By Sarah Mac Donald - 19 July, 2013
Archbishops Nichols and Smith warn legislation is “a watershed” which heralds "profound social change.”
The Bishops of England and Wales have expressed their disappointment at the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Britain.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, who is President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, along with Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark who is vice-president, described it was “a watershed” which heralded “profound social change.”
They warned that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act “breaks the existing legal links between the institution of marriage and sexual complementarity.”
Explaining the Bishops’ opposition to the new Act, they said in their statement, “With this new legislation, marriage has now become an institution in which openness to children, and with it the responsibility on fathers and mothers to remain together to care for children born into their family unit, are no longer central. That is why we were opposed to this legislation on principle.”
They underlined that marriage historically has been publicly recognised as a stable institution which establishes a legal framework for the committed relationship between a man and a woman and for the upbringing and care of their children. “It has, for this reason, rightly been recognised as unique and worthy of legal protection,” the Bishops said.
Referring to the deficiencies in the process by which the legislation came to Parliament, they said the Bishops had expressed real concern about this as well as the speed with which it has been rushed through.
They paid tribute to parliamentarians who sought to improve the Bill with protection for religious freedom.
“A particular concern for us has also been the lack of effective protection for Churches which decide not to opt-in to conducting same sex marriages. Amendments made in the House of Lords though have significantly strengthened the legal protections in the Act for the Churches.”
They also welcomed the British Government’s amendment to the Public Order Act which makes it clear that “discussion or criticism of marriage which concerns the sex of the parties to the marriage shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred”.
Individuals are therefore protected from criminal sanction under the Public Order Act when discussing or expressing disagreement with same sex marriage.
However, other amendments which the Church suggested were not accepted. “We were concerned to provide legislative clarity for schools with a religious character. This was in order to ensure that these schools will be able to continue to teach in accordance with their religious tenets.”
They noted that an amendment to provide clarity on the potential risk that future guidance given by a Secretary of State for education regarding sex and relationships education could now conflict with Church teaching on marriage was not accepted.
“The Minister made clear in the House of Lords, however, that in ‘having regard’ to such guidance now or in the future schools with a religious character can ‘take into account other matters, including in particular relevant religious tenets’, and that ‘having regard to a provision does not mean that it must be followed assiduously should there be good reason for not doing so’.
These assurances, Archbishops Nichols and Smith said, “Go some way to meeting the concerns we and others expressed.”
“We were disappointed that a number of other amendments to safeguard freedom of speech and the rights of civil registrars to conscientious objection were not passed. But Ministerial assurances have been made that no one can suffer detriment or unfavourable treatment in employment because she or he holds the belief that marriage can only be between a man and a woman,” they said.
“The legal and political traditions of this country are founded on a firm conviction concerning the rights of people to hold and express their beliefs and views, at the same time as respecting those who differ from them.”
They concluded that it is important, at this moment in which deeply held and irreconcilable views of marriage have been contested, “to affirm and strengthen this tradition.”
By Sarah Mac Donald