Wednesday, March 3, 2010

News from the UK: Civil partnerships in church

The United Kingdom provides "civil partnerships" that provide most of the rights of marriage, save the name. And one other thing: they are not allowed to be held in churches.

In part, this reflects the fact that the Church of England (CoE, cousin of our Episcopal Church) is an established church: that is, a state religion. And the CofE hasn't really grappled with the gay issue, preferring to keep its numerous homos deep in the closet. (The problem with the Americans isn't that they ordained a gay bishop. It's that they ordained an HONEST gay bishop. But I digress....)

Because it is Established, the CofE has voting rights in the House of Lords, where the Bishops have been vigorously voting against bills that block anti-gay discriminatory hiring. And it is thanks to those bishops that Civil Partnerships cannot by law be conducted in a church.

The latest is a spirited argument (conducted as so many good British arguments are, in the letters to the Times) pointing out that several faith groups have no problem with effectively marrying gay people, and the current prohibition inhibits THEIR religious freedom.This was signed by members of many different faiths, including a number of CoE bishops.
Sir, The Civil Partnership Act 2004 prohibits civil partnerships from being registered in any religious premises in Great Britain. Three faith communities — Liberal Judaism, the Quakers, and the Unitarians — have considered this restriction prayerfully and decided in conscience that they wish to register civil partnerships on their premises. 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.
This is viewed as an intolerable imposition on the religious practices of the minority religions.

An excellent argument is made in the blog NextLeft,
[T]here is no such thing as 'religion' - there are, rather, religious viewpoints, plural and frequently conflicting. So when the state bases its laws on the precepts of a religious viewpoint, it thereby, inevitably, takes sides between different religious viewpoints. It plays favourites between citizens with different religious (or anti-religious) beliefs.

The demand for a secular state - a state which does not act from specifically religious considerations - is a demand that the state stop playing favourites like this. It is a demand for the equality of all believers - and non-believers - in the eyes of the state. And, frankly, if you don't believe in that basic principle of civic equality then you have no right to call yourself a democrat.

....the Anglican bishops revealed that they are not democrats. They do not believe in the equality of all believers - and non-believers - in the eyes of the state. They do want the state to play favourites. They want the state to exempt them from uniform laws that oppress their religious liberty (not necessarily an unreasonable demand) - but they also want the state to impose a uniform law that accords with their religious views even though this will oppress the religious liberty of others.
In many ways, this is similar to the arguments we are having here over the role of religion in Prop8. The difference is that technically, we do not have an established church in this country. But, we do have large religious groups that by force of number attempt and succeed in establishing their religious viewpoint on the society at large, and succeed therefore in preventing the free practise of faith by those who do not oppose marriage equality--including the Quakers, the MCC, the UCC, the UUs....and in some places, the Episcopalians.

Writing in the Guardian, the retired Bp of Oxford says,
Some Church of England bishops, who were hardly enthusiastic about civil partnerships in the first place, fear that if this is allowed it would blur the distinction them and marriage. But this is a fundamental issue of religious freedom. On what grounds can any body claim religious freedom for itself but deny it to others? The bishops may or may not approve of what Quakers, Liberal Jews and Unitarians want, but that is beside the point. What these bodies want would harm no one, and it accords with their deepest religious convictions. Religious freedom is indivisible.
Would that the CofE, the Roman Catholics, or the Mormons understand this: their freedom does not, and cannot, depend on denying freedom to someone else.

It is fascinating to see this play out. Because of the outcry, the Anglican bishops are making a move to relax the ban.

And the wide provision of legal protections is having an effect in the UK:
Fewer than a third of the population believe homosexuality is wrong, compared with two thirds in 1980s, according to the latest survey of British Social Attitudes.....

Almost two thirds (61 per cent) want gay couples to be able to marry, just like the rest of the population, not just have civil partnerships, while 68 per cent of the public back “full equal rights” for gay men and lesbians, suggesting that the Church, which opposes the ordination of gay priests, is out of touch with public opinion.
More about the British situation here.

UpdateThe House of Lords has passed the bill allowing civil partnerships to be held in churches. Reported in the London Times:
The move will result in an amendment to the Equalities Bill which would allow, though not compel, religious organisations to host civil partnerships. Religious language would also be permitted within the ceremonies.


Erika Baker said...

The irony is that this would possibly not have happened if the church had not been so insistent that those who want religious ceremonies have to have them in church. The Government's response was to play it really safe and to prohibit any form of religious expression during civil ceremonies. This has resulted in ridiculous examples like Robbie Williams' song "Angels" being prohibited because it mentions religious symbols.

When Civil partnerships came into being it made for a lot of awkwardness, because lgbt people were barred from having any religious ceremony in church, so Christian couples had no means of bringing God into their special day.

When Susan and I got civil partnered we carefully selected poems from a lesbian Christian poet we knew whose delicate language allowed us to know what we were hearing but whose poems were obscure enough to pass the eyes of the registrar (we had written our own service and had to email it to the register office in advance to have it checked out).

IT said...

Crazy. By comparison, when we got married, our friend C. was licensed for the day to perform the service, we had it at a venue of our choice, we made it all up from scratch and chose our music, and the only thing the government cared about was that the presider and the witnesses signed the form correctly, which we dropped off at the county records office the next day.