Now when we have an issue where the local Conservative MP is apparently completely at odds with the majority of their local political party, opposition parties would generally see this as an opportunity for some mischief making. However, the issue of gay marriage and particularly the political and community impact of this proposal has proved to be an exception.
Over recent months, several local Conservatives mentioned to me privately their concern about Govt proposals on gay marriage. They felt very uncomfortable with this concept and combined with issues such as Europe and the economy meant that they were becoming somewhat disillusioned with how things were going. This is not just linked to Surrey Heath and the rise of UKIP shows this across the country. However, gay marriage was the “tipping point”. It is not difficult to find many other Conservative blogs reporting the same and indeed this is reported on the front page of the Saturday Times.
But in Surrey Heath, the politics is somewhat unusual because the local MP is Michael Gove and he has come out strongly in favour of the gay marriage proposals. This has caused much anguish amongst many local Conservatives with the unusual spectacle of their Chairman even appearing on Newsnight against this proposal. In addition, many Conservatives are also traditional church-goers and local clergy have also expressed a united opposition about this policy. I know that a respected group of Camberley clergy have met with Michael Gove to express this directly with him as have at least one group of party activists.
Now I must admit to being apparently one of the few people who didn’t have a strong view at all. Being neither gay or married meant not having the important personal experiences that they bring to this discussion although I do know a number of gay and married people and they have made their contrasting views clearly known to me. As a Labour activist, the majority of the party see this as an equality issue and are therefore in favour but as a practising Anglican, the majority would see this as a faith issue based on Biblical teaching and therefore against.
So it was with an open mind that I listened to a podcast arranged by Paul Deach this week from the local Coalition for Marriage event. There were 3 interviews in this sharing their opposition namely Geoffrey Vero (Chairman of Surrey Heath Conservatives) giving a political input, Lavinia Sealy (County Cllr and current Chair of Surrey County Council) speaking on a personal input and Rev.Bruce Nicole from St.Michael’s Church giving a religious input.
These interviews have now gone viral reaching even the Daily Mail and national gay news websites. In particular, the main controversy has been comments made by Lavinia Sealy expressing her opposition in pretty direct terms. As a result, one local Con Cllr has publicly called for her resignation with other Conservatives have blogged their attempts to distance themselves from certain comments made.
Starting with the political aspects, this is becoming a big issue due to a vote in Parliament due on Tuesday. Whilst there is a free vote from all parties, it is my expectation that the overwhelming majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs will vote in favour and indeed the whole Shadow Cabinet have already stated that they will do so. Many of these will be MPs who would describe themselves as Christians or of other faiths.
As with other parties, there was a discussion about this at a national party level but not on the concept, merely whether they should “whip” MPs to support or leave it to personal conscience. My guess is around 80-90% of Labour MPs will be in favour on the free vote. Locally, it is not a key issue for Surrey Heath Labour Party and in fact, our Executive had a meeting tonight where we spent most of our time talking about campaigns such as the terrible community impact of welfare reforms on the poorest in our society and various other local community issues. Gay marriage was barely mentioned and we spent as much time on this as horsemeat in burgers!
Moving onto the religious aspects, it is certainly true that many within faith communities (not just churches) and indeed people who I really respect are very uncomfortable with this on the grounds that their respective scriptures are explicit on the subject and that they try to follow this teaching themselves. Now I will leave discussion on Bible references to theologians but atheists and agnostics will dismiss this anyway. A personal reflection for me though is why are people so concerned about gay marriage but have apparently little or nothing to say on other aspects of sexuality that are also mentioned in religious texts but that might affect them personally rather than others?
For example, if we take the traditional faith view that sex is for within the confines of marriage (being one man and one woman), what about those who have sex before marriage, outside of marriage, divorcees, let alone issues such as pornography, reading erotic books or having lustful thoughts for someone other than your married partner! Whilst religious teaching is also against all of these, we need to be honest and say that the vast majority of church-goers will probably have “sinned” at some point in their lives in at least one of these areas.
The starting point must surely be for people to look and reflect on their own lives first before commenting on the lives of others. If we empty the church of everyone who has gone outside scriptures in this area and scare them away, I suspect the pews will be very sparse!
Much more importantly than this is whether the wider Christian message is being crowded out namely one of loving and showing compassion to others without judgement. On this point, I totally agree with the comments made by local Con Cllr, David Allen, who recently wrote an article about this on his personal blog. In a very thoughtful piece based on some personal experiences, he rightly highlights his view as a churchgoer, that there is a need for compassion in this discussion and questions why homosexuals feel unwelcome in many churches. This is a very powerful message that needs to be heard. It is not just about words but real actions here and what actual efforts are made to reach out to people. You don’t need to agree with someone or even personally feel comfortable with their beliefs or actions but “love thy neighbour” is a message surely meant for everyone regardless of who they might wish to share a bed with.
The real concern appears less to do with 2 atheists wanting to marry at a registry office but whether vicars will be forced against their will to undertake services in church which they strongly believe are not blessed by God. The Govt “exemption” on this for the C of E was probably well meaning but has actually gone down badly when Catholic and Muslim views are as least as strong.
So finally the personal and any political discussion is likely to arouse strong emotions and words particularly on a moral issue like this. We all have freedom of speech but we also have a responsibility to each other to be sensitive in accepting both diversity and faith. It is really for local Conservatives to decide whether certain comments crossed the line or not – all I will say is I personally felt the language and tone to be uncomfortable listening.
There is little doubt in my mind that the Gay Marriage Bill will pass on Tuesday as it has a clear parliamentary majority. There are a few areas that need ironing out as it goes forward such as around protection of teachers and faith leaders. But go forward it will – the question now is how will churches and politicians at all levels respond…positively and respectfully is my hope.