Archbishop says the Church will resist Government moves on gay marriage

The Archbishop of Canterbury has vowed to defend the Church’s traditional stance on marriage against Government moves to introduce homosexual weddings in churches.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams Photo: REUTERS
By Jonathan Wynne-Jones, Religious Affairs Correspondent 9:00PM GMT 26 Feb 2011

Dr Rowan Williams has refused to be drawn on the issue publicly, but has broken his silence to tell MPs he is not prepared for the Coalition to tell the Church how to behave.

He told a private meeting of influential politicians that the Church of England would not bow to public pressure to allow its buildings to be used to conduct same-sex civil partnerships.

The comments are the first time he has spoken since the Coalition unveiled plans to allow religious buildings to be used to conduct homosexual partnership ceremonies.

While the Church has been bitterly divided over the role of its homosexual clergy, he said it held a clear position that marriage is between a man and a woman and would not consider changing this stance.

The tough line taken by the archbishop will frustrate liberals in the Church who have become increasingly disillusioned by his support for a conservative approach to controversial issues.

It also disappointed MPs who hoped he would be more sympathetic to proposals from the Government that give greater rights to homosexual couples looking to have their partnership blessed by the Church.

Dr Williams was regarded as a liberal when he was appointed as archbishop, but has constantly sacrificed his private beliefs to maintain the unity of the Church.

The meeting was set up by Tony Baldry, the Conservative MP for North Oxfordshire and Second Church Estates Commissioner, who is looking to build relationships between the archbishop and politicians.

Challenged by Simon Kirby, the Tory MP for Brighton Kempton, to explain what he would say to a same-sex couple wanting a church union, he said that the Church is welcoming to homosexuals and permits its clergy to enter civil partnerships.

However, he stressed that it would not countenance weakening its teaching on marriage and said that it would not be dictated to by the Government.

But Mr Kirby said that the Dr Williams’s comments threaten to alienate homosexual churchgoers and would give rise to accusations that the Church out of touch with society.

“I hoped he might be more measured in his response and reflect on the cases for both sides of the argument more evenly, but he was very one sided,” he said.

“Public opinion is moving faster than the Church on this issue and it is increasingly in danger of getting left behind.

“Obviously it is a difficult issue for the Church, but it has many gay men and women who want to be treated the same way as everyone else.”

Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister, announced earlier this month that the Government would look to “address the differences between civil marriages and civil partnerships”.

A consultation on marriage laws will begin in April which is likely to lead to civil partnership ceremonies being held in religious buildings and could ultimately result in homosexuals having full marriage rights.

Under the proposals being considered, faith groups would be given the chance to “opt in” to the reform, but would not be forced to host the ceremonies.

Although Dr Williams told MPs that the Church of England would not host same-sex unions, other senior clergy, including Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, and the Dr Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, have said this would represent discrimination.

Giles Fraser, canon chancellor at St Paul’s cathedral, criticised the Church for failing to embrace the steps to greater equality for homosexual couples.

“Gay relationships are perfectly capable of reflecting the love of God,” he said.

“Which is why the church should respond more imaginatively to the idea of same-sex blessings being celebrated in church.”

Dr Williams’s comments echo the line taken by Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, who said clergy should not be forced to conduct same-sex civil partnerships.

A Lambeth Palace spokesman said: “The Church still believes on the basis of Bible and tradition that marriage is between a man and a woman and does not accept that this needs to change.

“Civil partnerships now provide legal securities for same-sex couples, but this does not, in itself, alter what we believe to be unique about marriage.

“The Church of England is opposed to all forms of homophobia and would want to defend the civil liberties of homosexual people, and to welcome them into our churches.”

Canon Glyn Webster, a senior member of the General Synod, said he supported the archbishop’s comments.

“It’s only possible for marriage to be between a man and a woman,” he said.

“I’m not saying there can’t be loving relationships between people of the same-sex, but that doesn’t equate to marriage.

“I want the Church to keep to the policy of refusing to hold blessing services for same-sex couples.”


“I’m not saying there can’t be loving relationships between people of the same-sex, but that doesn’t equate to marriage.

“I want the Church to keep to the policy of refusing to hold blessing services for same-sex couples.”  – Canon Glyn Webster –  –

It seems to me that Canon Webster is here drawing the line between what he sees as a legitimate move towards the acceptance of committed, monogamous, same-sex relationships; but stops short of calling such relationships by the term ‘Marriage’.

When assessing the Archbishop’s response to the UK Government’s move to allow religious bodies to celebrate civil partnerships within their premises and to use their liturgies for the purpose; one needs to accept the fact that, at this present time, there is tremendous pressure upon the ABC to affirm the ‘traditional’ position of marriage – as exclusive to the relationship between a man and a woman. With so many heterosexual couples nowadays unwilling to get married – in the belief that their de facto relationship is all they need to co-exist as a couple and to procreate, it might seem that the Church is protecting a failing tradition, seeking to preserve it’s religious understanding of marriage over and against a burgeoning secular society. This could be counter-productive to mission in the future.

While I accept that the Head of our Anglican Church needs to be seen to withstand society’s seeming pressure to equate both heterosexual and homosexual committed relationships as the norm; I regret that, in doing so, the Archbishop has found it necessary to push the current view of the Church with such vehemence.

It may well be thought that one can never replace the idea of what is known as heterosexual marriage – with it’s understanding of openness to the possibility of procreation resulting from that union. However, with marriage being extended to include people who cannot procreate (eg senior citizens and physically-diasabled people) there is a viable argument that LGBT citizens might form a similar category of ‘married’ persons, capable of a lifelong, faithful and monogamous relationship. The question might be asked: “Is the sexual component of a marriage more important than the prospect of loving and caring for one another in a life-long, committed, monogamous partnership ?”

What saddens me, is that the Archbishop seems to be saying that such relationships – even within the community of the Church – cannot even receive the ‘Blessing’ of the Church; which seems to beg the question of how he can see such relationships as viable, while at the same time denying them the Church’s Blessing.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch 

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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