This week saw the Second Reading debate of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill. It ended with a majority of 225 for the Bill but with 58% of Conservative MPs voting against or abstaining.
The Bill now goes into Committee for detailed scrutiny and critics will seek to amend it. Barring dramatic developments the Bill is likely to move to the Lords before the Easter recess but could face a tougher time there.
The voting lists show many of the Christian MPs in all the parties voted against the Bill or abstained but others voted for it because at least some of them believed that was consistent with Jesus teaching about love and the way he reached out to outcastes. Bible scholars will remind them that those outcastes were called to change their lifestyles like Zacchaeus. Christian opponents looked to the consistently negative tone in which homosexuality is addressed in Scripture but scholars will remind them to interpret specific verses in the literary and cultural contexts of the whole Bible. The truth surely has to take account of both perspectives.
Government Ministers believe that the Bill is necessary to remove discrimination and treat same-sex couples equally with heterosexual couples. Some discrimination and inequality is inevitable. We don’t allow polygamy even though it is allowed in other countries. The Prime Minister enthusiastically promotes the virtues of marriage and the stability it brings to relationships and society. The average length of a cohabiting relationship is only 37 months, compared with 11.5 years for the average marriage. Underlying increasing divorce rates is a social revolution in which individualism and relativism have eroded the former moral consensus. This Bill will not restore that consensus.
The Bill includes measures to protect the rights of churches and individual Ministers to not conduct same-sex weddings if doing so would conflict with their religious beliefs. Even stronger is the clause that makes it illegal for the Church of England and the Church in Wales to conduct these services and any change would necessitate primary legislation and changes to Anglican Canon Law. These provisions are welcomed by all the political parties but sooner or later a same-sex couple will try to overturn them. Some lawyers think that is not out of the question and quote the Schalk v Austria case before the European Court of Human Rights as a precedent. Government lawyers reject this on the grounds that Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights makes marriage a matter “according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right” (to marry and found a family).
Whatever the outcome of this Bill and subsequent legal battles, how will this debate affect the churches’ outreach to same-sex couples? MPs on both sides of the debate reported abusive correspondence from constituents, including some from people professing to be Christians. Strong feelings are understandable but ungracious rudeness is unchristian, politically ineffective and drives same-sex couples away from the good news that God still loves them.