THE Church of England will continue to block civil-partnership registration ceremonies in its churches, despite the Government’s announcement on Wednesday of plans to remove legal barriers to them in religious premises.
The Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone, said that the changes to the Equality Act of 2010 could be brought in next month, as part of the Government’s commitment to “advancing equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people and ensuring freedom of religion or belief for all”.
She said that “the Government is committed to removing the legal barrier to civil partnerships’ being registered on the religious premises of those faith groups who choose to allow this to happen”. The changes would be a “permissive measure”, and there would be “no obligation on faith groups to host civil partnerships”.
Liberal Jewish groups and the Quakers have already said that they would be willing to host civil-partnership registrations. But a statement from the Church of England maintained its previous stance that such ceremonies could take place in its churches only if the General Synod had decided to opt into the new system.
A spokesperson said: “We will study the draft regulations as a matter of urgency to check that they deliver the firm assurances that have been given to us and others that the new arrangements will operate by way of denominational opt-in. If ministers have delivered what they said they would in terms of genuine religious freedom, we would have no reason to oppose the regulations.
“The House of Bishops’ statement of July 2005 made it clear that the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register civil partnerships, and that remains the position. The Church of England has no intention of allowing civil partnerships to be registered in its churches.”
The campaign group Christian Concern expressed worries over the changes, saying that it was “almost certain that homosexual campaigners will commence litigation” against churches that refused to allow civil partnerships.
The organisation’s chief executive, Andrea Minichiello Williams, who is a lay General Synod representative for Chichester diocese, said that there were not “sufficient protections for those who object on the grounds of conscience to providing this service”.
“This move is likely to open the door towards severe restrictions on religious liberty which will have implications for everyone, but especially pastors, vicars and church leaders, who could in the future be forced to undertake these ceremonies against their beliefs.”
Responding to reports that “rogue” clerics could carry out surreptious civil partnership ceremonies in their churches, a C of E spokesman said that this was “nonsense”, because a civil registrar would be required, and this would not be allowed under the new system.
In the past, some members of the clergy have held services of blessing for same-sex unions in their churches.