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Coffee House

Gay marriage, the CofE and the Tories

12 June 2012

4:00 PM

12 June 2012

4:00 PM

There was, as Freddy has said, something inevitable about the Church of England’s response to the imminent prospect of gay marriage. A convinced Anglican, who also has intimate knowledge of constitutional law and decoding legislation, recently told me in no uncertain terms that the government’s plan could force the church to schismatic ends because, for it, the division between religious and civil marriage is not clear. Marriage may be a sacrament before God, but it is most certainly a legal institution, defined and licensed by the State. This places the established church and its clerics in an exposed position should parliament chose to redefine marriage under English law. (See points 21 and 24 in the annex to today’s CofE document for further details.)

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My devout parishioner also noted the irony of a Conservative prime minister seeking the queen’s assent for a bill that would undo her coronation oath to defend the Anglican supremacy. And today’s news recalls times past, when Anglicans believed that their supremacy was being threatened by politicians seeking a different constituency, particularly during the later Stuart and early Georgian periods. The Tory party grew from those upheavals, defending the established institutional order against the innovations and impositions of Whig governments in favour of non-conformist protestant groups.

Henry St. John, later Viscount Bolingbroke, was one of those pioneering Tories — a thinker who Benjamin Disraeli, in an essay of 1835 entitled Vindication of the English Constitution, described as a founder of modern Toryism. In 1749, Bolingbroke — at the end of an uneasy life that had witnessed the Glorious Revolution, the Act of Union, the Hanoverian succession and the Jacobite rebellions — began to draft an unfinished book called The Present State of the Nation. In it, he wrote of his former ally Robert Harley:

‘A man who substitutes artifice in the place of ability, who, instead of leading parties, and governing accidents, is eternally agitated backwards and forwards by both, who begins every day something new, and carries nothing on to perfection, may impose a while on the world: but a little sooner or later the mystery will be revealed, and nothing will be found to be couched under it but a thread of pitiful expedients, the ultimate end of which never extended farther than living from day to day.’

Even through personal enmity that passage seems to strike at the base essence of politics and politicians. It explains why Bolingbroke believed so resolutely in the permanence of institutions and the transformative power of the law. He defined liberty as the state of being ‘free not from the law, but by the law’.

This prompts two questions for Bolingbroke’s successors in Westminster. First, by changing the law on the institution of marriage, what is the Conservative leadership hoping to conserve? And second, can the English truly be free so long as some are granted marriages and others are not?          

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