This week marked the culmination of the largest Government consultation this country has ever seen. More than 220,000 people and organisations made their views known to us on same-sex marriage, alongside many people who signed petitions, met with me and my officials and made their views known in newspapers and online.
Opening up marriage to everyone is something I feel strongly about. And judging from the response to the announcement, it’s something that a lot of people feel strongly about.
And while the headline change is relatively simple to understand, there are a lot of misconceptions and half-truths swirling around. No, we are not removing the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. Neither will any religious organisation or minister be forced to carry out same-sex marriage against their will. In fact, we’ve put a ‘quadruple lock’ into our proposals that will provide an ironclad protection to those religious organisations and ministers that do not choose to marry same-sex couples.
Are we ‘banning’ the Church of England from holding same-sex weddings? No, of course not – they can opt in too.
You might have been puzzled by headlines like ‘Gay weddings to be banned in Church’, or seen campaigners on the news explaining their disappointment that the Government is ‘not allowing’ the Church of England to marry same-sex couples.
Well, that’s not true.
Religious freedom is as vital a principle as equality. It would be utterly wrong for the State to seek to dictate to religious organisations whether they should marry same-sex couples or not.
So, under the proposals we have brought forward, every religious organisation would have the right to opt in if they choose to. However because the Church of England is a special case, the way it would opt in is different.
The Church of England’s unique situation
The Church of England, as the established church, is a special case. It has a duty in law to marry any person in their local parish church, regardless of their religious affiliation. (The Church in Wales, while it is not an established church, has the same legal duty to marry parishioners.)
In addition, the Church of England’s Canon law – made by its own governing body, the Synod, and approved by Parliament – sets out that marriage is between a man and a woman. Canon law is part of the law of the land.
So, we have to provide a specific legal protection for the Church of England, to ensure that its ‘duty to marry’ applies only to opposite-sex couples. If we didn’t do this the Church could have been vulnerable to legal challenge, something I have been clear I will not accept.
And because of the particular legal status of the Church of England’s Canon law, we must also ensure that Canon law is not in direct conflict with statute.
So, the Church of England could opt in, should their position change? Yes, absolutely.
Some Anglican priests may be disappointed that they will not be able to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies. But let me be clear: this is simply not a matter for Ministers or the State to get involved in. Religious freedom means that each religious organisation must choose its own path in this matter.
Should the Church of England’s position on marriage ever change, it is in a unique position among British religious organisations. As the established church, it is able of its own accord (under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919) to bring legislation before Parliament for its agreement. Put simply, should the Church of England decide to carry out same-sex marriage in the future, it can itself amend legislation to effect this with the approval of Parliament.
As the Church said earlier this week, “it would not require separate, additional legislation on the part of Parliament to enact any change to the Church’s practice on marriage. Talk of additional ‘barriers to opt-in’ for the Church of England following the Secretary of State’s announcement is therefore misplaced.”
So, we are not precluding the possibility that the Church may want to ‘opt in’ to same-sex marriage at some point in the future: that is for the them to decide. But for the moment, we are providing strong protections to maintain the Church of England’s current position.
We discussed our plans with the Church of England
Some have suggested that the Church of England didn’t know in advance about the legal protections we were proposing. This is simply not correct. We sat down and had detailed, private discussions with them prior to my statement in Parliament. But of course, the rules of the House of Commons mean that the detail of legislative proposals is presented to Parliament before anyone else. We will continue to discuss our plans with them going forward, and those meetings have already started.
The principle of equality
I appreciate that this isn’t the simplest of stuff to explain. But, while the legal treatment of the Church of England (and the Church in Wales) might be slightly different, the principle remains very much the same. Religious organisations should have the freedom to decide, within their own decision-making structures, whether they want to marry same-sex couples or not. They all have the option to opt-in. And that is what our proposals guarantee.