Lord Alli’s amendment to allow civil partnerships to be registered on religious premises is to be debated in the Lord’s today. It would amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to provide that premises approved for the registration of civil partnerships may differ from those premises approved for the registration of civil marriages but would place no obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so. Three faith communities — Liberal Judaism, the Quakers, and the Unitarians — have decided that they wish to register civil partnerships on their premises.
Lord Alli’s original amendment was debated on January 25 and opposed by the Bishops of Winchester and Chichester among others on the grounds that, if passed, it would put unacceptable pressure on the Church of England. The former said that ‘churches of all sorts really should not reduce or fudge, let alone deny, the distinction’ between marriage and civil partnership,” ignoring the desire of three faith communities to be granted the freedom to do just that.
The bishops of Winchester and Chichester are among those consistently opposing equality for LGBT people in the House of Lords. Winchester’s argument has now been turned against him - if the Church believes in pluralism, then it should allow pluralism within the religious constituency.
The Bishop of Salisbury and five retired bishops were among twenty people (including several patrons of Changing Attitude) who wrote to The Times last week arguing in favour of Lord Alli’s amendment. The letter urged every peer who believes in spiritual independence, or in non-discrimination, to support the amendment when it was re-presented by Lord Alli on March 2.
Ruth Gledhill reported in the Times that the Bishop of Leicester, the Right Rev Timothy Stevens, who convenes the 26 bishops in the House, was likely to back the amendment. Bishop Tim was interviewed with Quaker Michael Bartlett on Radio 4’s Sunday programme. He had been approached to sign the letter but had declined, he said. He was sympathetic to the idea of covenanted love between same-sex couples and believed that religious freedoms are important.
He then undermined his argument by saying that the amendment would lead to confusion in the public mind between marriage and civil partnerships. Marriage, he said, has all kinds of ingredients which civil partnerships don’t have – marriage requires a covenanted relationship, intends the procreation of children, makes provision for the mutual society, health and comfort the one ought to have for the other – and because of this, the bishops will want to resist the amendment.
Bishop Tim confirmed the bishop of Winchester’s position that the Church of England, because of its established status and representation in the Lords, has the right to impose on other denominations and faith communities its own attitude towards marriage and civil partnerships. He spoke as if the House of Bishops is of one mind on this issue, when we know perfectly well that it isn’t. One day, hopefully soon, this charade of unity within the House of Bishops has to stop, and Bishop Tim does neither his own integrity nor the integrity of the House any favours by colluding in the charade.
Bishop Tim articulates a particular, increasingly desperate need of some conservatives in the House of Bishops to maintain a rigid distinction between marriage and civil partnerships. Conservatives still seem to be holding their brother bishops to ransom. One recently retired bishop described the House as totally dysfunctional to me. The demands of conservatives in the Anglican Communion are also, almost certainly, driving the bishop’s policy.
Bishop Tim was also incredibly patronizing in daring to suggest that the public are confused about the distinction between marriage and civil partnerships. The public is not at all confused – they understand that both are about acknowledging love, fidelity and covenanted relationships. Some bishops don’t want to allow the public to determine the nature of gay relationships.
He hoped a mature Anglican Church could support other organizations who want a different policy. The House of Bishops seem to be anything but mature in their incapacity to be honest, acknowledge differences between them and affirm the integrity of fellow bishops who stand with the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews in their understanding of marriage, covenanted relationships and civil partnerships.
As someone commented online, in opposing the amendment, Anglican bishops revealed that they are not democrats. They do not believe in the equality of all believers and non-believers in the eyes of the state. They want the state to exempt them from uniform laws that oppress their religious liberty (not necessarily an unreasonable demand) - but they also want the state to impose a uniform law that accords with their religious views even though this will oppress the religious liberty of others.
We wait to see which bishops turn up to vote in the Lords today, and whether any who support the amendment will have the courage to distance themselves from ‘the mind of the House’ and vote in favour.