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Sir Tony Baldry speaks in debate on same-sex marriage

5 February 2013

Mr Speaker: Order. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, who has designated responsibilities in the House, will be subject to a 10-minute limit. Thereafter, a four-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches will apply.

1.43 pm

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.

The Government clearly well appreciate the value of marriage. Indeed, one of the points about the legislation before the House today is that the Bill makes no provision for heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships. Clearly, policy makers considered that allowing heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships would undermine the institution of marriage. So what this legislation will do is to end the concept of marriage as it has been understood by society in general and by almost all faith groups in particular for recorded time.

Each of us will have to decide how we vote on this matter, according to our consciences and on a free vote. I shall vote against the Bill. From the outset, Ministers have made it clear that they intend that the legislation will give protection and ensure that Churches that do not wish to perform same-sex marriages are not forced to do so. That is consistent with the legislation relating to civil partnerships, where it is for faith groups as a whole to decide to opt into the legislation to allow civil partnerships to be registered on their premises.

It may be helpful to the House if I, in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner, make clear to the House the views of the Church of England on the provisions that the Government have included to safeguard religious freedoms. Let me make it clear that I entirely accept the Government’s good faith in this matter and am appreciative, as is the Bishop of Leicester, who convenes the Bishops in the other place, and as are senior Church officials, of the attempts the Government have made. The Government rightly wish to ensure that every Church and denomination can reach its own conclusion on these matters and be shielded so far as possible from the risk of litigation.

The so-called quadruple locks are sensible and necessary. It was unfortunate a couple of months ago when the Government were talking in terms of “banning” the Church of England and the Church in Wales from doing anything, because that was a completely misleading account, and I am pleased to see that nothing of that kind now features in the Bill or in the Minister’s explanation. The simple point is that the Church of England and the Church in Wales have not wanted anything different in substance from all other Churches and faiths—namely, to be left entirely free to determine their own doctrine and practice in relation to marriage.

Achieving that is slightly more complex in relation to the Church in Wales because, at disestablishment, it retained the common law duty to marry all parishioners. It is even more complicated in relation to the Church of England because as well as the common law duty, its canon law remains part of the law of the land and it also has its own devolved legislature which, with Parliament’s agreement, can amend Church legislation and Westminster legislation. So I am grateful to the Government for trying to get these matters right. By and large, I think they have done so.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Tony Baldry: I shall not give way because I am conscious that a large number of colleagues wish to speak in the debate and I do not wish to be selfish.

I should be grateful, however, if my right hon. Friend the Minister could confirm that clause 11(5) might still benefit from some further attention, given the need to avoid her having to act as the arbiter in relation to particular areas of the ecclesiastical common law. This is an area where time ran out in the discussions, and I hope that the Government will be open to some further drafting changes if they can be agreed during the passage of the Bill.

Before I leave the question of the locks, let me be clear that we think that the Government have done their best in these, given their intention to introduce same-sex marriage. But, as many other commentators have made clear, there is an inevitable degree of risk in all this, given that it would ultimately be for the courts, and in particular the Strasbourg court, to decide whether provisions in the legislation are compatible with the European convention on human rights. There is absolutely no doubt that once marriage is redefined in this very fundamental way, a number of new legal questions will arise and no one can be sure what the eventual outcome will be. The Government believe that this is a risk worth taking. The Church of England does not. As I understand it, the Roman Catholic Church does not, and nor do a number of other faith groups, including the Muslim faith.

The Bill has raised a number of extremely difficult second-order issues. Although the failure to consummate a marriage will still be a ground on which a heterosexual marriage can be voidable, the Bill provides that consummation is not to be a ground on which a marriage of a same-sex couple will be voidable. It also provides that adultery is to have its existing definition—namely, sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite sex. It therefore follows that divorce law for heterosexual couples will be fundamentally different from divorce law for same-sex couples, because for heterosexual couples the matrimonial offence of adultery will persist while there will be no similar matrimonial offence in relation to same-sex marriage. The fact that officials have been unable to apply these long-standing concepts to same-sex marriage is a further demonstration of just how problematic is the concept of same-sex marriage. Clearly, every right hon. and hon. Member will have to come to an individual judgment on these issues, in accordance with our own consciences, and the House will accordingly come to a collective judgment.

On the specific protections that the Government are seeking to give to Churches that do not wish to perform same-sex marriages, I believe that they are being done in the best of faith and as robustly as the Government feel able, but I simply reiterate that there is no way in which any of us can know just how robust these protections will be until they are tested in the courts. Notwithstanding the genuine efforts that the Government have made to protect Churches that do not wish to celebrate same-sex marriages, the Church of England cannot support the proposal to enable all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony. Such a move will alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman as enshrined in human institutions throughout history. Moreover, changing the nature of marriage for everyone will deliver no obvious legal gains given the rights already conferred by civil partnerships.