitably pejorative as will any word that describes an evil act. Of course if you suddenly decided that killing an innocent human being was not evil then you might prefer a different word and that surely would be a euphemism but I fail to see how the word “murder” could then be described as a euphemism. The usefulness of the now forbidden word beginning with “s” is that it is a single word describing a particular activity. I am not clear what the modern non-pejorative word is.

  • Adrian Johnson

    It’s called Erastianism, a good and useful word deserving celebrity status in this and similar discussions ! You can google the formal definition; but it’s the concept that that the Church is the creature of the state, and that church doctrine / theology can be legislated by Parliament and enforced by civil / criminal code.

  • Adrian Johnson

    It seems to me that Catholics understanding the political reality will vote UKIP and try to exit the EU, to re-negotiate opting back into only those EU laws and conventions which do not contravene natural law and good sense.

  • Adrian Johnson

    “. . . he should seriously consider his position,” which is heretical; and any who hold such a position are de facto excommunicate and anathema.

  • Adrian Johnson

    In a word, Erastian .

  • Adrian Johnson

    Perhaps because said government, and its puppet national church, is influenced by the spirit of the antichrist.

    Remember that the spirit of the antichrist preaches another christ than the Christ of the Gospels– for instance, a Christ who says that the congress of sodomites is no longer a sin, and can be dignified by the sacrament of Marriage.