Blessing Civil Partnerships in Church

A letter today in the Times has reignited the debate over whether Civil Partnership ceremonies should take place within religious establishments. Lord Alli is going to move again his amendment next month in the Lords, and the authors of the letter take the opportunity to lay out their case.

Sir,

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 prohibits civil partnerships from being registered in any religious premises in Great Britain. Three faith communities — Liberal Judaism, the Quakers, and the Unitarians — have considered this restriction prayerfully and decided in conscience that they wish to register civil partnerships on their premises. An amendment to the Equality Bill, to allow this, was debated in the House of Lords on January 25. It was opposed by the Bishops of Winchester and Chichester on the grounds that, if passed, it would put unacceptable pressure on the Church of England. The former said that “churches of all sorts really should not reduce or fudge, let alone deny, the distinction” between marriage and civil partnership.

In the same debate, the bishops were crucial in defeating government proposals to limit the space within which religious bodies are exempt from anti-discrimination law. They see that as a fundamental matter of conscience. But it is inconsistent to affirm the spiritual independence of the Church of England and simultaneously to deny the spiritual independence of the three small communities who seek this change for themselves (and not for anybody else).

The bishops’ “slippery slope” argument is invalid. Straight couples have the choice between civil marriage and religious marriage. Gay couples are denied a similar choice. To deny people of faith the opportunity of registering the most important promise of their lives in their willing church or synagogue, according to its liturgy, is plainly discriminatory. In the US it would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise . . . of religion.

The amendment will be re-presented by Lord Alli on March 2. We urge every peer who believes in spiritual independence, or in non-discrimination, to support it.

Iain McLean
Professor of Politics, Oxford

Diarmaid MacCulloch
Professor of the History of the Church, Oxford

The Right Rev David Stancliffe
Bishop of Salisbury

The Right Rev John Gladwin
Former Bishop of Chelmsford

Lord Harries of Pentregarth
Former Bishop of Oxford

The Right Rev Bill Ind
Former Bishop of Truro

The Right Rev Peter Selby
Former Bishop of Worcester

The Right Rev Kenneth Stevenson
Former Bishop of Portsmouth

The Very Rev Nick Bury
Dean of Gloucester

The Rev Jeremy Caddick
Dean, Emmanuel College, Cambridge

The Very Rev Jeffrey John
Dean of St Albans

The Very Rev Colin Slee
Dean of Southwark

Canon Dr Judith Maltby
Chaplain, Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Canon Brian Mountford
Vicar of the University Church, Oxford

Canon Jane Shaw
Dean of Divinity, New College, Oxford

The Rev Sarah Coakley
Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, Cambridge

Sarah Foot
Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History

Alec Ryrie
Professor of the History of Christianity, Durham

Stuart White
Director of the Public Policy Unit, Oxford

Jill Green
Quakers

Now, some revisionist commentators are already engaging in pejorative hyperbole in support of this proposal (“Hardline religious activists opposed to any extension of rights for LGBT people are already lobbying vocally against the change.”), but there are genuine issues with the proposals in the letter that need to be addressed.

To begin with there is the issue as to whether allowing Civil Partnerships in churches would change the nature of that institution. When the Government introduced Civil Partnerships it assured faith communities that these were not “gay marriages” but rather an altogether different type of union. The authors of the letter however base their arguments on the similarities of the nature of the vows in Civil Partnerships and marriage, which means that they are working from the basis that the two are just different forms of the same institution. The only way that the argument that “Straight couples have the choice between civil marriage and religious marriage. Gay couples are denied a similar choice” works is if Civil Partnership and civil marriage are analogous. If Civil Partnership is a different institution to civil marriage then one cannot apply a justice argument on the basis that one would expect to do exactly the same thing when registering both of them.

A request therefore to allow Civil Partnerships to be held in churches is an attempt to create an equality in doctrinal stance. For the Church of England at least (which is still the established church) it is clear that Civil Partnerships do not equate to marriage. Furthermore, the stance of the Church of England, clarified in 1989, is that all sex outside of marriage is sinful, even that conducted within “permanent, stable, faithful” same-sex unions. If same-sex unions (for that is what Civil Partnerships are) are to be blessed within churches (for there is no other reason to register a Civil Partnership in a church other than to bless it, for that is the key distinction between a civil and religious marriage), then would those doing the blessing not be legally entitled to bless the sexual component of the same-sex union? If there is no legal barrier to blessing such unions (and in particular their sexual component) then such ceremonies can only be seen as “gay marriage” and the institutions (including the State in this instance) will be seen as advocating the position that same-sex unions and other-sex unions are identical in all respects.

If however the advocates of such ceremonies in churches agree that there should be no blessing of or reference to sexual union (in order not to change the doctrinal stance of the religious body involved), why did this month the supporters of equalising pension provision in the Church of England for surviving civil partners reject an amendment which would have extended pension provision to any named next of kin, regardless of the existence (or not) of a sexual relationship between the deceased and the next of kin? To reject such an amendment was to support the idea that Civil Partnerships are de facto sexual unions (which of course familial connections can never be) and so it would be disingenuous of proponents of this latest move to now argue that Civil Partnerships are not de facto sexual unions.

Of course one course of action would be to permit religious denominations as a body to allow Civil Partnerships if they chose so to do, but not to obligate them to do so if they did not wish to. There are two issues with this. Firstly, such an action would clearly see the Government equating marriage with civil partnership since there would be no difference in where the two ceremonies could take place. This is indeed then the “slippery slope” which the letter claims is not so, for in the initial debate over Civil Partnerships the Government made it clear that Civil Partnerships were not synonymous with marriage. Allowing for an equality in the place where the ceremonies could take place would destroy any last vestige of a pretence that the two were not synonymous.

Secondly, there would have to be absolutely cast iron safeguards in the legislation to permit religious denominations (such as the Church of England) to forbid its clergy to perform such ceremonies and to be allowed to make the performing of such ceremonies a sackable offence with no recompense. Without such a drastic option (and I do recognise it as drastic) there would be nothing to stop clergy of the relevant denomination performing a Civil Partnership in their religious building (which they would be legally entitled to do) with impunity. Such a situation could not and should not be tolerated.

Perhaps Lord Alli’s amendment will pass and perhaps the law will change. If so we might just have reached the point where the Church of England will have to stand by its beliefs, reject the demands to hold Civil Partnerships in church and challenge the Government to do its worse. And perhaps that’s actually what the Church needs right now in order to save it from just being a spiritualised organ of the secular society’s sinful excesses and to discover again what it is to be a witness to the transforming power of the Resurrection.

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