Reflections on Parliament’s debate on Same-sex Marriage

ParliamentA week on from the UK Parliament’s debate on same-sex marriage, it is worth reflecting on some of the content of the debate.

The free vote at the end of the debate overwhelmingly approved the Bill proceeding to the next stage by 400 to 175, but the debate will continue both in parliament and in our churches.

In the debate, there were clearly articulated arguments on both sides and in this longer blog post we highlight sections from some of those contributions.  The links attached to each speaker’s name will take you to the speech in full as found in the official record of parliament.

We start with the speech from the Church of England’s official spokesperson in the House of Commons, Tony Baldry.  He outlined why both he and the Church of England opposed same-sex marriage:

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): I am confident that we are all created in the image of God, whether we be straight, gay, bisexual, or transsexual. We are all equally worthy in God’s sight and equally loved by God. I am also sure that we are and should be equally welcome at God’s table. But equalness does not always equate with being the same.

For centuries, civilisations have recognised the value and importance to society of having an enduring and exclusive union between one man and one woman, not least for the raising and nurturing of children. That relationship is called marriage. The uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the distinctiveness of men and women, so removing that complementarity from the definition of marriage is to lose any social institution where sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.

Others also took up this theme in opposing the introduction of same-sex marriage because it would ‘water down’ the institution of marriage:

Stephen Timms: Legal equality was delivered, quite rightly, by the introduction of civil partnerships, and if there are weaknesses in those arrangements, they should be put right. In particular, I see no problem with same-sex unions being celebrated in places of worship where congregations want to do so. A same-sex couple can have the same wish to affirm and to have affirmed a lifelong exclusive commitment as a man and a woman getting married, and we should value that and be willing to recognise and celebrate it.

This Bill, however, affirms not that same-sex unions are equal with marriages, but rather that they are the same as marriages, when in reality they are not: they are different. I think we will be poorer if we adopt a watered-down definition of marriage based on two aims from the Church of England’s list instead of all three.

But there were clear arguments expressed in support of the Bill.  Emma Reynolds took up the theme of equality, and took examples from Europe to argue that marriage had not been weakened as a result of adopting same-sex marriage.

Emma Reynolds   I hope that one day, we will live in a truly equal society in which there is little or no discrimination. I do not believe that that is a utopian dream. I believe that it is a possibility, but we have a very long way to go. The introduction of equal marriage and the Bill before us are an indispensable step in the journey towards that equal society.

There seem to be two key arguments against equal marriage, which I want to tackle head-on. The first is that it will somehow weaken the institution of marriage. That argument is simply illogical. On the contrary, I think that allowing more couples to enter into marriage will strengthen the institution of marriage, not weaken it. There are many countries in Europe and around the world, as well as many states in the United States, that have introduced gay marriage and it has not weakened or undermined marriage in those countries—quite the contrary.

The second argument is that equal marriage would threaten freedom of religion. Again, I refute that argument. I wholeheartedly support the freedom of religion, but the Bill contains guarantees that neither a religious institution or organisation nor a minister of religion will be forced by the law to marry same-sex couples.

Many European countries that are members of the Council of Europe have already introduced same-sex marriage, some—in the case of the Netherlands—as early as 2001. It has also been introduced more recently in Denmark, Sweden and elsewhere. Those countries have managed to introduce same-sex marriage while at the same time protecting religious freedom. As has been stated, no successful case has been brought before the European Court of Human Rights.

And there were a number of MP’s brought a specifically Christian perspective into their support for same-sex marriage:

Jonathan Reynolds: Having listened carefully to the representations I have received from constituents on both sides of the debate, I will vote for equal marriage today. I will do so because I am a Christian, not in spite of it. I believe marriage is important, and I believe it should be taken seriously—certainly more seriously than how it is presented in modern celebrity culture. I also think there are things that undermine marriage and strong relationships—the lack of family-friendly working hours and prohibitive child care costs are among them—but I genuinely cannot see how my support for equal marriage undermines my own marriage, the marriage of anyone else, or marriage as an institution. If anything, I believe it strengthens it.

Ben Bradshaw spoke as both a member of the Anglican Church and a member of the Ecclesaistical Committee, but was highly critical of the leadership of both the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church:

Mr Ben Bradshaw: There are many Anglicans and Roman Catholics who wish that their Churches were as open and welcoming as those that support the Bill entirely. In fact, all the opinion polls show that a majority not just of the public, but of Anglicans and Roman Catholics in this country support equal marriage. However, in their wisdom, the leaderships of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are not yet prepared to take such a step. That is their prerogative. It is perfectly possible to make the argument that, as a particular religion understands it, marriage can only be between a man and a woman. However the Churches’ credibility in arguing that would be a lot greater if they welcomed and celebrated civil partnerships. The fact that they do not do so leads me to conclude only that their objection to the Bill is not about the institution of marriage or even the word, but about a residual prejudice against same-sex relationships.

Others like Simon Hughes (who identifies himself as an evangelical) said that he would vote for the Bill but wanted more time for the process because of the enormity of the issues involved:

Simon Hughes:  I come to this debate as the person I am, with the complexities I have as an evangelical Protestant by faith and a Liberal since my teens. So these are not easy issues for me, and they are not easy for many people here…

I supported civil partnerships. I think the Church was wrong to oppose them at the time, and I hope that it and other faith groups now understand that they would do themselves a service if they allowed services of blessing for people in civil partnerships…

On Saturday night, I watched the new film, “Lincoln”. Of course, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, there are no exact parallels between the battle over slavery and this, but there is a lesson: people then took different sides of an intense argument, even though they came from the same faith or other backgrounds, but things move on and we have to learn that understanding each other’s positions and seeking the maximum consensus is the best way to proceed. I hope that is how we will continue.

But perhaps the most impassioned speech in support of same-sex marriage came from David Lammy, who has been a member of the Archbishop’s Council in the CofE and openly professes his Christian faith.  We end with this longer except and exchange with a fellow MP, Stephen Pound:

Mr David Lammy:  “I have received many letters from people for whoDavid Lammy MP 2m this is all coming too soon. They say that the speed of change for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights is happening too abruptly for them to comprehend and that the country they live in, the traditions they live by and the people they live next to are transforming in ways that make them feel uncomfortable, upset and undermined. They are not homophobic or racist, they claim, but they say, “Not now, later”.

To some extent, I sympathise. As much as I would want Britain always to be the beating heart of radical and progressive change, it is not. At root, it has always had a small c conservative spine running through it—an instinct that change should always be organic, a need for change to be owned by the people, not imposed from up high. That instinct must be respected, and I will be respecting it when I vote for the Bill, because it commands the support of the country, because it respects religious freedom and tradition by permitting, rather than mandating, religious organisations to conduct the ceremonies, and because it is the end of an organic journey from criminalisation to equality for the gay community that began over half a century a go. This change is right and necessary and the time is now.

There are still those who say it is unnecessary. “Why do we need gay marriage”, they say, “when we already have civil partnerships?” They are, they claim, “Separate but equal.” Let me speak frankly: separate but equal is a fraud. It is the language that tried to push Rosa Parks to the back of the bus. It is the motif that determined that black and white people could not possibly drink from the same water fountain, eat at the same table or use the same toilets. They are the words that justified sending black children to different schools from their white peers—schools that would fail them and condemn them to a life of poverty. It is an excerpt from the phrasebook of the segregationists and racists. It is the same statement, idea and delusion that we borrowed in this country to say that women could vote, but only if they were married and only when they were over 30. It is the same naivety that led to my dad being granted citizenship when he arrived here in 1956, but being refused by landlords who proclaimed, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”.

The phrase entrenched who we were, who our friends could be and what our lives could become. It is not separate but equal, but separate and discriminated against, separate and oppressed, separate and browbeaten, separate and subjugated. Separate is not equal, so let us be rid of it. As long as there is one rule for us and another for them, we allow the barriers of acceptance to go unchallenged. As long as our statute book suggests that love between two men or two women is unworthy of recognition through marriage, we allow the rot of homophobia to fester and we entrench a society where 20,000 homophobic crimes take place each year and where 800,000 people have witnessed homophobic bullying at work in the past five years.

I am a Christian. I go to mass. I recognise how important this is.

Stephen Pound: It is a privilege to be listening to my right hon. Friend’s extraordinary and impassioned peroration. Does he agree, however, that there are Christians who look for love in every aspect of their lives and the lives of those

around them who still feel profound misgivings and concerns about this piece of legislation?

Mr Lammy: I totally accept the manner in which my hon. Friend has put his remarks, and it saddens me that I have received many letters in my postbag condemning this legislation from people who share the same values and Christian ideals that I do, and who worship on a Sunday morning. I know them to be caring, loving and understanding people, and I know they resent the fact that those on the extremes of our faith have poisoned what is an important debate with references to polygamy and bestiality.

Therefore, let us use today to return to a discussion of what marriage ought to be about. When I married my wife, I understood our marriage to have two important dimensions: the expression of love, fidelity and mutuality over the course of our life together; and a commitment to raise children. Gay men and women can now raise children—this House made that decision—so let us not hear any further discussion about having a family as if gay men and women cannot have that.

The Jesus I know was born a refugee, illegitimate, with a death warrant on his name, and in a barn among animals. He would stand up for minorities. That is why it is right for those of religious conviction to vote for this Bill.

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  1. Thank you for posting this – it is very interesting to see what different MPs said on both sides of the argument. I would like to comment as somebody totally supportive of civil partnership, but very far from convinced that gay marriage is right.

    I notice that Emma Reynolds, Jonathan Reynolds and Ben Bradshaw all speak about “equal marriage” without any attempt at all (at least in the sections quoted) to explain how the present situation is one of inequality, and since this equality argument seems to be their major point the lack of explanation is strange, to say the least. I know that 1 + 4 and 2 + 3 are equal, whereas 1 + 4 and 2 + 5 are unequal, and I know why. But these 3 MPs seem to make no attempt to describe or explain this supposed lack of equality.

    On the other hand, David Lammy does seek to describe the inequality that he perceives, and does so by drawing a parallel with past racial injustice in the US and with apartheid. He speaks of “discriminated against…..oppressed…..browbeaten…..subjugated”, which are of course quite fair in describing the past US and South Africa situations, but to use them as a parallel for the situation here regarding civil partnership is utterly extraordinary and quite disturbing. Is he seriously suggesting that this is the inequality produced by the present situation of civil partnership, not marriage, for gay people? Talk about extreme language!

    So I am left totally unconvinced by the unexplained inequality of the first three of these speakers, and repelled by the OTT explanation from David Lammy. (I also note that none of them comment on the new “inequality” that I understand this bill will produce of gay people being able to choose either partnership or marriage, but straight people only having marriage).

    On the other hand, Simon Hughes hits the nail on the head when he says, “I think the Church was wrong to oppose them [civil partnerships] at the time.” If only the Church of England had been able to come to an arrangement for its clergy similar to the one we have for marriage after divorce – offering discretion, so that those clergy who were happy to do a public blessing following civil partnership could do so, while not in any way forcing others who were unwilling, to do so. This might then have opened the way for a real celebration of partnerships, in civil life and in the Church, and might have taken away some of the pressure to rush into a hastily conceived push for gay marriage. As it is, I fear that we shall have something that polarises opinion, (just when it looked as though there was an increasing agreement among many, inside the Church and outside, that civil partnership was an enormously helpful thing). And something that because politicians seem woefully prone to producing hasty measures that then turn out to have all sorts of unforeseen complications will bring considerable difficulties in the future in a number of ways.

  2. thanks for posting this and for the continued work that you do. I’m a deacon in a Baptist Church and my support for gay marriage and gay inclusion has embroiled me in some debate there. As with most churches (I guess) there is a whole spectrum of opinion there but some unfortunate comments have been made from the pulpit and this has upset several people, I just hope we can get past this.

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