Same-sex marriage row looms over Church of England synod

<span>Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

The repeal of a century-old act of parliament that allows the Church of England to govern itself is among options being considered by MPs frustrated at the church’s continued refusal to offer marriage equality to same-sex couples.

Conservative and Labour MPs are weighing up several options aimed at bringing the C of E into line with the law of the land with regard to same-sex marriage.

Chris Bryant, Labour MP, chair of the standards and privileges committee and former Anglican priest, said the church’s position was “causing very real pain and trauma. If the church won’t act, then parliament should give it a push.”

Some MPs have asked whether the C of E’s refusal to allow same-sex marriage makes it incompatible with its special status as the state church. When they put that last week to Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, he reportedly replied that he would rather see the C of E disestablished than risk the global church fracturing over the issue.

This week, the C of E’s governing body, the General Synod, will consider a recommendation from bishops that clergy be allowed to bless same-sex civil marriages while the church preserves its bar on same-sex weddings.

The proposal is intended to settle 40 years of painful divisions and often bitter arguments over sexuality. But it has infuriated both campaigners for LGBTQ+ equality and conservatives who insist that biblical teaching on marriage must be upheld.

The synod debate is likely to be impassioned, with an attempt by progressives to overturn the same-sex marriage ban and some conservative evangelicals warning they could leave the C of E.

A group of about a dozen MPs met last week to consider options that could put parliament and the C of E in a head-on confrontation. They discussed moves to repeal the 1919 Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act, which devolved legislative power from parliament to the C of E. Until 1919, parliament passed legislation governing the C of E’s affairs. Legislation passed by the General Synod still requires parliamentary approval.

Other options include stripping the C of E of its exemption from the Equality Act; removing the quadruple lock on the Same-Sex Marriage Act that states no religious organisation can be compelled to marry same-sex couples; or ​​passing a simple law permitting individual parishes and priests to conduct same-sex marriages.

The parliamentary ecclesiastical committee, a body of cross-party peers and MPs that reviews C of E legislation, could refuse to recommend approval of any new measures until the church offers equal marriage to same-sex couples.

“If synod does not make greater progress than is contained in the bishops’ recommendations, I think parliament would take this matter very seriously,” said Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP and former cabinet minister.

Bryant said support for marriage equality in the C of E would win cross-party support in the Commons and the Lords, with little opposition from Tory MPs “as long as it’s a permissive move rather than a mandatory move”.

Sir Peter Bottomley, the veteran Conservative MP, told the Commons that the 1919 act could be amended, and that “the Church of England needs to wake up”.

Chris Loder, another Tory MP, said: “Maybe the synodical arrangements which we have are not fit for purpose, and we should look to reform them.”

On Thursday, Bryant asked Penny Mordaunt, leader of the Commons, to “allow time for legislation to push the Church of England into allowing same-sex marriages to be conducted by parishes and clergy who want to do so, if synod does not act.” Equality campaigners suggested that Mordaunt’s reply – “I know this is an issue that many members of this house will wish to pursue” – left the door open for legislative action.

Outside parliament, the comedian and television presenter Sandi Toksvig met Welby to relay her distress over the C of E’s stance on gay sex and same-sex marriage. “The state church and the society it purports to represent are not remotely in step,” she said after the meeting. “I do not intend to wait upon the church. In the next few weeks, I will be reaching out to the LGBT+ community and all our allies to see what can be done. The present position is untenable.”

On Friday, Toksvig launched a petition calling for the removal of the 26 seats in the House of Lords reserved for C of E bishops.

MPs present at last week’s meeting with Welby were “startled” by his statement that he would prefer disestablishment to fracture, according to one. But both Welby and his predecessor, Rowan Williams, have previously said that disestablishment would “not be a disaster” and “not the end of the world”.

“The idea of having an official state religion in the 21st century is an absurd anachronism,” said Stephen Kettell, who teaches politics and religion at Warwick University, pointing to recent census data showing that less than half the population describe themselves as Christian.

“Disestablishment could be revitalising and re-energising for the Church of England. Or it could be the last thing propping up the church. But it’s hard to see it moving forward when you consider the scale of the problems facing the country.”