The Archbishop of York claims the bishops in the House of Lords supported civil partnerships – but their voting and speaking record tells a different story. On Monday at Queering the Church, I was critical of John Sentamu‘s history of homophobia and his recent statement trying to justify opposing equal marriage. Now the Oxford University politics professor, Iain McLean, demolishes the Archbishop’s claim in that statement that the Church of England Bishops supported civil partnerships. He proposes two practical penances for him to make up for his fibs.
John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, recently published a long statement explaining his opposition to same-sex marriage. In it he referenced an interview he gave to the Daily Telegraph in January which claimed:
“We [the bishops in the House of Lords] supported civil partnerships, because we believe that friendships are good for everybody.”
Like other religious opponents of same-sex marriage, he goes on to argue that civil partnership is “in every respect in ethical terms an honourable contract of a committed relationship”. Same-sex couples, he therefore says, should not press for marriage.
False claim that bishops ‘supported’ civil partnerships
But his factual claim is false.
The main Lords debate on the civil partnership bill took place in June 2004. Richard Harries, then bishop of Oxford, did indeed signal Church of England support for civil partnerships. But his efforts were contradicted by the five conservative bishops who spoke on the other side. Going by the bishops’ contributions to debate, the score is 5/3 against. Going by the bishops’ votes, it is 6/1 against. Six bishops voted for a successful wrecking amendment in the name of Lady O’Cathain, which made the bill unworkable. Only the Commons’ insistence on rejecting the O’Cathain amendment made it possible to enact civil partnerships.
Archbishop an unrepentant sinner?
There is joy in heaven when a sinner repents, so they say. But the archbishop seems quite unrepentant. He might have graciously said: “We were wrong about civil partnerships. Now we see the error of our ways and would like to celebrate the honourable estate of civil partnership”. Rather, he makes a claim that is not only false, but whose falsehood is quite easily checked in Hansard.
Bishops’ history of opposing equal rights and religious freedom
There is a pattern here. Since 2004, several speeches and votes of bishops in the House of Lords have opposed both equal rights and, I am sorry to say, religious freedom. In January 2010, the bishops were pivotal in defeating a proposal in the equality bill that would have defined the class of employment posts for which the religious exemption from anti-discrimination law would apply. The then government lost three divisions on the subject, one of them by only five votes, with eight bishops opposing the government. With a general election looming, the Labour government was unable to reverse that defeat in the Commons.
That vote could be defended on grounds of religious freedom. But then what should we make of the then Bishop of Winchester? Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt (who has a long history of opposing rights for LGBT people in the House of Lords) said in the same debate: “[M]arriage has a character that is distinct from that of a civil partnership. Churches of all sorts really should not reduce or fudge, let alone deny, that distinction.”
Demanding right for Church of England to discriminate but rejecting religious freedom of others
He was attacking a proposal from the Labour peer Lord Alli that would have allowed those religious denominations who so wished to celebrate civil partnerships on their premises. In the same breath as defending the right of the Church of England to discriminate in employment, he wished to deny to Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews any right to celebrate civil partnerships among their own members, in their own premises, according to their own consciences, and using their own liturgies.
The Alli amendment was withdrawn, but when it was presented again in March 2010, it was carried by a large majority of the Lords. The bishop of Bradford’s vote against, cancelled out the bishop of Newcastle’s vote in favour. However, in December 2011 Lady O’Cathain used a rare procedural device to “pray” against the implementation of the amendment, which is now section 202 of the Equality Act 2002. If successful, her ‘prayer’ would have made the section a dead letter, once again forbidding those denominations that were ready and willing to celebrate civil partnerships from doing so. The bishop of Blackburn supported her prayer; the (current) bishop of Oxford opposed it. Her motion was withdrawn.
Best supporter of religious freedom is a former Church of England bishop
The most eloquent supporter of religious freedom in the House has not been a serving bishop, but a retired one, Lord Harries. The former bishop of Oxford now sits in the Lords as a crossbench peer, and has spoken on the side of religious freedom in all the debates mentioned above. As he wrote to the Guardian on 21 May:
“The great flaw in [Sentamu's] argument is that he does not urge the church to bless such partnerships. This would do more than anything to obtain that greater public understanding he says he wants… [I]t is a chance for the Church of England to make amends for the reluctance with which it accepted civil partnerships in the first place.”
Harries is quite right. Sentamu opened his latest Guardian Comment is Free piece by saying that
“the churches have, at times, been complicit in this [viz discrimination against homosexuals]. There is much penance to be done”.
Here’s your penance
I have two modest proposals for the archbishop:
Practical penance No1: I announce that the Church of England will permit those of its vicars who so wish to celebrate civil partnerships in their churches.
Practical penance No2: I promise to desist from incorrect statements about the bishops’ speaking and voting record.