Prime minister is accused of rushing through legislation by Catholic cleric, whose comments anger gay groups
The head of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales issued his strongest attack yet on the government’s plans to introduce same-sex marriage, lambasting them as “shambolic” and accusing the prime minister of “shallow thinking”.
In the most divisive of a host of Christmas Day comments from religious leaders, the archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, questioned the democratic credentials of the plans, which could see the first gay weddings take place in 2014.
“Frankly, the process is shambolic,” he told the BBC in an interview. “There was no announcement in any party manifesto; there’s been no green paper; there’s been no statement in the Queen’s speech. And yet here we are on the verge of primary legislation. From a democratic point of view, it’s a shambles.”
The comments were rejected by gay rights groups and prompted some to suggest Nichols look again at the seasonal message. “We do think it’s very sad that an archbishop should sully the day of the birth of Jesus by making what seem to be such uncharitable observations about other people,” said Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the organisation Stonewall, who stressed that polling evidence had suggested that a majority of the general public were in favour of same- sex marriage.
He added: “Some of us are mindful of Luke 2:14, which reminds us that Christmas Day is a day of peace and goodwill to all men. Perhaps Archbishop Nichols should have spent a little more time in Bible study.”
The government has said that, under its plans to legalise gay marriage, no religious group would be obliged to perform such ceremonies against its will. To their surprise, the Church of England and the church in Wales learned earlier this month that they in fact would be barred from marrying gay couples – a move which prompted them to criticise the government for what they claimed was a failure to consult properly.
In his comments, Nichols lashed out at David Cameron, accusing him of rushing through legislation for which he had no mandate and which was “a bit of a sham”. “Basically the prime minister has said, ‘where there is love and commitment, then that’s all that you need for marriage’… But I think that’s very shallow thinking, and it’s a shame that these matters have not been given much, much more thought,” he said.
In his sermon Justin Welby, bishop of Durham and the next archbishop of Canterbury, acknowledged that the relationship between religion and the public was often conflicted, but stressed the valuable role played by the church in helping the neediest in society.
He told worshippers at Durham cathedral: “It is very easy to be despondent about the church. Some speak of division and even of betrayal. The processes we go through are agonisingly wounding for many. There are profound differences of opinion about the nature of Christian truth and its place in society, about the right of an ancient tradition to dictate or even to advocate ethical values around the end of life, around marriage, around the nature of human relationships, inequality, our duty to each other..”
He added that, although numbers appeared to be falling, the recent census showed that 59% of British people identified with the Christian faith. “We would never hear the end of it” if that figure formed the support base of a political party, he joked.
The man whom Welby will replace, Rowan Williams, also drew on the census to give a message of optimism about the state of Christianity in Britain. Although numbers were down 12% on 10 years ago, he said, “if I were a member of the British Humanist Association, I might want to pause before I became too excited”.
He added: “It remains true that three quarters of the public still want to identify themselves as having a religious faith of some kind. And what the census doesn’t and probably can’t measure is exactly how those who don’t identify as religious think about religion. Do they never give it a thought? Do they wish they could believe something? Do they see it as a problem or as a resource in society?”
Williams said the “deeply painful” rejection last month by the Church of England’s General Synod of women bishops legislation had given hope that the church’s relevance remained significant.
“What was startling was how many people who certainly wouldn’t have said yes to the census question turned out to have a sort of investment in the church, a desire to see the church looking credible and a real sense of loss when – as they saw it – the church failed to sort its business out,” he said.