Gloucester MP Richard Graham: Why I'm backing The Marriage Same Sex Couples Bill
Conservative MP for Gloucester Richard Graham has issued a statement ahead of tomorrow's vote on same sex marriage.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill would give same-sex couples the right to get married in both civil and religious ceremonies, where a religious institution had formally consented, in England and Wales.
It would also allow couples in civil partnerships the right to convert their relationship into a marriage.
Mr Graham has previously said he would be backing the Bill.
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Here he explains his position:
The proposals for same sex marriage have not been easy for me. Whether as a Christian, an individual, an MP, or your representative, I’ve had to ask myself many questions – and found my answers not always consistent and not easily reduced to the one word answer many of you would like: am I in favour or not?
But voting on such legislation is binary – it doesn’t allow for nuances, and (unless out of the country on government business) this issue of conscience, not party politics, cannot be fudged with an abstention or tactical disappearance.
So let me share the questions I’ve asked myself:
1. Could the current status quo of eligibility for marriage be seen as unfair or discriminatory in any way?
2. Are the changes proposed compatible with being a Christian?
3. Is it possible to widen access to marriage while protecting faiths, individual places of worship, their priests and believers?
4. In twenty years time what will our children think of these changes if they go through?
On question 1, is the current status of eligibility for marriage unfair or discriminatory in any way? I believe this depends on whether you believe in the exclusivity of marriage for man and woman only. That is what I was brought up to believe, it’s the current dictionary definition (though these things are not cast in stone) and there is plenty of biblical support for that.
On the other hand I know people in loving relationships who are of the same sex. They think of themselves as a partnership, a marriage, as much as Anthea (my wife) and I do. There is a perception among some members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) community that they are discriminated against by the status quo.
And since the State long ago legalised homosexuality and allows civil partnerships there is no strong reason why the State cannot allow them to marry as well, if it wishes to. That is the case in many western countries already. It reflects changing views and greater tolerance in society: I’ve seen this when discussing the issue with students and other constituents, especially under 40. Church leaders also acknowledge these social changes.
Secondly, are the changes proposed compatible with being a Christian?
I take the Bible as an interpretative text. I’ve never taken the Old Testament (‘eye for an eye’ etc) as an instruction manual and much prefer the New Testament’s most powerful three words – ‘Love they Neighbour’. That is, for me, the most important message of Christianity, of any faith: and of values upheld by the many of no faith.
I believe that recognising same sex marriage is in this spirit: as do the Quakers and Unitarian churches. But I also recognise that my own church (Church of England) does not as an institution agree, whatever some individuals within it might think: and that other churches (especially the Roman Catholic and some Evangelical) and faiths (especially Muslims) are strongly opposed.
Which leads to my third question: is it possible to widen access to marriage while protecting faiths, individual places of worship, their priests and believers?
This is the key to the legislation, and to how I vote. Because if the Bill can allow anyone to marry, while allowing faith institutions to opt out without fear of discrimination court cases or pursuit under Human Rights legislation, then I believe many concerns raised by constituents can be allayed.
The Government’s proposals include a “quadruple lock” which consists of:
• The option of a complete institutional opt out, making it illegal to hold same sex marriages in buildings of that faith as the Church of England has done.
• If a faith institution wants to opt in, it has to register a specific place of worship to hold same sex marriages.
• Any individual priest also has to be in favour of holding same sex marriages in his/her place of worship.
• And amendment of the Equalities Act so that it is illegal to accuse someone of discrimination who does not believe in or support same sex marriage.
This amounts to strong legal safeguards for those of any faith, both institutions and as individuals, who do not agree with same sex marriage.
Some are worried about the European Court of Human Rights. Article 9 of the European Convention specifically provides for the rights of faiths, and I understand that no court case in Europe has ever been won against a faith. With the added national protections above introduced the government believes the protections are very strong. And I accept that.
Which leads me to my last question: In twenty years time what will our children think of these changes if they go through?
I believe much social change is highly controversial at the time, but much less so later. The fuss over giving women the vote, over legalising homosexuality, over women priests (and now over women bishops) – do any of us now think that Britain would be better without these changes?
Almost everyone under 40 I have asked about same sex marriage is relaxed about it. Almost everyone over 80 thinks it wrong. In between there are mixed views.
My own feeling is that these proposals make no difference to Anthea and my marriage, nor will they affect our church. So the only reason for me to oppose them would be because I want to deny same sex couples to marry if they wanted to, mostly in registry offices.
That seems to me a negative thing: exclusive not inclusive, the opposite of love they neighbour, and against my support for marriage as a great stabilising force in society. In twenty years time I don’t think my children would understand why I had thought like this.
And so I cannot in principle oppose proposals for same sex marriage that oblige no-one to have to support it, no church or faith to offer it, and nothing in heterosexual marriage to change at all.
There will be changes, I am sure, to the detailed legislation as it goes through both Houses of Parliament. There will be questions, and thorny ones too. But at this stage I should declare to those of you who have asked me – I will not oppose this Bill in principle, though I will scrutinise the detail.
Although I understand the symbolism, I don’t believe these proposals are about politics. Allowing all to marry while respecting and protecting traditional religious views (not only Christian) at the same time will have cross party support, and cross party opposition.
I know that my view will disappoint some friends of faith, and I can only pray that you and they will respect that I’ve thought long and hard about this, and reached this view, even if you cannot agree.
Please also accept that I claim no greater wisdom on this than those who reach different conclusions. There is room for many views on important issues – I belong to a party which encompasses both Ken Clarke’s and Bill Cash’s views on Europe!