Apr 222012
Rev Nicholas Holtam

The Rt Rev Nicholas Holtam, the Bishop of Salisbury, compared bishops opposing marriage reforms to 18th century Christians who believed slavery was “God-given”.

His intervention will be seen as an attack on traditionalists, including the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who forcefully oppose the Government’s move to change the legal definition of marriage.

It comes as the Church prepares its formal response to David Cameron’s proposals to permit marriage between same-sex couples, before the close of the Government’s consultation in June.

Speaking on Saturday at a conference in London on homophobia in the Church, Bishop Holtam said: “Experience might lead us to be cautious about the certainty with which moral positions are built with Biblical support.

“Before Wilberforce, Christians in this country saw slavery as having Biblical support for what was the God-given in the ordering of creation.

“In South Africa, Apartheid was seen in the same way by the Dutch Reformed Church.

“Within the churches, Christians conscientiously disagree about the interpretation and significance of the six Biblical passages referring to homosexuality.”

In comments that will provoke traditionalist Anglican leaders meeting in London on Monday to address a growing “crisis” over openly homosexual bishops, Bishop Holtam said a “very big gap” had opened up between the Church and society as a result of an “ill-tempered debate” over sexuality.

“Most people now see the Church’s avoidance of equality legislation as immoral and it undermines us,” he told the conference, organised by the Cutting Edge Consortium, a coalition of national bodies campaigning for sexual equality in religious organisations.

The bishop added: “It is a disaster that we have allowed the Church to be seen as the opposition to equal marriage.”

He argued that by opposing the measure the Church had prompted the Government to create a “very disturbing” distinction between “religious” and “civil” marriage.

“Some Christians might like to say there are more important issues than gay marriage but we are not connecting with our society and for the churches this should be a mission priority,” he said.

His intervention follows an open letter yesterday from Church figures including Dr Jeffrey John, the openly gay Dean of St Albans, calling for the Church to “rejoice” at the prospect of same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, Roman Catholic priests in England and Wales will today distribute a leaflet drawn up by bishops urging worshippers to campaign against the proposals.

It states: “The Church is opposing the Government’s policy because it cares for the common good of society. Society should support the best means of raising the next generation. It’s about what marriage means for all – it’s not just about what happens in churches.”

Edward Malnick