Civil-partnership ban seen as challenge

07 December 2011

by Ed Beavan

Parliamentary statement: the Coat of Arms of John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, unveiled last week. The heraldic design, developed by the College of Arms, bears the motto "All are Equal", and includes pink triangles and rainbow colours, to highlight his support for LGBT rights PA

Parliamentary statement: the Coat of Arms of John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, unveiled last week. The heraldic design, developed by t...

THE possibility of getting church halls approved for the registering of civil partnerships is being explored after new regulations on civil partner­ships in places of worship came into force on Monday. The Church of England nationally is not allowing the use of churches.

A note from the General Synod’s secretary-general, William Fittall, sent to Synod members last Friday, said that under the new rules “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.”

An accompanying Legal Office memorandum seeks to allay fears of litigation under the Equality Act if churches refuse to hold the cere­mon­ies. It says that the “clear view” of the Legal Office and government lawyers is that churches would not be guilty of illegal discrimination.

“A church which provides couples with the opportunity to marry (but not to register civil partner-ships) is ‘con­cerned with’ the pro­vision of mar­riage only, it is simply not ‘concerned with’ the provision of facilities to register civil partner­ships.”

This area would need to be re­visited if same-sex marriage becomes law in the future, but currently, just as “a gentlemen’s outfitter is not required to supply women’s clothes . . . a church that supplies a facility to marry is not required to provide a facility to same-sex couples for reg­iste­ring civil partnerships”.

Several churches are believed to be investigating the registration of halls as approved premises.

The Revd Bob Callaghan, national co-ordinator of Inclusive Church, said that it was “definitely something” being considered. About 50 member churches would be willing to host civil partnerships in church if the law allowed it.

He said that exploring the option of church halls was a matter of principle, born of “the frustration and the sig­nals coming from bishops that the Church of England is not welcoming to gay people, and is saying ‘We don’t want you’”.

The PCC of St James’s, West Hamp­stead, has decided to investi­gate whether it can registered its church hall for civil partnerships.

The Vicar, the Revd Andrew Cain, has also asked the PCC at his other parish, St Mary’s, Kilburn, to look into this option, although the St Mary’s hall is under licence to a secular management company.

He said that they did not want to break the law, but explore the legal and technical possibilities, in reaction to the C of E’s “unpastoral response” to the issue. Such a move could be cost­ly and could involve removing religious items from the church hall, which is what the law requires; but they wanted “to treat any gay couple the same as a straight couple, and make a stance on justice and in­clu­sion. We’re not looking to make trouble.”

A C of E spokesman said that it was unlikely that church halls would be given approval as venues for civil partnerships, as the Registrar-General “would not consider a church hall to be a religious building and therefore allow a priest to act as a registrar within it”.

The legislation could still be annulled, as it is going through in the form of a statutory instrument, and a Conservative peer, Lady O’Cathain, is opposing it. It is due to be debated in the House of Lords next Thursday.

The Conservative MP for Gains­borough, Edward Leigh, a Roman Catholic, has put forward an Early Day Motion calling for the regulations to be annulled, saying they would not protect churches that did not want to conduct the ceremonies.

The Quakers have decided to register civil partnerships on their premises. The gay activist Peter Tatchell urged individual clergy to “defy this harsh, intolerant ruling” and “go ahead with same-sex civil part­nerships if they want to”.

Scottish Churches oppose same-sex marriage. The Church of Scotland has said it “cannot agree that the law in Scotland should be changed to allow same-sex marriage”. Respond­ing to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the issue, it said this proposal “fundamentally changes mar­riage as it is understood in our country and our culture, that it is a relationship between one man and one woman”.

The Scottish Episcopal Church responsed that its “current position is that marriage is a union between a man and a woman”, and that the law should not redefine marriage.

A consultation among the Porvoo Churches in Finland last month, attended by the Suffragan Bishop in Europe, Dr David Hamid, concluded that differences over the same-sex mar­riage are unresolved.

EVANGELICAL organisations in the Church of Ireland have responded positively to the House of Bishops’ pledge to hold a conference in spring 2012 on civil partnerships that involve serving clergy; but they call on the Bishops to acknowledge a hurtful “failure to engage” since their statement in 2003, writes Gregg Ryan, Ireland Correspondent.

The four main organisations — the C of I Evangelical Fellowship, the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy, New Wine Ireland, and Reform Ireland — also want to be formally invited to participate in the spring conference.

In a letter to the Bishops, the groups agree that the conference will not be empowered to make decisions, but call for a pledge that action that clarifies the issues will follow through the General Synod. “While the conference will not be an end in itself, it must point to, and lead towards, a definitive end.

“We believe the ongoing life and witness of the Church will be harmed by protracted uncertainty as to the position of the Church. This is especially the case in this instance, as we are no longer participants in a theoretical discussion about changes which, if provided for, could then be enacted; rather, the situation now is such that the teaching of the Church has not changed, but some have chosen to act contrary to the position of the Church.”

They call for a “considered but swift resolution”.

The Synod’s Standing Committee has requested a report to the Synod on the conference proceedings.

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