Church of England: The government has ‘no mandate’ for its same-sex marriage bill

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The Church of England has responded to the publication of the government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples Bill) and has complained that it wasn’t given enough time to study the proposals in full ahead of last week’s announcement.

In a statement on behalf of the Church of England, the Right Reverend Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, claimed the Coalition Government did not have a “mandate” for the bill and that “marriage is a union between one man and one woman.” He said:

I am grateful to the Secretary of State (Maria Miller) and her officials for the constructive way in which they have consulted with the Church on the issue of effective legal safeguards. I acknowledge the progress made on that front, and the commitment of the government to ensuring that the churches concerns are properly accommodated in the draft legislation. As we have repeatedly made clear to officials, we regret that more time has not been made available before publication of the Bill to give every detail the attention it deserves. We will wish to comment further when we have had the opportunity to examine the provisions in the Bill more closely.

The Church of England however continues to hold the view, set out in doctrine and Canon law, that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. It is a social institution that predates both church and state and has been part of the glue that has bound countless successive societies together. I welcome the opportunity that civil partnerships have given to enable same-sex couples to mark and celebrate their commitment to each other. Further, I recognise that there is a range of views amongst the membership of the Church of England. I do not however believe that holding to a traditional understanding of marriage is, or should be, regarded as a discriminatory position.

Many principled and practical concerns about legislating to redefine marriage were set out in the Church of England’s submission to the government consultation in June 2012. For the Church of England, in common with other denominations and faiths, one central test of this Bill is whether it will preserve and guarantee religious practice and religious conscience. We recognise that the government has sought hard to do so in the drafting, but as the legislative process continues we shall wish to press serious questions about the implications for wider society, for the significance of procreation and upbringing of children as part of the purpose of marriage, the effect on teaching in schools, and the work of chaplains and others with religious convictions who are involved in public service delivery.

We have also continued to raise questions about whether it is wise or appropriate to legislate at speed on a matter of such fundamental importance to society, when the proposal was not in any major party manifesto, the Coalition Agreement or the last Queen’s Speech. The lack of a clear mandate and the absence of an overwhelming public consensus for change ought at least to give pause for thought.