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A good day for a civilised society, a dreadful day for the established Church

June 5, 2013 5:36 PM
By Toby Keynes, Chair, HSLD

Yesterday's House of Lords vote for the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill marked another milestone on the road to a civilised society.

The wrecking amendment was defeated overwhelmingly, on a free vote, by 390 to 148. As you would expect, our LibDem peers did rather better, with 71 voting for and just 2 against (Lord Robert Methuen and Baroness Emma Nicholson). Not quite a perfect score, but showing what a chasm there is between us and the standardbearers of traditional, backwoods Toryism who trooped out in force to try to kill the bill.

What was truly shocking was that the Archbishop of Canterbury and eight of his Bishops voted to strangle the bill. Not a single one voted to support it. The Bishop of Chester had the decency to say that he opposed the bill in principle but would not vote against it because it was not appropriate to frustrate the clear will of the elected House of Commons.

The second reading was then approved by a vote of acclamation.

So the bill has now cleared two more hurdles, and we should thank all those Liberal Democrat MPs and peers who supported it, and especially:

  • Liz Barker, who told the House of Lords of her own loving relationship with her partner;
  • Alex Carlile, who spoke of his daughter and her partner, "who have found constant love, and emotional and every fulfilment, in each other";
  • Sal Brinton, who spoke as one Christian among many who support full equality for loving copies regardless of their gender;
  • Ros Scott, Eric Avebury, Jane Bonham-Carter, Tim Clement-Jones, Tom McNally, Susan Kramer and, again, Sal Brinton, who all dropped in on the Vigil on Monday, along with MPs Lynn Featherstone (of course) and Tom Brake.

However, the race is nowhere near run.

Yesterday's vote was about killing a bill that had been passed by the elected members of parliament, on a free vote, by a two-to-one majority, with the support of all three major parties. All sorts of excuses were advanced as to why the bill's passage so far was "undemocratic", alongside specious claims that the great majority of the people were against it, but the vote was in essence an attack on democracy - and it failed.

There were certainly peers who spoke against the bill but abstained or even supported it during the vote, including two Liberal Democrats, because they believe that an unelected House of Lords did not have the right to reject the bill altogether.

On 17th June, the bill will move to a committee of the whole House of Lords, where many amendments will be proposed to weaken or undermine the bill in one way or another. That is when we will find out just how strong the bill's support in the Lords, and among Liberal Democrat peers, really is.

We will also probably see another effort to legalise humanist marriages, with the strong support of Labour. We'll have to see whether the Conservatives remain apparently determined to shoot it down, as they have been so far.

The House of Lords has avoided a massive and very visible beartrap by rejecting Lord Dear's attack on democracy.

In contrast, it was a dreadful day for the Church of England, and its future as the established Church.

It blundered into that beartrap, showing its antidemocratic side and confirming that it believes freedom of religion to be a sacred right for those who share its beliefs - but not for anyone else.

Its credibility as a legitimate element in the British democratic process, with 25 privileged voting places in the House of Lords, will suffer serious damage.

It will further alienate those, especially the young, who believe that the Christian message should be one of love, respect and inclusion. Some CofE members, including many Liberal Democrats, will continue to struggle to persuade their church of that message. Some will turn to more liberal churches and groups, such as the Quakers. Others will turn away, not just from the Church of England but from religion itself.