The speech Bishop Rachel Treweek might have made

This is the speech that I would have liked the Rt Rev Rachel Treweek to have made this week on entering the House of Lords.

My Lords – I am overwhelmed by your generosity in welcoming me to this house. Your warm and unprecedented applause as I was introduced to this house contrasted so strongly to the experience of being in the General Synod when the key votes were taken which allowed women, at last, to become bishops in the Church of England. In that place and at that time both women and men who rejoiced in that change were silenced and told that applause was inappropriate. Your own enthusiastic welcome to me here in this place stands in stark contrast to that experience and I have no doubt that it will give many pause for thought.

I ask you all to understand that the things that I am about to say about membership of this place are said out of the deepest respect for the ways in which your Lordships work and the diligence with which you scrutinise legislation. However, it is plain to me that having taken my seat here, I must now depart.

There is only one other country in the world which reserves places in its legislature for clerics and that country is Iran. Keeping seats exclusively for so-called “senior” clerics can have no place in a modern democracy. The good things that have been accomplished by my brother bishops who have sat here hitherto are commendable but fall a long way from convincing me that any of us who are appointed bishops in the Church of God should sit as though by divine right in the parliament of this land.

I remain convinced however that Christians should be involved in public life. For that reason, should the opportunity ever arise for the people of Gloucester to choose their own representative to sit in this place in a reformed Senate of the Nations of the United Kingdom, I would strongly wish to serve them and would consider offering myself for election to the cross-benches of a much changed House.

There is an air of constitutional change that is blowing through this land from the north to the south. My Lords, those of us who sit here by virtue of privilege or patronage cannot be unaware that change is coming. Let us all commit ourselves to the reforms of this House that will lead to the stability of this realm.

My Lords – whilst expressing no little delight in being introduced to this place, it also falls to me to remind your Lordships that the recent legislation that was enacted that brought me here was based on the principle of positive discrimination for those women who are consecrated as bishops. Notwithstanding my joy at being here today, my life has taught me to oppose discrimination wherever it is found regardless of whether it is for regressive or progressive causes. The wisdom that I have received not only from feminist thinkers but also from the wisest friends tells me that people should only ever be promoted in life through merit and never because of their gender. My joy in being here is tempered by my embarrassment at having been “leapfrogged” into place by legislation that means that another person who might have expected to serve here cannot do so merely because of my gender. I make no apology for being here today but I ask your Lordships to ensure that no piece of legislation ever favours anyone by virtue of their sex.

It remains the case that women who become bishops do not have the same authority in the Church of England that men who become bishops have. Your Lordships will  not be surprised to learn that it is my view that the recent consecrations of women as bishops are a welcome step – but only a step towards the full equality of men and women. Our work towards that goal has taken a giant leap forward but remains unfinished.

In choosing not to sit in this chamber and not to participate in its learned debates, it is my hope that I will provoke a period of reflection within the Church of England about our relationship with the state. My decision not to participate in this venerable institution will one day be mirrored by a decision by the Church to divest itself of the privileges of power, not least in the arena of education. I shall work to ensure that all schools offer the finest education that could possibly be on offer to our young people and that they do so liberated from the control of an established church or indeed any other faith group.

In departing this place, I remain loyal  to the Church in which I work. My colleague the Archbishop of Canterbury has the unenviable task of balancing what it right with the pragmatic realities of complex political situations. I have no doubt that he believes in his heart that men and women should be treated equally everywhere. Notwithstanding this, he has given his good name to a situation where bishops who happen to be women are, even now, not bishops who have parity with their brothers. The Archbishop’s head has ruled his heart in coming up with one compromise after another to appease those who, in the church, are unable to show me the generosity that your Lordships have shown over my recent consecration. I remain loyal to the Archbishop’s heart if not his head – a heart which burns for bringing the Good News to this land. He must know, as all people of goodwill know, that we are hampered in our task of bringing the liberating news of Jesus Christ to England and beyond, whilst the church remains famous more for homophobia and sexism than the love of God.

On the matter of homophobia, I know that your Lordships will be pleased to hear that I met with all my sister bishops recently and, as ever, we discussed issues of equality within the church at great length. I am delighted to be able to report that we speak as one in condemning homophobia and in longing for a time when we can celebrate the arrival of gay and lesbian bishops amongst our number on the bishops’ benches of the General Synod. As women, we know that justice demands that we work tirelessly for all who are excluded or discriminated against. That will begin with working for and with those who are in same-sex relationships to ensure that discrimination against them becomes unthinkable. But that is merely where we will begin. We will not end there. Our ambition is justice for all.

It is the work of a particularly evil genius in the church to come up with a policy – “gracious restraint” which makes it harder for progressive people to work towards eliminating sexism and homophobia from the common life of the church and consequently from the common life of this land. We know from scripture that the powers and principalities of darkness must ultimately fall. Such will be the case with the so-called “Five Guiding Principles” of the Church of England. No Christian can ever elevate the desire to be nice to one another over the gospel imperative of doing what it is right.

This House has done a great work for justice this day in delaying and opposing the government’s attack on the poor by the reduction and withdrawal of tax credits. The temptation to remain here to join you in similar struggles is great but for now at least, I must fight with you but in other places.

My Lords, this, my maiden speech will also be my valediction. And as I depart I wish upon you all and upon your work the benediction of almighty God that is due to all those who work for the common good. I chose to work in a different way and in different places but, and here I have no doubt in my mind, for the same common cause for which you all labour – the well-being of the people of this land.

Husbands and Wifes

flag over castro

Yesterday I heard the news that the House of Lords has given a third reading to the new legislation which will allow gay couples to get married in England and Wales. It should get the nod from the House of Commons today and then go to the Queen for Royal Assent by the end of the week. The first marriages under this legislation will take place sometime next year once registrars have been re-trained and new forms printed.

I expect we will have a period where all kinds of other institutions will have to re-write their forms and policies too. One can imagine married same-sex couples getting grumpy when they try to fill in an insurance form or try to join a social network and they are offered wife or husband when they want to be offered a box to tick for the opposite.

It is only fairly recently that I’ve heard same-sex couples who were married speaking freely of their husband or wife. We have one same-sex couple connected to St Mary’s who are married, having been hitched in South Africa. When I was in Canada and the USA I was hearing the use of husband by some married gay men and wife by some of the lesbian couples I met. It was by no means universal but it was becoming common and rather ordinary though no doubt that takes a little time.

Part of me remembers that I once was against same-sex marriage and that it was partly because I thought that gender-neutrality had something to offer. Were gay couples not leading the world by insisting on having partners rather than the somewhat possessive alternative nouns?

I think I was wrong about that. What was needed was equality and some people need to use just such possessive language to describe their relationships in the same way that straight married couples sometimes reject it and use the partner language.

Inevitably there is now going to be a period of reflection and consultation whilst the government tries to decide whether to open Civil Partnership up to straight couples. I expect that will happen though I’m not that keen. It seems to me that the right way forward was simply to incorporate Civil Partnership with Civil Marriage. However, I suspect that though I’ve been on the winning side of most arguments about changes in marriage law, that is not one that I’m likely to win now.

Very many churches have proclaimed themselves to be against same-sex marriage as it will somehow undermine and threaten the institution of marriage itself.

I don’t think that is true. I do think that retaining Civil Partnership and opening it up to straight couples does undermine the institution of marriage though. Had the churches engaged in these arguments in more constructive ways than most of them did then they might have had an influence which strengthened marriage. Instead, I suspect that in the long term they will have weakened it.

Still, we’ll not worry about that today. We will simply fly a rainbow flag in celebration for all those soon to be married couples in England and Wales. And recognise that the last battles still have to be won in Scotland.

Alleluia for England!

And once more unto the breach.