BBC Sunday on Civil Partnerships and CofE

An interesting discussion this morning on the BBC Sunday programme (click here are move forward to 35 mins and 30 secs). Over the past few days legal opinions have been batted back and forward arguing about whether it is appropriate for the Church of England to take a “default” position of not allowing Civil Partnerships to be registered in Church of England churches. This was raised by Changing Attitude (amongst others) earlier this week.

Changing Attitude recently wrote to William Fittall, Secretary General of the General Synod, with our concerns about recent statements issued by ‘spokespersons’ claiming to speak on behalf of the Church of England. Specifically we have been dismayed by the unequivocal assertion in various media that the Church of England will not allow civil partnerships to be conducted on its premises. We think this wrongly gives the impression that the Church has already made a decision and that there is a single church view on this matter whereas in fact there is a wide range of opinion.

The proposed legislation on civil partnerships in religious premises makes clear that the relevant authority in the Church of England is General Synod, and since Synod has not yet discussed and decided the matter the statement is presumptive and premature. This is reinforced by the failure of the spokespersons to make any reference to the fact that the Church of England’s attitudes to civil partnerships and to sexuality in general are currently the subject of reviews announced by the House of Bishops.

Changing Attitude’s understanding is that staff employed at Church House, Westminster are authorised to be spokespersons, and in discharging this role they are expected to have regard to official reports, resolutions and decisions of authoritative bodies within the Church, in particular of General Synod. In this instance it looks as if they have exceeded their remit. The statement about civil partnerships does not express a decision of General Synod. We think this looks dangerously like a privileged personal opinion masquerading as ‘the mind of the Church’.

The response from the Church of England was for the Secretary General to issue this communique to clarify the position.

4. In March 2010 Parliament decided, during the passage of what is now the Equality Act 2010, to remove the prohibition on the registration of civil partnerships on religious premises. Speaking on behalf of the Church of England in the House of Lords, the then Bishop of Bradford expressed caution over the proposed change in the law, partly because of a further perceived blurring of the distinction between civil partnership and marriage, partly because churches and faiths wishing to offer blessing after registrations could already do so, and partly because of a concern that what had been portrayed as simply an option might over time become an expectation and even a duty.
5. Clear assurances were however given in Parliament by the then Government that the new possibility for the registration of civil partnerships on religious premises would operate by way of denominational opt-in and that no Church or other religious body would be under any obligation to permit the registration of civil partnerships on its premises.
6. In March 2011 the new Government issued a consultation document on the way in which this change in the law would be implemented. It reaffirmed previous commitments. A response agreed by the Archbishops‟ Council and the Standing Committee of the House of Bishops stated:
“… the present objective, so far as the Church of England is concerned, is to ensure that the Regulations that the Government intends to make under the amended provisions of the Civil Partnership Act continue to provide unfettered freedom for each religious tradition to resolve these matters in accordance with its own convictions and its own internal procedures of governance. For most Christian denominations as well as other faith groups the issues involved are set to remain sensitive and, to varying degrees, contested.”
7. The Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 – which contain the new arrangements relating to religious premises – were laid before Parliament on 8th November 2011 and come into force on 5th December 2011. The Legal Office‟s analysis of the regulations is attached.
8. In short, the position under the new arrangements is that no Church of England religious premises may become “approved premises” for the registration of civil partnerships without there having been a formal decision by the General Synod to that effect.

The short summary is this – since the legislation is framed in such a way as to require a denominational “opt-in” before individual churches in a denomination can register Civil Partnerships in their buildings, until the appropriate body (General Synod in the case of the Church of England) makes such a decision, the default position is “No”. Interestingly, the answer Colin Coward gives when asked by Edward Stourton as to whether he would allow his church (which is rather a non-question as Colin Coward isn’t the incumbent anywhere) to be used to register Civil Partnerships is essentially, “No, the law doesn’t let me”. That seems to me to be an acceptance, for the moment, that there is no other path but General Synod for individual incumbents to allow their churches to be used to register Civil Partnerships.

The House of Lords will debate the whole matter on the 15th of December, amidst continuing concern that since marriages are a “public function”, the Equality Act might, despite denominational positions, still allow some churches to be taken to court for refusing to register a civil partnership if they already register marriages.

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