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Same Sex Marriage Bill - Committee Stage

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, in the House of Lords.

Monday 17th June 2013

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, today spoke in the House of Lords during the Committee Stage of the Same Sex Marriage Bill. His contribution to the debate follows...

"My Lords, I apologise for not being here in your Lordships’ House at Second Reading. I thank noble Lords for their greetings on that occasion, when I was recovering from surgery. I am on the mend, although I am not quite there yet. I want to thank especially the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, for the generous compliments in her speech.

I suggest that this legislation is an exercise in ideological redefinition. The amendments before us today are designed to limit this ideological damage. I will speak to the one amendment that probably does it better than the others. The legislation does not address the concrete disadvantages from which same-sex couples still suffer. It is a matter of deep personal regret and sorrow to me that homosexual people are still diminished, which is anathema to me and to the Primates of the Anglican Communion. In the 2005 Dromantine communiqué, we said that the diminishing of homosexual people is anathema to the Christian faith. However, it still happens, which is a deep regret for me. I want to tell them that I am sorry.


The great difference between this legislation and the reform that introduced civil partnerships is that the latter remedied certain concrete difficulties and disadvantages. What injustice would be remedied by some civil partnerships becoming marriages? That argument of remedying injustices does not seem to carry much weight; the argument lies somewhere else. Ministers of the Crown have argued that the legislation extends to an excluded minority a concrete privilege currently enjoyed by the majority. What is that privilege? The privileges that accompany marriage have already been extended to same-sex couples through civil partnership legislation. However, since marriage has been defined in law and practice as a relationship between a man and woman, marriage, as so defined, cannot in law be extended to same-sex couples.



The draft legislation presupposes an account of marriage that makes the gender of the partners incidentalto the institution. This, to me, is a novelty. It does not correspond to marriage as it has been known in British law and society. This is not an extension of something that already exists but the creation of a new institution, under the aegis of existing marriage law, which is in fact quite different from it. We are somewhat ill prepared midwives at the birth of a new social institution. Why not give it a new name?


The interests served by the legislation before us are, I suggest, ideological and aimed at changing the way people think: hence the amendments before us today are rightly geared towards protecting individual freedoms in the face of a radically new ideology. The church shares, in the best traditions of this House, a passion for justice and a deep concern for the particular needs of minorities. These concerns have been met in the provisions of the civil partnership legislation. However, today, the question turns on two other interests of the church: first, an interest in the truthful description of anything; and, secondly, an interest in defending responsible practices of government against the sophistic abuse of language.


It matters that we recognise this as a new social institution. As a Christian, I would argue that being a man or a woman is not incidental to the human relations a person may engage in, but formative of them. In Christian understanding, the meaning of human sexual difference is in the good gift of God in creation. The maleness and femaleness of the human race are given to us. It is where we are placed, in common with the whole human race in every generation. Our role is to be thankful for it and to understand how it helps us to live the human lives that we are given. This task of appreciating our sexual difference weighs equally on married and unmarried, on gay and straight, and on children and adults—on all who have the gift of being human. Christians, in common with Jews and Muslims, understand marriage as essentially representative of this good gift of sexual difference. This understanding flows from an undivided and unbroken tradition that has sought to define the unity of the human race, uniting nations, religions, cultural traditions and periods of history.


In describing marriage as bound up constitutively and generatively with male-female relations, we describe a good form of life for which we can be unreservedly thankful. As with any aspect of creation, our interpretation of marriage is not final. Reality is deeper than its interpretation; there is always more to be learnt. Our thinking may be shaped by artists, working in whatever form, who represent to us some fragment of reality to be recognised. It will be shaped also by scientists, who model complex interactions and observations in formulae that render them intelligible. It may also be shaped by theologians, teaching us to thematise that which artists and scientists have shown within the larger picture of the goodness of God.


The unamended legislation uses the term “marriage” to describe a new entity. For me this entity is worthy in itself, but it is not equivalent to marriage as hitherto described. I have argued that this is not an area for state intervention. The work of government does not lie in teaching us how to interpret and think about reality. Yet we are here. The trouble with thisundifferentiated use of the term “marriage” is that it will create confusion on the one hand, and erode freedom of conscience on the other. The amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, seeks to remedy this. It calls both same-sex marriage and opposite-sex marriage “marriage”.


In contrast, the legislation to create civil partnerships was, for me, a proper exercise in formal terms of the authority of government. That legislation was precise in its use of language. It recognised the intrinsic difference between the loving, life-long commitment of same-sex couples and the loving, life-long commitment of male and female couples in marriage. I respectfully submit that those who sought to extend the scope of civil partnerships beyond same-sex couples would have made the legislation lack legal clarity. Its intention would have been blurred, if not thwarted. Those who resisted the extension of civil partnerships beyond same-sex couples were right, because it would have blurred the entire conversation and the entire discussion.


Without some clearer classification, as suggested in the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, we introduce a degree of ambiguity that is not common in law. This cannot help anyone, because Clause 11 still refers to “opposite sex”. We must be very careful about how we arrive at an answer. Responsible government is government under law. A responsible Government must prevent, as far as they can, the judgment that the law is an ass. I believe that fracturing the law of marriage into two alternative concepts of marriage inevitably inflicts damage of very serious proportions on English law, weakening the authority of the law as a whole. This damage can be lessened by the very honest amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. This amendment seeks clarity and makes an important distinction. If it is accepted, as I sincerely hope it will be, it will go some way towards preserving the integrity of the law. I support the amendment, and I hope the House will have the same view."

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