Civil partners: call for religious option

by
24 February 2010

by Simon Sarmiento

A LETTER strongly supporting Lord Alli’s efforts to amend the Civil Partnerships Act was published in The Times on Tuesday. The sig­natories included the Rt Revd David Stancliffe, Bishop of Salisbury; the Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth; the Deans of St Albans, Gloucester, and South­wark; and four retired diocesan bishops — the Rt Revd John Glad­win, the Rt Revd Bill Ind, Dr Peter Selby, and Dr Kenneth Stevenson.

The amendment, as originally pro-­posed, would permit registration of civil partner­ships to take place on religious premises, and would allow religious language to be used in such ceremonies. At present, both are forbidden, in line with the rules governing civil marriage.

Three denominations — the Society of Friends (Quakers), Liberal Judaism, and Unitarians — have expressed interest in being allowed to hold services on their premises. The wording of the amendment, to be considered on 2 March, was not available when the Church Times went to press.

The letter was drafted by Iain McLean, a Quaker, who is a Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, and Pro­fessor of Politics at Oxford. It is also signed by several other senior acad­emics, including Diarmaid Mac­Culloch, Professor of the History of the Church; Sarah Foot, Regius Pro­fessor of Ecclesiastical History, both at Oxford; and the Revd Sarah Coakley, Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.

The letter says: “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).”

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“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.”

When Lord Alli’s amendment was debated in the House of Lords on 25 January, during the Committee stage of the Equality Bill (News, 5 Feb­ruary), it was supported in the debate by Lord Harries, and by Lady Butler-Sloss. She said: “In so far as there are churches and synagogues and other faith places that would like this to happen, it is entirely appropriate, and I support the amendment.”

Lady Thornton, for the Gov­ern­ment, said that the amendment as proposed was not workable, and continued: “It is important that we listen, discuss, and consider views on this important issue, particularly the views of those churches and organ­isations that want to conduct same-sex unions on a voluntary basis so that same-sex couples can have the opportunity to formalise their rela­tionships in a religious setting.”

On Tuesday, a Government Equal­ities Office spokesman reiterated: “This is an important issue, which needs to be fully explored, and we need to carefully consider the impli­cations and hear views from all per­spectives.”

A Church of England spokesman said on Tuesday: “We agree with the comments made by Baroness Thorn­ton,” but he also noted that “views within the Church of England vary on the issues raised.”

A report in The Times that the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, Bishop of Lei­cester, Convener of the Lords Spir­itual, personally supported the amendment, was denied by a spokesman.

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