Lord Deben (Con):
My Lords, quite by accident, I experienced last Tuesday one of the most emotional occasions of my life. We are a very small village, and a man of 57, who had always been at the centre of village life, died. It was his funeral on Tuesday. He had been born, brought up, and died within a stone’s throw of the parish church. The funeral was held in the church, attended by so many people that they were standing in the tower place, in the open doors of the vestry, behind the altar rail and in the rain outside. It was very moving. But he had been a regular attender at the nonconformist church in the next village, and the service was entirely taken by the minister of that church. It was an uplifting experience. There we all were—Anglicans, Catholics, nonconformists, those only just believers, or those not believing at all—to say thank you for somebody whom we will miss and whom I shall miss every day of my life.
I reflected then on how generous it was of the established Church to make it possible for any of these services to take place in the parish church. Any of these services—except marriage. A year ago—I declare an interest in this—my daughter got married and wanted to get married in the church in which her grandparents are buried. We are one of a very small number of families who help to keep the roof on, although we are Catholics; another family that keeps the roof on is also Catholic, but that is part of what we think we should do in the village. I discovered that she could not be married by a Catholic priest. She wanted to be married by her chaplain from school, somebody whom she loved and who had helped their marriage to start, not least in the difficulties of today, when very often husband and wife are not necessarily from the same denominational background. The excellent Anglican bishop explained to me that, first, the Church of England’s canon, which had been changed to cover these other services, did not cover marriage, and secondly, that in any case it could not be done because of the state’s law.
At this point I have to try to explain this. It is quite difficult to explain, because I have had to explain it so much to lawyers who have not understood the basis of all this. During the passage of the Marriage Act 1949 the then Government did not want to upset the Church of England and thought it would be much better if they had a simple way of excluding it from their tidying-up process. The Marriage Act works in two halves. The first half refers to parish churches of the Church of England and says that they are automatically licensed for marriage,
“according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England”.
If they had not put that bit in, there would be no problem. The second part explains that all other denominations have to get their churches licensed—they have to register—and then they can have marriages of any kind they like, including marriages according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England. This was, therefore, an easy way of stopping a great deal of bureaucracy. I have no objection to that; it seems perfectly reasonable. But there was a mistake. Some say—I think the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester is one—that the Church of England could do this if it wanted to without this change in the law. That is a disputed argument—I can vouch for that, because I know the people who dispute it. So that is the first bit.
The second reason is something that I am sure your Lordships understand but I raise it in case anyone has not thought about it recently. We in Britain are the most wonderful exponents of the fudge, and our marriage system is a fudge. Instead of the French system of going to the mayor and having a civil marriage and then going to the church and having a religious marriage, we give clergymen of all denominations the duty of being a registrar. Therefore, when you have what in my view is that awfully embarrassing bit in the service when somebody has to make sure that the organist has a long enough piece to play while mother, father, grandmother, great aunt, the woman you cannot leave out and all the rest of them go into the vestry to sign, or witness the signing of, the register, that is—although the music gives it a certain religious awe—a non-religious activity which does the state’s bit.
I emphasise that that is done by any denomination. You can be a strict Baptist—the local nonconformist church in my area—or a Catholic and you do precisely the same thing: you fill in and sign the form, and you can do it because you are a registered clergyman of a denomination which has a church in which you can hold marriages. You would have thought that anybody who was allowed to do so could do that bit. However—I have had an enjoyable time finding out about all this—when most legal authorities find out about that, they look it up and tell me that I am right: that the Church of England could not do that if it wanted to unless we changed the Marriage Act 1949.
The proposition in the Bill before your Lordships is extremely simple. It does not require the Church of England to make a change. In that sense, we have disestablished the Church of England. It has its own synod making its own decisions, so the Bill does not insist that the Church of England makes the change. However, it would remove any impediment that there may be so that the Church of England could make that change. It might not want to do so. I thought that there would be no difficulty with this, because it did not seem to me that in a world of ecumenism the Church of England would want to stop such things happening.
Perhaps I may sum that up. When I rang my Anglican bishop and told him what I wanted, he said, “Well, John, you can have the mass but you can’t have the nuptial bit”. There is nothing that divides the churches more than the mass, but if the bishop, the vicar and the parochial church council agree, the Church of England will, in its generosity, allow me to celebrate a birthday by having a mass in my parish church—which, after all, was built at a time when it would always have been the mass, although I shall leave that on one side. Those are the circumstances.
The Bill takes every precaution. It makes sure that it cannot be used for some other purpose. That is why the details come directly from the Church of England’s rules relating to allowing a Methodist minister to have a Methodist service in an Anglican church. Nothing in the Bill extends that. Anybody here who thinks that it might open the door to gay marriage or result in the solemnisation of Wicca can rest assured because it does not. It merely says that a parish, its vicar and the bishop can together allow a marriage to take place according to somebody else’s Christian denomination’s marriage service.
Perhaps I may explain the four reasons why I believe this to be really important. First, marriage is the one sacrament made between two people, not by the priest or clergyman. Many people, particularly those who want a church wedding, come to marriage with the help of the clergy upon whom they depend. There is no doubt that it is a moment when most people want to choose somebody with whom they have a real connection. Very often it is the person who has helped them to get over particular problems. A friend of mine who is a priest is helping another friend of mine who wants to marry someone who does not have any religious understanding at all, whereas she cares about religion deeply. He is helping those two to get together. He happens to be a Catholic priest and will not be able to marry her in the church in which the boy has at least some connection. Quite simply, I want that not to stop their proceeding in the way they wish.
Secondly, we live in an ecumenical world, and we have to come to terms with that in many villages and, I am sure, many parishes in towns. There is the question of how two Christian parents bring up their children in the faith, and that starts with the promises that they make in marriage. It is important for people to have a service that ties them into the family and into all the forces that might help them live their lives together. Very often it happens in their home parish, whereas they now live somewhere entirely different. It is very important for them to be able to do that and I want that choice to be open to all.
My third reason for wanting to bring about this change is to deal with the fudges that otherwise take place. Let us not kid ourselves—people get round it. There are two well-known ways of getting round it. In our chapel here, all noble Lords can have their children baptised and can have a service of any kind—every Wednesday, we Catholics go to mass; the United Reform Church has a special service; and the Church of Scotland has a special service. You can have all that. But no one, unless they are an Anglican, can get married there unless they are prepared to have an Anglican clergyman and the Anglican rites and ceremonies—even though that is peculiar. I will tell noble Lords what the two fudges are. One fudge is that the couple get married in the Catholic church round the corner and then come and have exactly the same service in the chapel downstairs, to which they invite their guests, and call it “a blessing”. They know which was the service at which they were actually married. Is the fudge to meet the requirements of the Church of England? I hope not. Rather, it is to meet the requirements of the law of the land. That is the distinction that I am trying to make
The other way is much less of a fudge. When an Anglican clergyman is decent enough to understand what this means to the couple, he and the Catholic priest, Methodist minister or Baptist minister will do the whole service together without anybody doing one bit or the other. The law can then decide which of them actually married the couple.
I do not like fudges. I hope the House knows that, in all my political life and certainly in all my life in this House, I have gone against fudges. I want truth. I do not see why we should be put in this position by the 1949 Act.
The last point is rather more challenging. I almost remember the beginning of the ecumenical movement at its great conference in the Netherlands in 1948, which my father attended as an Anglican clergyman. It depends for its continuation and extent upon generosity and learning to live together. In a small village community, births, marriages and deaths are what mark our timetable—we are much closer to that, happily; it keeps us sane, frankly, and is what matters to us. We want to celebrate those things together. Here, I want the Church of England to be challenged and to decide for itself whether it is prepared to make this step towards a more ecumenical society. In discussing this with those who oppose it, I have discovered one rather serious thing: many of them do not want the Act changed because then they would have to face the choice. They would have to ask: will we in the Church of England continue to stop it? The Church would no longer be able to excuse it, because the law would make that impossible.
This is where I have to say something which may hurt. It is funny looking back: I was on the General Synod and a very active member, but when I became a Catholic I found three fascinating things. The first and less helpful thing is that the hymns in the Catholic Church are ghastly. There is a woman called Estelle White, who I believe will have the longest period in purgatory of anyone because she knew neither how to rhyme nor how to do metre, nor could she choose tunes, and she is theologically largely inaccurate—otherwise, she is all right. The second thing I discovered is that, for the first time, I went to a church that was filled with people of every possible colour and social status, from the person who swept the roads to the local squire. I had not realised quite how middle class the Church of England had become. I just wish to say that that had a remarkable effect on me.
The third thing I discovered, less happily, is that there was a tendency always for the Church of England to insist upon its position. So in a village that is largely strict Baptist, you could almost see the Baptist minister being edged out. I can think of one village, where there was no Anglican church, but still the Anglican clergyman took the lead at the war memorial, as he thought was right. I also remember when, for the first time since the Reformation, the mayor of Aldeburgh—the first woman mayor, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, came from Aldeburgh—who was a Catholic, appointed a Catholic priest as his chaplain. I remember going to the established church for the service. The chaplain was hidden as far as possible and the service went through as if there were no chaplain—but it was perfectly all right to have the Freemasons dressed up and sitting in two rows of the church.
I do not think that that is what the Church of England ought to be like, and I do not believe it really is like that. That is why I say this to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester: please, take the simple point that the Church of England may have the powers—I think he thinks it has—but let us make sure it does have the powers and then let it argue the case, if there is a case, to deny this hospitality and restrict ecumenism. But do not say that we do not need this, because that is constantly used as the excuse. Sometimes, we need a challenge. I challenge the right reverend Prelate to explain to me how, in the words of the prayers we have just heard, it can possibly be charitable to say to a young couple who live in a village, “You can come here and we will allow your priest to say mass, but he can’t marry you”. That seems to me not to be charitable. I would like the Church of England to show itself to be not only charitable but generous. Its established position depends on that. Without that, it is very difficult to argue that it should remain established in a country where there are many more Christians of other denominations—let alone anybody else—who would like to share in our common heritage.