A former Conservative Party Chairman has called for Government intervention in the Church of England’s rules against gay priests marrying. Lord Fowler, who was health secretary from 1981 to 1987 under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, said LGBT+ clergy who choose to wed should not be disciplined by C of E leaders.
On Valentine’s Day this year the House of Bishops issued a ruling saying that members of its clergy must not marry their same-sex partners, even though the Church permits them to enter civil partnerships. After Canon Jeremy Pemberton defied the ban and married his long term partner at a registry office in April, the Church stripped him of his right to officiate as a priest in Nottinghamshire.
Lord Fowler, who as Norman Fowler spearheaded the 1980s’ ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ AIDS campaign and is patron of the British HIV Association, asked the Government if it could step in to try and help resolve the issue.
Speaking in the House of Lords, he warned that the treatment of Canon Pemberton could be repeated as other gay priests disobeyed the CofE’s edict on same-sex marriage:
‘Given that there are other clergymen at similar risk, will the minister as a matter of goodwill look at the position here and see if there is anything that could be done to help reconcile the difficulties?’ he asked.
Last month The Rt Rev Richard Inwood, acting Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, revoked Canon Pemberton’s permission to minister in the area as ‘same-sex marriage is clearly at variance with the teaching of the Church of England’.
As well as being told he could no longer practice in Nottinghamshire, Canon Pemberton was blocked for promotion as an NHS chaplain. But responding to Lord Fowler’s request, the Government’s House of Lords spokeswoman for women and equalities, Lady Northover, said the C of E’s stance on gay clergy marrying was a matter for the Church itself to decide on. However, she said she believed the CofE was making progress with its policies on equal rights.
‘Things can evolve. It is good to see, for example, that we should soon see women bishops,’ she said, referring to the recent decision made by the CofE’s General Synod.
Last night gay C of E priest Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster, told Vada: ‘It’s such a shame that this talk of government intervention is necessary.
‘When you think about it, it’s extraordinary that the House of Lords is now ahead of the Church in its support of same sex marriage.
‘Going back to the 1960s, the Church led the way forwards in calling to legalise homosexuality.
‘Now it seems to want to turn back the tide in terms of equality. But, as King Canute proved, it won’t work.’
The Rev Newlands, who is in a civil partnership, once described the C of E as ‘institutionally homophobic’. During a House of Lords debate on same sex marriage in June last year, Lord Fowler, a former trustee of the Terrence Higgins Trust, said: ‘Parliament should value people equally in the law and enabling same-sex marriage removes a current inequity.
‘I believe that there are many gay and lesbian couples who want more than civil partnership.
‘We should recognise that there are many deeply religious gay and lesbian couples, including people in the church, who want the commitment that marriage offers.’
Lord Fowler’s latest book, Aids: Don’t Die of Prejudice, was published on 10 June 2014 by Biteback.