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Beyond the Nuclear: State and Church – An irreconcilable breakdown

Date:17 JUL 2012

Duncan RantonThe relationship had pretty inauspicious beginnings. It really was only ever a matter of time before the parties concluded their marriage had had its day. There was never any pretence that it was a love match: it was always a match of convenience. It once furthered the agendas of both participants. But now that that convenience has had its day, what benefit is there from permitting this unfulfilling relationship to limp on? 

The Church of England published its official response to the Government Consultation on marriage equality last month. That response sought to capitalise on the Church's status within the constitutional structure. The proposal to allow marriage equality by 2015 would, it prophesied, "alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history". It said marriage acknowledged "an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation".

The warnings continued:  the introduction of marriage equality might shake to its very foundations the role of the Church of England as the established Church. A redefinition of marriage, it said, to accommodate equality "would have implications for the legislative provisions that are concerned with the Church's teaching on marriage".

The response was not so hot on appreciating the irony inherent in the situation: that a Church that owes its existence to accommodating the marital peccadilloes of a Tudor king should see its feted status come under scrutiny through the question of marriage equality. Henry VIII separated the English Church from Rome because he wished an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Papal approval for this course of action was not forthcoming. Henry (whilst theologically opposed to Protestantism) therefore took the role of Supreme Head of Church of England, obtained his annulment, and was excommunicated for his sins.

Likewise, the Church laments in its response the Government's lack of consultation, describing it as "unsatisfactory" in a number of respects, but primarily because it prejudges the outcome. Pot, meet kettle: the Church's response has been widely criticised from within for the self-same lack of consultation about which it complains. There was no discussion in the General Synod, or in the dioceses. LGBT members were excluded from those discussions that did occur. A number of high-ranking Anglicans had already made known their support for marriage equality prior to the publication of the response:  these include the Archbishop of Wales, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Bishop of Buckingham and the Dean of St Albans. But these opinions are not reflected, or even referred to, in the Church's document.

The day before the Church's response, a YouGov poll conducted for Stonewall showed that 71% of those surveyed supported the Government's commitment to marriage equality. Support was greater amongst younger respondents:  84% of those aged 18 to 29 favoured marriage equality, and 82% of those aged 30 to 50. From the religious perspective, 58% of respondents who identified themselves as "people of faith" supported the reform and 71% of people supported permitting religious organisations to celebrate same-sex marriages if they chose to. The survey consisted of 21,074 adults from across England, Scotland and Wales during the latter part of 2011. The full results are available in Stonewall's report, "British attitudes to lesbian, gay and bisexual people in 2012"   

The faith-focussed responses are of particular interest. Of course, not all respondents will have been from the Church of England flock. However, even if only representative as a proportion of the overall population, that 3 in 5 religious adherents supported marriage equality ought to make the Church sit up and take notice. The statistic also gives rise to some interesting questions about the response. If the laity and significant numbers of the clergy support marriage equality, and if their views were omitted from the Church of England's response, can that document really pretend to represent the views of the faithful? 

For my part, I don't buy the dark mutterings about marriage equality leading to disestablishment. Nothing, most importantly history, suggests the Church will have any difficulty in adapting to this latest in a long series of alterations to the specifics of marriage. For example, the Church of England spent much of the Nineteenth Century orchestrating opposition to the "outrageous" suggestion that if a man's wife died, he should be permitted to marry her sister - the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act was passed only in 1907. Somehow, civilisation muddled on and the Church accommodated the change.

It will do so here, also. The Church has too much to lose, in terms of political power and influence, by following through with the veiled threat that marriage equality will see it and the State going their separate ways. Scaremongering comes to mind.

And what if the worst came to pass, and the Church of England was disestablished? Would that be such a dreadful outcome? Is there really any justification nowadays, in a mature and secular society, for allowing one particular religious denomination (and a particular flavour of Christianity at that) such a privileged role in matters of State? It now appears as if reform of the House of Lords will have to wait for a braver and more progressive Government than the current one, but what legitimate rationale can be advanced for the 26 unelected Lords Spiritual in the Upper House? To my mind, their continuing guarantee of seats due to an accident of history is an affront to equality: their presence demonstrates preferential treatment of Anglicans over other faith adherents, of theists over non-believers and of men over women.   

It began with a marriage: wouldn't it be poetic if a different marriage issue, the journey towards marriage equality, marked the end of the relationship between Church and State?

Duncan Ranton is a Senior Associate at Russell Jones & Walker (part of Slater & Gordon Lawyers), part of the specialist childcare team based in the London office. 

He works exclusively in the field of family law, and with a particular emphasis on cases involving children. His expertise ranges from domestic cases involving disputes as to residence, contact and/or the attribution and exercise of parental responsibility all the way through to transnational cases that have raise extremely complex issues of private international law. 

Duncan is dual qualified in Australia, and is a member of Resolution's International Committee.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.