Friday, June 7, 2013

LORD HARRIES' SPEECH IN THE HOUSE OF LORDS


Since I found it difficult to excerpt parts of the splendid speech by Lord Harries of Pentregarth, retired bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Oxford, at the second reading of the same-sex civil marriage bill in the British Parliament House of Lords, here it is whole and entire.
My Lords, I understand very well the unease that many of your Lordships feel about this Bill. I was brought up in a world where homosexuality was whispered about in dark corners and any hint of its expression resulted in expulsion. Our understanding of homosexuality is undoubtedly the biggest social change of my lifetime.

My own change and understanding came about when I realised—for example, through reading the biographies of gay people—that often, from a very early age, they had found themselves predominantly attracted to members of their own sex, not just physically but as whole persons. While some people are bisexual and there is a degree of fluidity in the sexuality of others, we know that for a significant minority their sexuality is not a matter of choice but as fundamental to their identity as being male or female. That is a fact that must bring about a decisive shift in our understanding.

The question arises as to how the church and society should respond to this. Both have an interest in helping people live stable lives in committed relationships. For this reason, many of us warmly welcome civil partnerships, not just because of the legal protections that they rightly afford to those who enter into them but because they offer the opportunity for people to commit themselves to one another publicly. Personally, I take a high view of civil partnerships. The idea of a lifelong partnership is a beautiful one. I deeply regret that the Church of England has not yet found a way of publicly affirming civil partnerships in a Christian context. I wish that it had warmly welcomed them from the first and provided a liturgical service in which the couple could commit themselves to one another before God and ask for God’s blessing upon their life together. If only the church had made it clear that although these relationships might be different in some respects from the union of a man and woman, they are equally valid in the eyes of the church and, more importantly, in the eyes of God.

Sadly, too many who now say that they accept civil partnerships have done so only slowly, reluctantly and through gritted teeth. Today we are not in a situation where civil partnerships are regarded as different but equal to marriage. Rightly or wrongly, the impression is inevitably created that one form of relationship is inferior to the other, and people believe that marriage is a profounder and richer form of relationship than a civil partnership.

Most importantly, many gay and lesbian people believe this and want to enter not just into a civil partnership but a marriage: a lifelong commitment of love and fidelity, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Marriage affords legal advantages that are denied to civil partnerships, such as their legal status in many countries, but that is not the main point. The point is that those who wish to enter into this most fundamental of human relationships should be able to do so legally. I am aware that this involves a significant change in our understanding of marriage, but marriage has never had a fixed character. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, eloquently pointed out that its legal meaning has changed over the years; and no less significantly, its social meaning has changed.

For most of history, among the upper classes, marriage was primarily a way of controlling titles and wealth. Among all classes, it involved the radical subservience of women. Often it went along with a very lax attitude—by males, not females—to relationships outside marriage. Contraception was forbidden and this resulted in many children, and as often as not the wife dying young. Only in the 18th century did we get a growth in emphasis on the quality of the relationship of the couple. Now, this mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have with the other, in prosperity and adversity, is rightly stressed. This is equally valued by all people, whatever their sexuality.

I really do not underestimate the linguistic dissonance set up by this Bill and the consequent unease felt by many but, for those reasons that I have briefly outlined, I warmly welcome it. I believe in marriage. I believe, with the Jewish rabbi of old, that in the love of a couple there dwells the shekinah—the divine presence; or, to put it in Christian terms, that which reflects the mutual love of Christ and his church. I believe in the institution of marriage and I want it to be available to same-sex couples as well as to males and females.
Just imagine the joy in the LGTB community if Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby had given a similar loving and pastoral address.   I know - water under the bridge, no rewind button, but perhaps the archbishop might take a lesson from Lord Harries, as he has said his views on same-sex marriage are evolving.

Lord Harries rightly calls the leadership of the church on their present claim to have supported same-sex civil partnerships in the past characterizing it as coming "slowly, reluctantly, and through gritted teeth."  His lovely words affirming that "the shekinah - the divine presence...that which reflects the mutual love of Christ and his church" is present in the relationships of same-sex couples are quite moving.

Thanks to Erp, who called my attention to the speech by leaving a quote in my comments. 

21 comments:

  1. Nice! Thanks very much for posting.

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    1. Harries' speech did not seem to have attracted much media attention, but I thought it was excellent and well worth a post.

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  2. Lord Harries' speech is inspiring. Unlike...

    It must be good news that the CofE is going to give in, now that 'the will of the people' is so clear.

    But I can't say I care for the stench of realpolitik, as their Lordships doubtless are anxious to preserve their seats in the House of Lords and the established status of the Church in our constitution.

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    1. Laura, as I've said before about the switcheroo, it seems that the bill will not, after all, undermine the “cornerstone” of society. I can't wait to see what improvements the bishops will offer in the form of amendments.

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    3. Full pension equality would be a start, I guess...

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    4. Richard, I rather doubt that particular improvement will be among those suggested by the bishops, though I hope I'm wrong.

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    5. Ironically, they have that already. The civil partners of clergy, of whom there are many, get the same pension rights as a spouse.

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    6. I'd rather not comment on clergy pensions in England, for my ignorance would be quickly exposed.

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  3. You're quite right, your prose style is very reminiscent of Jane Austen. :>)

    (I had to remove the previous commment because I had inadvertently written 'Austin' and did not want to cause you apoplexy)

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    1. Laura, thank you. You know how to flatter a girl. :-)

      I was not going to have apoplexy. I was merely going to spell the name correctly and hope you would take take the hint.

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  4. I think the Church of England got what they wanted in ABC Welby--ties to the oil industry first.

    In Lord Harries we are all getting ties to that divine presence who stands beside us and walks among us. What a joy it is to read Lord Harries speech.

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    1. Bonnie, if ties to the oil industry tipped the scales, I'd have thought they'd weigh against Justin.

      I'm so grateful to Erp for calling Harries' speech to my attention.

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    2. I'll have to do some research then. I thought some (a lot?) of Church of England's investment portfolio was tied to the oil industry.

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    3. Bonnie, I was't thinking about the church's investment portfolio. You could be right.

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    4. Ties to the oil industry, eh? Just like the other Dubya. My, what interesting parallels are forming! We need the talents of a modern-day Swift to draw them out.

      But I say Hear, Hear! to Bonnie's last paragraph and your penultimate one in the post, Mimi - such lovely words indeed. Would that they had been those of the Most Reverend Archbishop. Then he would deserve the high and august titles of his office more nearly.

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    5. Justin Welby worked for 11 years in the oil industry, in Paris and later on projects in West Africa and the North Sea.

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  5. Glad that little old godless me could be of service. It is a pity more bishops aren't like Richard Harries (there is also retired bishop Richard Holloway of Edinburgh).

    I note that the bill goes to committee on the 17th (the committee being anyone in the House of Lords who is interested). The useful Parliament link is http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2013-14/marriagesamesexcouplesbill.html which links eventually to all the debates. Let us hope the bishops don't try to kill it with amendments.

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    1. Erp, I'm a great fan of diversity, and I welcome the godless into my circle.

      Thanks for the link. I watched part of the debate on livestreaming TV, but life called me away, plus the timing is wrong for us here in the US. I'm curious about the amendments the bishops and other religious folk will offer.

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