Men, Women and Marriage, and the Church in Wales

Coincident with the release of the much-criticised [1] report Men and Women in Marriage by the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England, the Most Rev Dr Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales, gave his Presidential Address to the Governing Body of the Church in Wales, a significant part of which was devoted to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill currently progressing through the UK Parliament.  As we noted in an earlier post, the C of E Report has very little to say about same-sex relationships (since it is essentially about marriage) although it does make the statement that

“… accommodations for specific conditions, bearing witness in special ways to the abiding importance of the norm. Well-designed accommodations proclaim the form of life given by God’s creative goodness and bring those in difficult positions into closer approximation to it. They mark the point where teaching and pastoral care coincide.”

Against this sometimes confusing study document Dr Morgan’s Presidential Address (and the more detailed analysis in Annex 4 of the Report of the Standing Committee) provided the Governing Body with a clear picture of the latest developments within the Bill, its likely outcome and implications for the Church in Wales, and possible directions for the future. So despite the documents’ different audiences and objectives, it is useful to review Dr Morgan’s address in terms of the approach being taken by the Church in Wales and where this differs from the C of E.

Comment

The starting point was covered in one of our earliest posts, now retitled Equal Civil Marriage: Church in Wales, which highlighted that no reference to the C in W had been made in the Government’s consultation Equal Civil Marriage.  In his address Dr Morgan pointed out the Government’s “seeming lack of understanding of the unique legal position of the Church in Wales”, i.e. although it was disestablished in 1920, the C in W remained bound by the Church of England’s common-law duty to marry parishioners regardless of affinity. Therefore, if the State were to introduce a definition of marriage which included both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships, the Anglican Churches in England and Wales would be under an obligation to marry same-sex couples unless prohibited from doing so by law. 

In subsequent discussions with Government officials the C in W sought protection for clergy from having to conduct same-sex marriages and a mechanism whereby it could conduct same-sex marriages if, in the future, it decided to do so, without having to amend an Act of Parliament prohibiting it from doing so. The Minister was informed that the Church’s present doctrine of marriage is that it is a union of one man and one woman that is both permanent and life-long; and although it was unlikely to change at the present time, any change ought to be a matter for the Church to decide, should it so wish, without recourse to repealing legislation.

The Bill as it now stands provides that the duty of clergy in the Church in Wales to solemnise marriages would not be extended to marriages of same-sex couples. It contains a clause introducing a procedure specific to the C in W under which, if the Governing Body were to resolve in future to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in its churches, the Lord Chancellor could make that possible by laying an Order before Parliament. This both gives the C in W  protection in present circumstances and allows it to make up its own mind on the issue in the future.

Dr Morgan further noted that there were three additional issues to consider:

  • that the Bill, when enacted, could be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights;
  • that the C in W needs to consider whether it wishes to continue having this special status in law as far as marriage is concerned; and
  • that if marriage were ever to become a devolved issue it is unlikely that the Welsh Government would allow a disestablished Church in Wales to retain this “vestige of Establishment” [2].

In addition, the Church itself might want to change the present arrangements. If the Welsh Church (Temporalities) Act 1919 were rescinded so that the Church in Wales was not obliged by law to marry any parishioner irrespective of religious allegiance [see s 6], it would still be possible to license all clergy of the C in W as registrars of marriages. The rules about residency and qualifying connections would then be a matter for the Church in Wales and not for the State – as in other Churches in Wales at the present time.

With regard to same-sex marriage and same-sex partnerships, he noted that there has been a growth in understanding of same-sex relationships in wider society in recent years and a more comprehensive understanding of human sexuality in general. Within the Church in Wales, as the bishops have pointed out, there are a variety of views about the ethics of same-sex relationships. There is a new appreciation of the value of any faithful, committed life-long relationship.

He told the Governing Body that the bishops had therefore asked the Doctrinal Commission to examine the whole issue of same-sex relationships. Once the Commission has produced its report, the Church will engage in a general discussion, initially in the Governing Body, to map out the way ahead for it as a Church.

England and Wales

Marriage is not currently a devolved issue in Wales (though it is in Scotland) and both Churches come under the terms of the same Bill. However, the disestablished status of the Church in Wales seems to have given rise to particular difficulties, as noted by Dr Morgan [3]

“It … seems clear that there had been little appreciation of the unique position of the Church in Wales with the same obligation as the Church of England to marry parishioners but without the Church of England’s capacity to introduce legislation.

Procedurally, the solution which has been arrived at in a short space of time appears to be satisfactory. The provision for the Lord Chancellor to introduce modifying secondary legislation by affirmative procedure would avoid the problem that the Church in Wales encountered when the Church of England changed the law regarding “qualifying connections” in 2008. In order to bring its own practice into line with that of the C of E, the Church in Wales was dependent upon a Private Member’s Bill, introduced in the House of Lords by Lord Rowe-Beddoe, to bring it back into line with the Church of England.” [Standing Committee Report, Annex 4, para. 6]. (The alternative would have been for the C in W to have promoted a Private Bill at considerable expense; and the Church was very fortunate that Lord Rowe-Beddoe’s Bill had tacit Government support and met with no back-bench opposition.) Given the Government’s intention that “the Bill was to be published in January [2013] come what may”, the C in W’s first priority was to secure the necessary modifications, and the Bench of Bishop agreed that the drafts went as far as could reasonably be expected in the time available .

As we noted in our recent round-up, the Archbishop took a view that seemed both more relaxed and more robust than that presented in Men and Women in Marriage. While he was content with the procedural compromise that had been reached over the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in relation to the Church in Wales he did not dismiss out of hand the possibility that Welsh Anglicans might one day wish to conduct same-sex marriages – and the Bishops’ request to the Church’s Doctrinal Commission to examine the issue suggests that the wider Church has not closed its collective mind on the matter. The Standing Committee Report suggests that the Governing Body might discuss some of the issues relating to same-sex unions possibly as soon as April 2014.

 


[1] The leader in the Church Times comments: “The kindest thing to do with the new report … is to ignore it. It contributes nothing new to the present debate… It speaks of a unique relationship between a man and a woman without ever explaining this contention. Seldom clear, the text adopts a particular obscurity whenever a contentious matter is touched upon… Yet it combines this with a dogmatism that is at odds with its purpose as a study document.

[2] See T G Watkin, “Vestiges of Establishment, The Ecclesiastical and Canon Law of the Church in Wales” (1990) 2 Ecc LJ 110.

[3] For more detail on the disestablishment of the C in W, see “Ecclesiastical Law and Disestablishment” in Philip Jones’s Ecclesiastical Law blog.

4 thoughts on “Men, Women and Marriage, and the Church in Wales

  1. Pingback: Men and Women in Marriage, and the Church of Scotland | Law & Religion UK

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