Wednesday 6 February 2013

Times and Tides

I have watched many Parliamentary debates.  Some I have watched from the officials' box (one of that little row of faces to the left of the Speaker's chair as you face it), some from upper galleries out of sight to TV viewers, and some - like yesterday's - from the privacy of my own home.  They have been, on and off, a part of my professional life.  I have rarely enjoyed them.  This is partly because, for me, they have been work.  When, in my civil service career, I sat in the officials' box, I was usually there to produce information that would enable my minister to provide immediate answers to unforeseen questions raised in debate. When, nowadays, I sit in one of the galleries in the House of Lords, I do so to hear contributions on subjects on which my bishop speaks for the Church and, when he is participating, to tweet a sound-bite or two.  Yesterday's debate on the same-sex marriage bill I watched at home on TV for sheer pleasure (if that is the word).  I say "if that is the word" because I know enough about myself to realise that I dislike conflict and that I am prone to become personally involved to an extent that militates against the impartiality required of a Government official.  And although I no longer occupy that role, I can't get out of the habit.

There was little great oratory yesterday.  But there were some courageous and moving speeches.  I found myself marvelling that Tories like Nick Herbert and Mike Freer were able to stand in the Commons and on national TV and be open about themselves and their support for this gloriously unconservative bill.  Could they have done this 20, even 10, years ago?  I doubt it.  The old Tory dogs were still there behind them, yapping and snapping at their heels; but the earth has turned another quarter-turn, and for Herbert, Freer and a host of others, it is moving perceptibly from darkness into light.  To his credit, David Cameron understands this; I don't think his opponents do.  Not really.

If I had to pick an "anti" speech for special mention it would have to be Edward Leigh's.  Leigh is a proudly devout old-style Roman Catholic and gave an elegant and poetic (and accurate) account of the traditional Christian understanding of marriage.  Towards the end, in response to the claim that the world had "moved on" (from the civil partnerships debate), he replied: "The worry that some of us have is that the world...could move on again".  Yes. It could and it will.

The same theme was picked up by Sir Menzies Campbell (a supporter of the bill) who began his remarks by saying: "there is a kind of inevitability about what many of us are hoping will be decided here this evening".  He saw gay marriage as the next step along the road towards the full inclusion and equal treatment of all outcasts: a destination that we know we will reach eventually.  There is something profoundly Christian about this.

And inevitability is the point.  I expect this bill, which still has a good few parliamentary hurdles to jump, to become law in due course.  But even it if doesn't, a future Labour government will introduce a similar one which certainly will.  One way or another, sooner or later, we will have gay marriage.  And we all know it. Isn't the honest (and brave) thing to do to accept that, and to focus on introducing it in a way that commands the widest possible assent and calms the greatest number of fears?

It's been noted that this is a huge gamble for David Cameron; that he has betrayed Conservative principles and will lose "core" votes without gaining any others.  I wonder if his motivation rests upon his honest assessment that he will not, probably, in any event, be Prime Minister after 2015: that the times are simply against him.  Given that, perhaps he wants to be remembered for something other than austerity and benefit cuts and rising debt. Something that's not coloured grey. Something that makes us more human. Something lasting.  Perhaps this is the thing. Perhaps now is the time.

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

(Brutus, from Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3)


  1. I refrained from watching the debate, partially due to having other things to do, but saw some tweets about it and also followed the CA postings on fb.

    I believe that you have got it right - and it's a pity that the Church has somehow allowed itself to be painted into a corner, with no way out without getting egg on its face.

    Peter Bottomley gave an erudite speech and I'm sure that there are many others who exercised the parliamentary privilege of debate, perhaps something which is missed in the day to day ballyhoo and name calling which seems to colour most political debate these days.

    Sir Roger Gale, a Kent MP, had before the debate been on all of the media here in Kent voicing his opposition, and he appears to have been frankly angry and outraged by what was happening. The thing that occurred to me (and others) was the nonsense of a thrice married man, seeking to deny Single Sex couples a single marriage.

    I believe in the natural justice of SSM and I hope that the majority of Christians agree, either openly or in private that it's something good that we can do, relatively simply. If only the Church would wake upto this.

  2. Thanks for this helpful reflection. It is odd that people who have - shall we say? - a rather swashbuckling approach to marriage should be so keen to deny it to others. Are they worried they might be put to shame?

    Although it seems a long way off, I do believe the Church will come round to it eventually. Several speakers in the debate criticised the Church for its failure to provide a blessing service for civil partnerships, and I expect that will be the next hurdle to fall. But in the end, as you say, this is a matter of natural justice and, as Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has said, "simple good manners".

  3. Beautifully written. I found David Lammy's speech moving and inspiring; unfortunately I haven't heard the rest.

    Personally I think it is incumbent on the diocesan bishops to stop pretending they speak with one voice. It would surely be much more honest to have either silence, or official statements which reflect that there are divided opinions, or best of all allow individual diocesans to speak their minds.

  4. Thank you. As one of our more controversial media priests once said: :"the Church's problem isn't that it doesn't practise what it preaches; it's that it doesn't preach what it practices."