Thursday, 8 March 2012

Civil Partnerships, Same-sex weddings, and the Church

Much has been said in recent days concerning the Coalition Government’s plans to legalise same-sex marriage. Church leaders have been among the first to speak out to condemn the plans (often in quite inflammatory language), while those who are part of the various lobbying groups have defended the Government’s plans as a legitimate development of the worldwide human rights agenda. Various countries around the world have now legislated in favour of same sex marriage. The marriage of two men or two women is now legal in twelve countries: (in chronological order of the passed legislation) The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, and Nepal, as well as 8 (and rising) states of the USA. The world has not come to an end, and those countries have not been ‘shamed’ by the rest of the world.
The decisions were not easily taken in any of these countries. In strongly Catholic Belgium and Spain, the church leaders did all they could to mobilize opposition to the planned legislation, though without success. The responses of churches in these countries have varied from outright opposition to willing compliance with the legislation. Churches in Iceland and Scandinavia led the way in developing liturgies for same-sex marriages, followed by some Canadian and American dioceses. Many other countries have other legislation in place giving equal legal rights to same-sex couples, including most of the countries of the European Union.
The situation in England is complicated by the unique relationship between Church and State, as Church of England clergy manage the legal formalities of marriage through the ancient tradition of ‘calling of banns’ and issue marriage certificates to those married in churches. When Civil Partnerships were introduced in the UK in 2004, it was made clear that these could only be ‘formed’ by registrars in secular venues, and the same rules applied as for civil marriages, namely that no religious poetry, music, or prayer could have any part in this entirely secular ceremony. Church authorities decreed that no churches would be permitted to offer a service of blessing to those who had formed such Civil Partnerships, and no official liturgies have been drawn up for these occasions (although there do exist some unauthorised liturgies).
There are, significantly three major differences between “Marriage” and “Civil Partnership” as the law currently stands. First, a Marriage can take place in either a secular or a religious context: the choice is up to the couple, whereas a Civil Partnership can only exist in secular form, the couple have no choice in the matter. It is not possible at any stage of the formation of a Civil Partnership to have a reading from the Bible or any other religious text, a prayer, hymn, or sacred music, however much that may be desired by the couple. Second, there is the presumption of a sexual relationship between husband and wife following a marriage. This is enshrined in law, as non-consummation of a marriage constitutes grounds for divorce. There is no such presumption for a Civil Partnership. Third, an incumbent has a legal right to refuse to conduct a marriage if either bride or groom has been divorced. The incumbent has no such right if either party has been in a civil partnership which has been dissolved. Being in a Civil Partnership which has not been dissolved is, of course, a legal impediment to being married.
A proposal which is not yet on the table for discussion (but should be?) could be that the option of a Civil Partnership (secular or religious) should be open to all couples who seek the legal security of partnership without the commitment to having a family, whilst Marriage (secular or religious) be open to all couples who do wish to found a family.
However, the situation we have at the moment does create a serious injustice, in that any Church of England clergy who may wish to minister to parishioners who would dearly love to come to church to make vows to each other before God and to have their union blessed, are not permitted to do so if the couple happen to be two men or two women.  There is not even provision for them to come to church after a Civil Partnership ceremony to seek God’s blessing on their relationship. This seems to be a heavy-handed and cruel stance which the National Institutions of the Church of England have taken. Mercifully, many clergy are prepared to act responsibly and are happy to provide some measure of pastoral support, and pray with couples in such circumstances, though this still falls far short of what is being asked for. Of course, there will be no compulsion on clergy or PCCs to host such services of blessing. The situation would be the same as when divorced persons come to church seeking to be married according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England, namely the incumbent of the parish has the right to decide whether or not to solemnize such marriages.  
When the Government made it possible for Civil Partnerships to be formed on religious premises, a spokesman, claiming to speak on behalf of the Church of England, said that this would never happen in England’s parish churches. This is a statement which many would wish to challenge through the synodical process. It would seem perfectly legitimate for the Church to be pastorally involved with a couple seeking to mark their loving commitment to each other by exchanging vows to each other in a civil partnership within a church context, and I hope that the Church of England will change its mind on this issue. If we fail to do so, we will indeed be negligent in our duty of pastoral care to those of our parishioners who are in committed, loving, and stable same-sex relationships by withholding God’s blessing from them. 
Lancaster Priory PCC will shortly be discussion a resolution which has already been passed by many churches across the country, namely: 'This PCC believes that we should be able to register Civil Partnerships and urges the Church of England to take the necessary steps to enable successful applications to the registrar.' This is a legitimate part of the church’s decision-making process, and if the PCC passes this resolution at our next meeting, we would be encouraging wider discussion of this proposal in the synods of the Church of England, in the hope that we may encourage a change on the regulations by which we are bound, so that we may we seen as a Church which is as affirming, welcoming, and affirming to the LGBT community, their families, friends, and supporters – as we are to those of God’s people who are already being affirmed by the Church’s ministry to couples coming to be married in our churches. 
Chris Newlands
8 March 2012

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