In the very first parliament, what is now this parish sent no fewer than six men to Westminster. Nowadays, we have to make do with two: Shoreham has Tim Loughton, and Steyning has Nick Herbert. And, as you would expect, these two MPs are very different, not least on the forthcoming debate about so-called 'gay marriage'. I understand that Nick Herbert is in fact in a civil partnership.
Tim Loughton was kind enough to write us a letter a few days ago, which I distributed to all the parishioners in Shoreham, and offered copies to those in Steyning. I asked him whether I could post it here, and he kindly agreed.
I thought it might be helpful if I wrote an open letter to you and your congregation about the forthcoming Parliamentary vote on proposals for 'gay marriage.' This is a subject which I know to be of particular interest to my churchgoing constituents many hundreds of whom have already written to me individually. Please use or distribute this letter as you best see fit, which is based on my views which have been publicised on my own website for some time.
It is particularly gratifying to see the personal testimonies that many constituents have written to impress upon me why they take a particular viewpoint, rather than having simply forwarded on a pre-prepared text. That is all the more appropriate because the issue of 'gay marriage' should be a matter of personal conscience, rather than of party political line or institutionalised agenda. The Prime Minister has clearly set out his reasons for being in favour of 'gay marriage' and I respect his right to do so. But, I particulaily respect his acknowledgement that this should be a matter of personal beliefs and that Conservatíve MPs at least will be free to make up their own minds.
As such, I have to say that my instinct has for some time now been not to support these proposals and, as it stands, I intend to vote against measures to legalise gay marriage. It is likely that this opportunity will first come before the House of Commons on February 5th though that is subject to change. However, it is right that we should take soundings from our constituents on this sensitive issue and I certainly welcome your representations, as I will any other constituent with whatever viewpoint.
In coming to this view, it in no way diminishes my passionate support for sexual equality and that everyone of whatever sexuality should have equal opportunities and rights in our society. That is why I enthusiastically supported the creation of civil partnerships which put gay couples on an absolute equal footing with heterosexual couples in the eyes of the law. I believe that was, and remains, the right thing to do although some people may still take a different view. What has particularly annoyed me in this whole debate, is the tendency for certain elements of the lobby in favour of 'gay marriage', instantly to caricature anyone who is against, as homophobic. That is grossly unfair, misleading and does nothing to promote their case, let alone a grown-up debate about what is a very sensitive and personal subject. In my case, certainly nothing could be further from the truth and previously as Minister for Children & Young People I particularly valued the work I did with LGBT young people and community groups.
From my personal perspectíve, when I entered into a Church of England marriage with my wife 20 years ago 'ast July, and with my father presiding as the local rector, it was a
tremendously special and solemn occasion. It was characterised by the part of the Church of England marriage service which defines marriage as:
'a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured.'
I hope you will see, therefore, why it ís diffícult for me to accept that the solemnity of marriage as a religious institution can be anything other than between a man and a woman, and particularly where all the rights and responsibilities of marriage are now available to non-heterosexual couples through civil partnerships. I do not see why we need to change the law and I also do not see why we need to change the law at this time when there are so many other important matters for the Government to be addressing, not least on the need to restore our economic fortunes.
I am also concerned that despite assurances given by the Government that the change in the law proposed will not be the end of the story. Given recent rulings in the European Court of Human Rights regarding the wearing of religious symbols and the sacking of those who feel unable to counsel same sex couples on matters of 'conscientious objection', I cannot believe that the law will not be challenged there and the prerogative of churches to be exempted will be undermined. There are also many practical considerations around how 'gay marriages' can be annulled and what will be the obligations of churches renting out church property etc. All in all this is a move which I believe will become a legal minefield.
However, my position, which has not been taken lightly, does not preclude me from listening closely to the many different representations that I am sure will continue to be made to me. I therefore welcome any questions or comments from constituents through the normal channels which can be found on my website and this will certainly help better to inform my contributions to the Parliamentary scrutiny of the legislation.
Thank you for passing on the contents of this letter and I am particularly grateful for the many people who have already offered their prayers for my deliberations in this issue.