Changing Attitude’s goals are: “The day when the Anglican Ccommunion fully accepts, welcomes and offers equality of opportunity to LGBT people, including the blessing of same-sex relationships in church and the training, ordination and preferment of LGBT clergy and lay ministers.”
The goal in England will only be achieved incrementally, and even in the Episcopal Church, a full welcome and equality of opportunity for LGBT people will not be achieved universally. If I’m reading the runes correctly, however, in England there are signs of real change in the House of Bishops and practical changes are being achieved thanks to the work of individuals, secular groups like Stonewall and faith communities with a greater commitment to LGBT inclusion than the Church of England. Lord Alli’s amendment is an important development.
Martin Wharton, Newcastle and Richard Harries, retired bishop of Oxford and patron of CA both voted in favour of the amendment while David James, Bradford, voted against, as would Michael Scott-Joynt if he had been present.
The English House of Bishop’s voting pattern in the Lords and in General Synod is revealing. In the vote on clergy pensions at General Synod the majority of bishops, 12, voted in favour: Ian Brackley, Dorking; Richard Frith, Hull; James Jones, Liverpool; John Packer, Ripon and Leeds; Paul Butler, Southwell and Nottingham; Anthony Priddis, Hereford; John Pritchard, Oxford; Geoffrey Rowell, Europe; John Saxbee, Lincoln; John Sentamu, York; Timothy Thornton, Truro; Rowan Williams, Canterbury. Two bishops voted against: Robert Paterson, Sodor and Mann and Nicholas Reade, Blackburn, and three abstained: Christopher Cocksworth, Coventry; John Goddard, Burnley; James Newcombe, Carlisle.
At the end of January, bishops in the Lords voted for Lady O’Cathain’s amendments to counter the Government’s attempt to reword the law governing church employment. York, London, Winchester, Durham, Chichester, Exeter, Liverpool, and Hereford all voted for Lady O’Cathain and against the Government, as did Lord Carey. Lord Harries voted against Lady O’Cathain and for the Government’s amendment.
The voting patterns help build a picture of where the sympathy of individual bishops lies and more significantly shows that, as I’ve said before, the House no longer feels constrained to maintain a common mind about issues affecting LGBT people. It is still true that it’s much easier for retired bishops to vote according to their conscience than serving bishops.
Conservatives are not happy about these developments. Ruth Gledhill interviewed the Right Rev Michael Scott Joynt, Bishop of Winchester after the vote in favour of Lord Alli’s amendment. He told her that 'Having thought about it a great deal since the committee stage, I regret enormously the vote last night. I think it will make for a great many difficulties. There are two I am particularly concerned about. Notwithstanding the bland words of a number of individuals, some of whom surprise me, I believe it does further fudge the line between civil partnerships and marriage. That is shown by some newspapers which simply speak of gay marriages in church. The second thing is, I believe that it will open, not the Church of England but individual clergy, to charges of discrimination if they solemnise marriages as they all do but refuse to host civil partnership signings in their churches. Unless the Government does something explicit about this, I believe that is the next step.'
The Bishop of Winchester radically disagrees with other members of the bench of bishops in the Lords and in the House of Bishops. According to an opinion poll conducted by Populus and published by The Times in June last year 61% of the British public believe that same-sex couples should be able to have a civil marriage. Bishops like Michael Scott-Joynt hold a principled in accordance with their own biblical and theological views. They are, however, dramatically at variance with the majority in UK society. The majority doesn’t make it right – except that other bishops agree with the majority and are now prepared to vote accordingly.
The Evangelical Alliance issued a statement calling on the Government to guarantee that churches will genuinely be free to choose whether or not to hold civil partnerships without risk of future anti-discrimination lawsuits following the amendment to the Civil Partnerships Act whilst acknowledging that the change to the Civil Partnerships Act is in keeping with the important principle of religious freedom. That’s an important development which genuinely creates more space for LGBT people in what has usually been a body with very judgmental attitudes to LGBT people.
The Christian Institute and Christian Concern for our Nation both claimed conspiracy theory as a reason for Lord Alli’s amendment being passed. The Christian Institute blamed a rare break in normal procedure allowing the sitting to continue late into the night to allow the Bill to receive its entire Report Stage in one day which led to Lord Alli’s amendment being reached when scores of Peers who would have voted against it were not in the House. I’m not sure who these scores of Peers are, but certainly even if every bishop had been there and voted against the amendment, it would still have been carried.
Andrea Williams, Director of CCFON, was upset about the amendment and said: “What took place … is nothing short of outrageous and all who care about democracy should be alarmed at the proceedings. At the end of January, Baroness Royall for the Government stated that: ‘Any change can therefore be brought only after proper and careful consideration of these issues’. Was this statement deliberately deceitful, or do the Government believe that last night’s debate constituted the ‘proper and careful consideration’ of the issues? The amendment was debated for less than an hour and was voted through literally at the eleventh hour, taking everybody by surprise. To have such a significant change in the law—a change to another piece of legislation no less—take place at the end of the Equality Bill’s passing, without any real debate or consultation, and at such an hour that most Peers were not even in the House, is a disgrace and a clear manipulation of the system.”
Extreme conservatives don’t like what is happening. I hope and pray that bishops who support the full inclusion of LGBT people and welcome those in Civil Partnerships will hold their nerve, strengthen their back bones, and continue for vote in accordance with changing attitudes.