Fittall: gay marriage ‘not on horizon’
Mr Fittall gave evidence to MPs on Tuesday during the Committee Stage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which passed its Second Reading in the House of Commons last week ( News, 8 February). The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, and the deputy legal adviser to the Synod, the Revd Alexander McGregor, also gave evidence.
Mr Fittall told MPs that, apart from one or two people who had expressed personal views on their blogs, he did “not detect a strong debate among our bishops around moving to same-sex marriage”. It would be “possible” for the General Synod to pass legislation enabling clergy to conduct same-sex marriages, “but I have to say my assessment is, it is nowhere on the horizon.”
Asked by an MP whether the Church’s official stance on homosexuality might change in years to come, Bishop James said that a group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling was looking at the Church’s approach to sexuality (News, 6 January 2012). “I think it’s possible, of course, that our understanding of same-sex relationships and how we treat them would change,” he said. But this would not necessarily “lead automatically to the Church approving of same-sex marriage.”
Bishop James acknowledged that there was “no unanimity of view” in the C of E on same-sex marriage, but said that there was “a distinction between the doctrine of the Church of England, and what people who belong to the Church of England think”.
Bishop James said that the C of E did not have any “official view” on whether civil partnerships should be extended to heterosexual couples, but his personal opinion was that it was “a strange anomaly that heterosexual couples cannot register a civil partnership”.
Mr Fittall said that the Church was satisfied with the protections in the Bill provided by the “quadruple lock” ( News, 14 December). Clause 1 of the Bill safeguarded the C of E’s canon law, which stated that marriage was between a man and a woman. This meant that “the Church of England will be able to continue to marry people according to its own doctrine. I think any erosion of that would raise very serious issues indeed.”
Mr Fittall continued: “We value that opportunity to provide that service [of marriage] for people . . . and we want to be able to go on providing that service to people, which is why, for example, any playing around with the locks [during the legislative process] . . . would be unattractive to us.”
Bishop James said that the C of E’s obligation to marry couples should be maintained. “We want to be of service to those who live within our parishes, and I think a very considerable number of people in England look to their parish church as a natural place in which to be married.”
The Conservative MP Tim Loughton asked whether a marriage at which an Anglican cleric officiated on licensed premises would be considered illegal.
Such a scenario did not seem “likely to arise”, Mr McGregor said. “The general principle of ecclesiastical law is that the clergy of the Church of England can only use Church of England rites, Church of England forms of services. There’s a special exception for that in relation to churches with which we have formal ecumenical relations, but, as far as I’m aware, none of the Churches we have formal ecumenical relations with are proposing to opt into same-sex marriage.”
Giving evidence to MPs earlier in the session, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said that if the Bill was passed, there would be “no requirement on any teacher to promote a view or doctrine with which they felt any discomfort”. Teachers would be expected to apply “common sense”, however, and behave in a “reasonable” manner.
Later on in the evidence session, Mr Fittall said: “Not everybody does approach this with reasonableness and common sense. You will get people on both sides of the argument who will want to test [in the courts].
This article from the English ‘Church Times’ – concerning statements made to British MPs, on the subject of the proposed legislation to allow the marriage of same-sex couples, by officials of the Church of England, should not be too surprising to anyone who has followed the recent efforts of the British Government to bring in new legislation that would allow the ceremony of Civil Marriage to be extended to same-sex couples.
Mr. Fittall is the General Secretary of the Church of England General Synod and has his finger on the pulse of General Synod’s mind on the matter. Recent remarks made by other Church officials – for instance, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby – have cast serious doubts on any prospect of the Church of England opting in to any future legislation that would have allowed them to marry same-sex couples on Church of England premises.
What still is not clear is whether, or not, the Church of England might be willing to provide for a form of Blessing for a Same-Sex Civil Partnership, which, hitherto, it has refused to countenance – despite the fact that such a form of service has been authorised elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, in The Episcopal Church in North America.
With the English House of Bishops having recently stated its opinion that there is nothing now to prevent the possibility of a celibate gay person from becoming a bishop in the Church of England, it might seem that the Church is becoming more open to the gay and lesbian membership of the Church taking a greater part in the roles of ministry. Whether this means that there will now be an openness to providing Same-Sex Blessings within the Church of England has yet to be seen. This matter may yet be seen to have a lower priority for General Synod than the prospect of ordaining women as bishops.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand