The House of Lords and Autonomy in the Church of England

The debate and division on Lord Alli’s amendment to the British Equality Bill reflect a number of really interesting things about the British government. First, the House of Lords is sometimes not as ridiculous as it would appear to be to someone who is not British. As with the (elected) United States Senate and the (unelected) United States Supreme Court, the House of Lords is a veto player that can drive policy closer to the status quo (especially in the run-up to a general election) and can even introduce new ideas into the political debate.

The news is not as positive for the Church of England. While a group of senior clergy (bishops and dignitaries in Anglo-speak) supported the amendment to allow non-Anglicans to hold religious ceremonies in connection with civil partnerships on religious premises, others like the Bishop of Winchester seek continuing protection of the church. Only the most attenuated arguments support a threat from outside the Church of England based on hypothetical application of EU anti-discrimination laws. More likely are the possibility that (1) the Church of England will be forced to debate whether to allow such ceremonies to take place in its churches or (2) a renegade rector will conduct ceremonies in a church, where he holds a parson’s freehold. The strict hierarchical structure of the Church of England is not always as strong as it appears, and traditionally local clergy have had a great deal of power. S.J. Brown has referred to the nineteenth century financial provision for local churches as creating local establishments in each parish; his point is illustrative.

What we can hope for is rational debate. As long as people of differing opinions can argue about principles, then there is hope for a reasoned outcome. My fear is that fuzzy thinking and slippery slope arguments will be emotionally persuasive and will carry the day.

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