Law and religion round-up – 9th July

Marriage and/or Holy Matrimony?

On 6 July 2023, In a guest post, HH Peter Collier KC looked critically at the controversy between the treatment of the institution of Holy Matrimony and the institution of civil marriage as distinct realities. He concluded:

“The [marriage] contracts have some similarities but there are significant differences, and one of them, in our current understanding, is that the Church of England’s marriage contract can only be between a man and a woman. Whether we choose to refer to that as “Holy Matrimony” or simply as “marriage according to the law, rights and ceremonies of the Church of England” really does not matter. Parliament has recognised that there is a difference, the confusion comes as bishops and judges said would happen when we call different things by the same name.”

Following its deliberations on same-sex marriage in 2017, the Scottish Episcopal Church revised its Canon 31, which now reads:

“In the light of the fact that there are differing understandings of the nature of marriage in this Church, no cleric of this Church shall be obliged to conduct any marriage against their conscience. Any marriage which is to be conducted by a cleric shall be solemnised strictly in accordance with the civil law of Scotland for the time being in force and provided said cleric is satisfied, after appropriate enquiries, that the parties have complied with the necessary preliminaries as set forth in the civil law.”

Same-sex marriage (Church of England) Bill

The Same Sex Marriage (Church of England) Bill, brought in by Ben Bradshaw under the Ten Minute Rule, received its First Reading on 21 March 2023. In seeking leave to present the Bill, Bradshaw admitted:

“Of course, discussion about the potential impact of the Bill is somewhat academic, given that it has no chance of becoming law. The main motivation in introducing it is to encourage the bishops to stick to the commitments and timetable agreed by February’s Synod and resist any delay or backsliding at the next Synod in July. There has been sustained pressure from a vocal minority inside the Church against the very modest proposals on the table”.

He noted that the vote at the February Synod to allow same-sex weddings was very close among the clergy and laity:

“It is quite possible that, once blessings are allowed and the world does not fall in, things could move rapidly in the next few years. Yet even if the Church of England wanted to conduct same-sex weddings, it is currently prevented from doing so by the so-called quadruple lock to the equal marriage Act. This Bill could, should Parliament wish, simply remove that lock, meaning that the Church would not have to come back to Parliament again as and when it decided to change its doctrine and practice”.

The Bill was published on 6 July and the Second Reading debate is scheduled for 24 November 2023 – which is not a day on which the Commons is currently expected to sit, so it is very unlikely to take place at all.

Bishops in the House of Lords

On Thursday, there was a debate in Westminster Hall on Bishops in the House of Lords introduced by Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP). Replying to the debate, the Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office, Alex Burghart, said that he had

“not come to Westminster Hall to announce that it is Government policy to disestablish the Church of England. The hon. Member will recognise that, although some people feel very strongly about this subject, their numbers are quite small, the challenges the country faces are very great and the time before the next general election is increasingly short. So this issue is not something the Government will be engaging in—certainly not in this Parliament.”

The seal of confession

On 3 July, the Ecclesiastical Law Society published the Report of its Working Party on the Seal of Confession, which was established following the House of Bishops’ invitation for contributions towards the work of its own Working Party. An extract from the Report’s Section 10, Next Steps and Key Recommendations, is reproduced in our post, and the full text of the Working Party’s Report is here.

With regard to the content of the report, in reference [1] it states:

“We have adopted the term ‘the seal of confession’ in preference to ‘the seal of the confessional’. We acknowledge that the House of Bishops’ Working Party and IICSA use the term confessional and when we refer to either body we use that term. But contemporary canonical discussion, not least in the Roman Catholic Church, appears to be moving away from this usage as potentially too broad. The reason for this is that there is lively debate as to whether absolutely everything spoken by the penitent is subject to absolute confidentiality…The usage we have adopted has the added advantage of not confusing what is confessed as sin with a confessional box; an item of furniture rarely found in Anglican churches.”

[However, the photograph is actually of the confessional box in San Pietro in the Aeolian island of Panarea, which is so OTT it would be remiss of us not to share]. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood transfusions

The Chamber of the ECtHR to which Pindo Mulla v Spain (application no. 15541/20) had been allocated has relinquished jurisdiction in favour of the Grand Chamber. The applicant, Rosa Edelmira Pindo Mulla, is a Jehovah’s Witness, and a core tenet of her religious beliefs is her absolute opposition to blood transfusions and the donation and storage of blood and blood products. Following medical tests in July 2017, she was advised to have surgery. Before it was due to take place she recorded her refusal to undergo a blood transfusion of any kind even if her life was in danger but stated that she would accept any medical treatment that did not involve the use of blood. In the event, however, she was given blood transfusions during surgery in spite of her declaration.

She complains that though her refusal of blood transfusion had been clearly established in many official documents, they were ignored by the national authorities, in breach of Articles 8 and 9 ECHR.

Ecclesiastical Law Society Annual Conference

A report by Russell Dewhurst of the Ecclesiastical Law Society’s 35th Annual Conference at St Peter’s, Eaton Square, London on 10 June 2023 is included in the Society’s July Newsletter. Araba Taylor’s presentation notes on Hidden Faults and Presumptuous Sins are here and the slides of Janet Berry’s presentation on Sacred Space: Safe space, brave space are here.

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