The UK Government Equalities Office has announced a consultation on whether to allow “civil partnership registrations” to be performed in churches. This is a small step away from the totally civil and non-religious arrangements allowed at present – but is it a step that will satisfy no-one?
The Equalities Office have gone to great lengths to explain that this will be an “opt-in” at the discretion of each faith group and such ceremonies. They clearly don’t want to be embroiled in court cases over this so intend that each faith group would decide through its own usual decision making processes which of its buildings (if any) could be used in this way. This could mean a national body making a decision for all its churches, or leaving the decision to local congregations.
Space for belief
There is also the issue of what sort of ceremony this is. At present a civil partnership ceremony has to be entirely secular. As the consultation document reminds us,
“The ban on the use of religious service during civil partnership registration means the registration cannot be led by a minister of religion or other religious leader, must not include extracts from an authorised religious marriage service or readings from sacred religious texts, hymns or other religious chants, or involve any religious ritual or any form of worship.”
The government proposes no change to this, but the important word is “during” – they make it clear that there would be ample scope at the end of the civil ceremony for the registrar to hand over to a church minister who could then conduct a religious service.
This could matter a lot to some people. Last year my wife and I attended a civil partnership ceremony. It was a lovely occasion and I think most of us were simply referring to it as a wedding, because to all intents and purposes that is what it was. The one slightly sad thing was that the couple weren’t allowed to have a ceremony that expressed their faith – except that they had a native-American blessing. It was only when we got to the reception that the best man was able to bless them with a prayer.
So will “faith groups” apply? One or two (including the Quakers) have already expressed an interest but it seems unlikely that there will be any sudden rush. Most churches have fairly slow decision making processes and on a contentious issue like this aren’t going to hurry. And if they do apply – will same sex couples be happy with this? It would not be full equality, but perhaps it would be seen as another step in a process.
Are congregations ready for this? Maybe not yet, but research in the USA by the Public Religion Research Institute found that the feelings of congregations can be far different from the official church position, and can indeed be very critical.
The research concerned Catholic opinion on gay and lesbian issues. It found that nearly three-quarters of Catholics were in favour of allowing same-sex marriages or civil unions, that Catholics were more supportive of gay rights than the general public, that most did not believe same-sex relationships to be a sin and were critical of their ministers handling of the matter.
Now that research concerned Catholics in America and can’t be taken to indicate anything wider. However it does raise the question of whether there could be many Christians with opinions very different from those of their church but forming an as-yet unheard group.
I’m sure we will hear a lot, lot more of this over the coming year…