Gay marriage opponents like supporters of apartheid, says senior bishop
A senior Anglican bishop has likened opponents of gay marriage to Christians who used the Bible to justify slavery and apartheid.
The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Rev Nicholas Holtam, suggested Christians should “rethink” their interpretation of Scripture in light of changing attitudes towards homosexuality in society.
In a strongly worded intervention as members of the House of Lords prepare to debate the Government’s draft legislation introducing gay marriage, Bishop Holtam told peers that allowing gay couples to wed would be a “very strong endorsement” of the institution of marriage.
Bishop Holtam previously opposed gay marriage, but is now the only diocesan bishop in the country to publicly favour the proposed new law.
In a letter sent to Lord Alli, a gay Muslim peer, and published in The Daily Telegraph, Bishop Holtam distanced himself from the Church of England’s official opposition to same-sex marriage, saying: “Christian morality comes from the mix of Bible, Christian tradition and our reasoned experience.
“Sometimes Christians have had to rethink the priorities of the Gospel in the light of experience.
“For example, before Wilberforce, Christians saw slavery as Biblical and part of the God-given ordering of creation. Similarly in South Africa the Dutch Reformed Church supported Apartheid because it was Biblical and part of the God-given order of creation. No one now supports either slavery or apartheid. The Biblical texts have not changed; our interpretation has.”
Bishop Holtam’s intervention comes as peers from all main political parties prepare to mount a last-ditch attempt to block the draft legislation, which has been championed by David Cameron.
Among peers set to criticise the Bill on Monday are the former head of the British army Lord Dannatt and Lord Lothian, or Michael Ancram, a former Conservative Party chairman.
Lord Dear, the retired chief constable of West Midlands Police and crossbench peer leading opposition to the Bill, has described the Bill as “ill-thought through”, saying its critics were not “anti-homosexual”. Earlier this week he said Monday’s vote would be “too close to call.”
The Church of England, which has 26 bishops in the Lords, formally opposes the move and there has been speculation that the Most Rev Justin Welby, the recently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, will be among bishops voicing their concerns about the policy at the debate.
A statement issued by the Church’s House of Bishops and Archbishops’ Council last year and endorsed by the Archbishop, said same-sex weddings were against Anglican teachings and would undermine the state of marriage, as well as being “divisive” and “legally flawed”.
However, the statement prompted a groundswell of opposition within the Church and two suffragan bishops broke ranks to say it did not speak for them, nor for a substantial number of clergy and churchgoers.
Bishop Holtam, a diocesan bishop who sits in the House of Bishops but not the Lords, indicated his support for gay marriage in an interview and a speech last year but has been cautious about intervening in the ongoing debate.
Lord Alli, however, asked the bishop to set out his views for the benefit of peers debating the Government’s legislation next week.
In the letter to the Labour peer Bishop Holtam said: “You, as a gay Muslim, will not be surprised that there are a variety of views within the Church of England where we are experiencing rapid change similar to that in the wider society.”
He added: “The possibility of 'gay marriage’ does not detract from heterosexual marriage unless we think that homosexuality is a choice rather than the given identity of a minority of people.
“Indeed the development of marriage for same sex couples is a very strong endorsement of the institution of marriage.”
The Church’s leadership indicated as part of its opposition to the move that it favours civil partnerships as a way for gay couples to demonstrate their commitment to each other.
However in the letter Bishop Holtam suggests civil partnerships are same-sex marriage in all but name, saying “this now needs recognition in law.”
He said: “Like the Archbishops now, I used to think that it was helpful to distinguish between same sex civil partnerships and heterosexual marriage. Many in the churches think the commonly used description of civil partnerships as 'gay marriage’ is a category error.
“However, the relationships I know in civil partnerships seem to be either of the same nature as some marriages or so similar as to be indistinguishable. Indeed, the legal protection and public proclamation which civil partnership has afforded gay relationships appears to have strengthened their likeness to marriage in terms of increasing commitment to working on the relationship itself, to contributing to the wellbeing of both families of origin, and to acting as responsible and open members of society.
He added: “Open recognition and public support have increased in civil partnerships those very qualities of life for which marriage itself is so highly celebrated. It is not surprising this now needs recognition in law.”
The legislation was passed by the House of Commons last week despite an attempt by almost half of Conservative MPs, among them two Cabinet ministers, to block the move.
It includes so-called “quadruple locks”, described by Bishop Holtam as “extraordinarily robust”, to protect religious groups, including the Church of England, who do not wish to carry out same-sex ceremonies.