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Westminster rules on gay marriage in shared churches and chapels

14 March 2014


Vigil: Christian protesters gather out side the Palace of Westminster, on Monday 

Vigil: Christian protesters gather out side the Palace of Westminster, on Monday 

PROPOSALS to convert the House of Commons chapel, St Mary Undercroft, into a multifaith centre (News, 15 March 2013) so that MPs and peers could use it to solemnise same-sex marriages, have been blocked.

Black Rod, Lt. Gen. David Leakey, confirmed that the original suggestion that the chapel be converted into a multifaith centre had been modified "so that the chapel would be a multi-denominational chapel; in other words, still a Christian place of worship rather than multifaith. None the less, there are no plans to take the proposal forward."

The chapel is a Royal Peculiar, under the care of Westminster Abbey, and one of the few remaining areas of the Palace of Westminster still under royal control. Chris Bryant, the MP who first put forward the idea, suggested that the proposal was personally blocked by the Queen, who visited the chapel in December. "She is a very conservative woman," he said.

As a Church of England chapel, St Mary Undercroft could be used to conduct same-sex marriages only if the General Synod gave its consent to same-sex marriage in the C of E.

The Government has published draft regulations concerning the use of military chapels for same-sex marriages. The regulations, which are due to come into force in June, re-quire the Secretary of State for Defence to "consult with the relevant governing authority of any relevant religious organisation which in his opinion makes significant regular use of the chapel", before applying for it to be registered as a venue for same-sex marriages.

The regulations specifically exclude C of E chapels, however, which would require the Secretary of State to certify that the chapel "is not consecrated according to the rites of the Church of England".

The Government has also introduced regulations detailing how "informally shared" church buildings can be registered for same-sex marriages. The rules, which cover arrangements that have not been made under the Sharing of Church Buildings Act 1969, require all qualifying shared churches to give consent before a building can be registered.

A qualifying shared church is one that has used the building "for public religious worship on two or more occasions in each calendar month" in each of the preceding six months, or nine of the preceding 12 months, the Equalities Minister Helen Grant told a Commons committee last month.

The registration of a shared building will specify which of the sharing churches will be able to conduct same-sex marriages in it, Ms Grant said. "If a religious organisation gives its consent to the building being used to conduct marriages of same-sex couples by another sharing organisation, this consent will not enable it to solemnise marriages of same-sex couples. Any sharing organisation wishing to conduct such marriages will need to provide separate explicit consent from their own governing authority."

In a formal response to its consultation on the subject, the Government explained that this was required so that the regulations did not "undermine the religious protections set out in the 2013 Act" by providing "a route through which some members of a religious organisation could solemnise a marriage of a same-sex couple without the consent of their governing authority".

The first official notices of intention to marry, or preliminaries, were made yesterday, in preparation for the first same-sex marriages on Saturday 29 March.

The Evangelical Group on General Synod, has questioned the House of Bishops' guidance on same-sex marriage, saying that it ignores "the position of lay people holding a bishop's licence or commission".

In a letter to its members last weekend, the Revd John Dunnett, who chairs the Group, said: "We believe that such lay ministers, who, along with ordained ministers, should offer an exemplary lifestyle, should be expected not to enter into same-sex marriages, and those who have contracted same-sex marriages should not be licensed or commissioned."

The letter said that "while affirming that everyone should be welcomed in our churches, we continue to believe that appropriate sacramental discipline should apply to those who choose to enter into any sexual relationship other than within marriage between a man and a woman."

Mr Dunnett also questioned the Bishops' guidance that prayers rather than a blessing might be offered to same-sex couples. The distinction between the two was "without reasoned theological difference, and likely to lead to confusion".

On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, spoke in St Paul's Cathedral about several weeks in which "my mail box and daily delivery has been full of indignation.

"From the various angles of the debate on human sexuality, the vitriol has flowed in, denouncing the errors and shortcomings of others seemingly blind to the lack of charity which rage against the others betrays. . . There is a word for all of us in today's Gospel: 'If there is any one among you who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.'"

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