I posted last week on the British government's announcement that it intends to allow the registration of same-sex civil partnerships on religious premises, if these are happy to allow it. (Currently they can bless before or after the registration, but the registration itself must not take place in a church or synagogue). I saw it as an issue of religious freedom. My argument, essentially, was that the state was seeking to redefine marriage when it had no right to do so. Without actually saying so, I implied that the definition of marriage -- a sacred institution -- was essentially safeguarded by religious tradition.
Speaking on behalf of the bishops of England and Wales, Peter Smith (pictured), Archbishop of Southwark and a canon lawyer, said this morning that, indeed, Parliament has no right to alter the definition of marriage -- but not because that definition lies with religious bodies. "Marriage does not belong to the State any more than it belongs to the Church," he says, noting that "a fundamental change to the status of marriage" was never envisaged by the Equality Act "or any other legislation passed by Parliament."
He describes marriage as "a fundamental human institution rooted in human nature itself" entailing "a lifelong commitment of a man and a woman to each other, publicly entered into, for their mutual well-being and for the procreation and upbringing of children." And as such, he adds, "no authority – civil or religious – has the power to modify the fundamental nature of marriage."
He then announces the bishops' determination to fight this one. "We will be opposing such a change in the strongest terms," he says.
Some of those who commented after my post last week could not understand why the Catholic Church would be exercised by last Thursday's announcement. No church would be forced, after all, to perform such registrations of civil partnerships; and the Catholic Church has made clear it would not allow them on its premises. But surely others (Unitarians, Quakers) should be free to do so?
Yet the issue is not about whether Catholic, Anglican or evangelical churches would be forced to solemnize what will in effect be gay marriage. The government is making clear that such compulsion will be ruled out -- although I said it would be hard to imagine the Church of England, which represents the state registrar, not facing at some point a discrimination challenge. The issue is about the state redefining marriage. When civil partnerships were first created five years ago the law specifically excluded the possibility of them being registered on religious premises -- precisely to avoid confusion with marriage. Now the state is removing that distinction.
But Archbishop Smith has gone further. He is saying, in effect, that nor do Quakers and Unitarians have the right to redefine marriage. As a "fundamental human institution rooted in human nature itself", in its fundamentals it cannot be redefined by any human agency -- whether temporal or spiritual. That raises the stakes considerably higher.
It is fascinating to contrast the vigour of this morning's statement with the hesitancy and confusion of the bishops' previous responses to equality legislation, both to civil partnerships in 2005 and to the 2007 anti-discrimination laws which resulted in the closure of the 13 Catholic adoption agencies.
What a difference a papal visit makes. Pope Benedict's trip to the UK last September emboldened the bishops specifically to stand up against equality laws which had the effect of diminishing religious freedom. Here is another example, emanating ironically from a government committed to giving faith a bigger voice. This time, it seems, the bishops will not be caught napping.