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Austen IvereighFebruary 18, 2011

It's hard so far to see the tempest behind the first clouds and hastening winds. But an announcement yesterday by the UK government that it intends to lift the ban on civil partnerships being celebrated in places of worship is set to unleash a storm which could well redefine the relationship between Church and state; and have profound long-term consequences -- especially for Anglicanism.

Nothing has happened as yet. The Government says it wants to consult. The Churches have (mostly) held fire until they see some of the detail of what is proposed. But the Government's intention is clear; the consequences much less so.

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 gave same-sex couples rights and responsibilities similar to those in a civil marriage: civil partners are entitled to the same property rights, the same exemptions on inheritance tax, social security and pension benefits as married couples. They also have the same ability to get parental responsibility for a partner's children as well as maintenance, tenancy rights, insurance and next-of-kin rights in hospital and with doctors. There is a process similar to divorce for dissolving a civil partnership.

In purely legal terms, therefore, a civil partnership looks and acts like a marriage. There are even vows. But it isn't marriage, as the then Labour government stressed when it was pushing it through Parliament. It is a purely contractual, civil, legal arrangement. That's why civil partnership ceremonies cannot be solemnised in churches, or include religious readings, music or symbols. In passing the Civil Partnership Act, therefore, the state's message was clear: a civil partnership is not marriage, because marriage is a sacred institution, whether solemnized in a church or registry office; and inherent in the understanding of marriage is that it is between a man and a woman for the sake of children.

The Churches, at the time, were not wholly taken in by this. The Catholic bishops objected that if this were really so, why restrict those legal privileges to same-sex (implicitly sexual) couples? Why not -- as happens in France and Italy, say -- create a legal contractual arrangement with tax, inheritance, hospital visiting rights etc. for any stable, long-term, cohabiting pair of people, which could include carers, maiden aunts, and so on? In France, 90 per cent of those who enter into such arrangements are not same-sex couples.

But the demand for a civil partnership scheme specifically for same-sex couples had been a longstanding demand of the gay rights lobby, and the Blair government was keen to deliver a major victory to a sophisticated campaign group representing significant political clout. Most Labour MPs -- actually, MPs of all parties -- saw and see gay rights as the civil rights de nos jours.

More than 18,000 civil partnerships were formed in 2006, the first year they were legal in Britain, since when there have been out 6,000 a year.

The Catholic bishops of England and Wales said at the time (April 2004): "We believe these problems which are essentially associated with financial and property matters could be remedied by legal changes other than the introduction of formal civil partnerships which, in the case of same sex couples, is likely to be seen as a form of same-sex marriage with almost all the same rights as marriage itself."

But their protests could hardly be vigorous, because the Government kept insisting that this was not marriage. Some bishops even supported the move, believing that the common good of society should support stable relationships among those unable to enter marriage.

So in the UK we have two ways of tying the knot: one called marriage, open only to heterosexual couples; the other a civil partnership, available only to same-sex couples. The first can be celebrated either in a civil registry or in a place of worship; the latter only in a civil registry.

Logically, therefore, as far as the state has been concerned, the defining characteristic of marriage is that it is capable of being religiously solemnized.

Hence the inevitable demand from gay rights groups that civil partnership ceremonies should be too. As an Independent editorial puts it: "as long as the institution of marriage remains the exclusive preserve of a man and a woman, the message being sent out is that gay couples are still in some way different, second class and only almost equal."

Recognizing the equality of gay people, in other words, must entail the creation of a new kind of institution: gay marriage.

Not to do so means that the Government must cope with a new kind of resentment. Only 10 years ago, gay rights advocates wanted nothing to do with marriage. Now they are appalled to be excluded from it. "By saying we are civil partners and not a married couple the government is segregating us," complains a contributor to a BBC website discussion. "My partner and I are both decent, professional people who pay taxes on time, we do not commit crimes and as such we should not be made to feel as second-class citizens."

The logic seems compelling: if gay couples can have the same legal privileges as marriage, why can't they marry?

There are many answers to that question, but they are all uncomfortable for a secular modern politician to make: because marriage is a sacred institution defined in all cultures and ages as the complementarity of man and woman making a lifetime commitment for the sake of creating a stable environment for children, thereby safeguarding the healthy regeneration of society. Because marriage is not primarily about love and commitment; all kinds of relationships involve both but are not marriage. Because it is the combination of commitment and sexual complementarity which define marriage. Because marriage is not, nor has ever been, a "right": in both canon and civil law, there is a whole range of impediments to marriage. Because it is not a matter of subjective feeling: it is not about "expressing the love I feel"; because it is a an institution designed for the good both of those in it, and for society as a whole, precisely because of those characteristics -- sexual complementarity, stability, children -- which define it.

To be more accurate, it is the potential capability of those characteristics which define a marriage: a couple may be too old or unable to have children, or they may split up; but without sexual complementarity, neither of the other two are possible. The logical difficulty which civil same-sex partnerships and same-sex adoption have created is that by allowing both, the state has conceded that two of the properties of marriage -- lifelong commitment and children -- pertain in the case of same-sex couples as much as in heterosexual ones. That's why the logic of yesterday's announcement is extremely hard to contest, unless you are willing to pronounce that sexual complementarity is an intrinsic property of marriage, to the extent that marriages can happen without children and may not last, but they cannot happen between two people of the same gender.

That's a tough argument to make to the gay rights lobby. That's why last year a majority in all three parties voted for the amendment to the Equality Bill which paved the way to yesterday's announcement. The Coalition's junior partner, the Liberal Democrats, called for it in their manifesto. Public opinion appears also to back the idea of gay marriage.

And if the state wishes to create such a thing, can or should the Church object?

Yes and yes. Because this is a major assault on religious freedom.

Remarkably, the Government has tried to frame their proposal as an advance for religious freedom. The mainstream Churches -- Anglicans, Catholics and Evangelicals -- have made clear that they will not allow gay marriage ceremonies. But there are small, autonomous religious bodies which will: part of the push for lifting the ban comes from liberal Jewish synagogues, Quakers and Unitarians. The Government says it is acceding to these wishes, and that no religious body will be forced to allow gay weddings. "But for those who wish to do so this is an important step forward", said the Home Secretary, Theresa May, adding: "This government is committed to both advancing equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and ensuring freedom of religion for people of all faiths."

Freedom of religion? Let's examine this.

Even though marriage has a civil dimension -- tax, property, and so on -- which it is proper for the state to regulate, marriage is not, and has never been, an institution created by the state, or pertaining to the state, even when it is recognized and supported by the state. In all cultures, in all times, marriage exists as a means of providing a means of protecting and providing for children; it is a "sacred" institution, in the sense that it involves rituals, invocations and blessings. It antecedes the state. It belongs properly to the civil sphere. In Christian cultures, it is also underpinned by a theology, one that sees the union of a man and a woman for the good of children as embodying something of God's own covenant with His people.

Giles Fraser, canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, argues in the Guardian that church authorities have no right to impose this theology on their own members. "The Church must not impose its own institutional homophobia on gay Christians who want to use the Bible in a civil marriage ceremony," he says, telling the equalities minister that she "must not be distracted by a nervous Church protecting its control of biblical hermeneutics".

But this isn't a matter of mere hermeneutics. If religious authorities cannot define the nature of a sacred institution -- and over 2,000 years that definition has remained pretty fixed, at least in its essentials -- who can? Can the state? Should the state?

A gay rabbi who supports the announcement has no doubt about what this means: the state reshaping religion, long the ambition of totalitarianism. "Civil Partnerships are, by the very nature of the word ‘civil’, supposedly devoid of all religion", writes David Mitchell in Pink News. "Accordingly, what the Government may have actually sanctioned is a gently pitched process towards same-sex marriage in religious institutions."

Apart from the "gently pitched", that's exactly right. Here's the kicker. The state is seeking to condition, define and reshape a sacred institution embedded in civil society and shaped by religion. That's a takeover.

This move doesn't advance religious freedom. It's a major assault on it. And the Church that is most clearly in the firing line here is the established one. The Anglican Church is embedded in the state. Unlike other churches, Anglican churches are marriage registrars; the religious ceremony and the civil ceremony are the same.

Once the state has created, therefore, this new institution of gay marriage -- created precisely by virtue of permitting it to be religiously endorsed -- it is, literally, a matter of time before a same-sex couple brings a quite reasonable case before the courts, arguing that the Church of England is discriminating against them on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

The judge would then have to explore this question of who defines a religious marriage. And he would quickly conclude that it is the state, rather than the Church, which has the authority to do so. How can it not be otherwise, when the state has authorized religious ceremonies in which gay couples tie the knot, when the consensus of the mainstream Churches (Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical) is that gay marriage is a theological impossibility?

It is the same logic behind the closure of Catholic adoption agencies in 2007. The concession of a right -- same-sex adoption -- leads to a practice; and the practice begs the question: if here, why not there? Each time, the basic principle of religious freedom (the same principle underpinning civil society) is forced to give way to the logic of equality.

The problem is not that the Church fails to persuade wider society of its point of view: that happens all the time. Nor is the problem that the Church fails to persuade the state to enforce its point of view: the Church long ago abandoned its theocratic ambitions. The problem is that the state appropriates to itself that which does not belong to it. It extends its reach, and shrinks religious freedom in the process.

Yesterday's announcement has exposed a vast contradiction at the heart of the coalition government. Just days after David Cameron recommitted himself to fostering a "big society" his Government has announced it will shrink the religious freedom on which a vigorous civil society depends.

But that's a secondary matter. The important thing is that this is one move the Churches will have to fight. Their natural rights and freedoms are at stake.


[LATEST - added 21 February 2011: statement from Catholic bishops' conference of England and Wales:

The Government statement on 17th February  makes it clear that they are now considering a fundamental change to the status of marriage. That is something which was never envisaged by the Equality Act or any other legislation passed by Parliament. Marriage does not belong to the State any more than it belongs to the Church. It is a fundamental human institution rooted in human nature itself. It is 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.  No authority – civil or religious – has the power to modify the fundamental nature of marriage.  We will be opposing such a change in the strongest terms.  

The Equality Act was amended to permit Civil Partnerships on religious premises, which unhelpfully blurs the distinction previously upheld by Parliament and the Courts between marriage and civil partnerships. A consenting Minister is perfectly free to hold a religious ceremony either before or after a Civil Partnership. That is a matter of religious freedom, but it requires no legislation by the State.  We do not believe it is either necessary or desirable to allow the registration of civil partnerships on religious premises.  These will not take place in Catholic churches.


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Chris Brune
12 years 3 months ago
Poor Henry VIII. He could never have imagined the effects of his actions a few hundred years down the line.

About the best the government can do is allow some kind of civil ceremony that conveys property and other legal rights. There is no way, and never will be a way, that same-sex unions will be sacramental.

But suppose, as is happening, the government tries to make it so? Where is the St. Thomas More who will stand up and say that the King is not above God? When our church confers the sacrament of marriage it is for a man and a woman as described by Christ himself and a few hundred thousand years of human understanding. We will not do abortions in our religious hospitals. We will not instruct our children to believe that homosexual behavior is normal and healthy.

Sadly, our churches, clergy and hierarchies are a little short on the courage it takes to confront the power of the state.
Craig McKee
12 years 3 months ago
Given the DIVORCE rate of heterosexual MARRIAGE, no matter where it is ''SOLEMNIZED,'' does anything same-sex couples do really matter?
John Hayes
12 years 3 months ago
"an announcement yesterday by the UK government that it intends to lift the ban on civil partnerships being celebrated in places of worship is set to unleash a storm which could well redefine the relationship between Church and state;"

Mr. Ivereigh, would you please clarify if this existing ban applies to churches other than the CofE.

I can see that the Queen, as head of the established church, could order this ban in church buildings of the CofE, but I would be surprised if there is a ban on Catholic or other churches celebrating civil partnerships in their own church buildings*. As in the USA, non-CofE churches would be free to make their own decisions - and Catholic churches will not  peform these ceremonies.

How would lifting a ban on performing these ceremonies in church buildings have any effect on Catholic  churches?  It doesn't seem that the government or the courts could require Catholic churches to perform these ceremonies any more than they could require them to perform marriages of divorced persons. 

*Perhaps the proposed change is that a ceremony is performed at a church could replace a separate ceremony at the registry office. Again, it's not clear to me how this would have any effect on a Catholic church.
ed gleason
12 years 3 months ago
Juan L, Our 56 year sacramental covenant sets us apart/different from most US hetero couples.... and all gay couples... let's talk Marriages.?? most are serial in the US; the number of Catholic marriages is falling like stone... over 50% in the last decade. Most US  hetero couples are forgoing marriage entirely. I surmise you are young...  are not most of your hetero generation just temporarily 'hooking up'?. The hierarchy's full court press on trying to stop same sex marriages is a waste of credibility. Where is the effort to stop the rapid decline of sacramental covenant marriages?. Catholic  Marriage preparation which was extensive in the early 80s has seriously faded... and  replaced with anti-gay rants,,
John Hayes
12 years 3 months ago
The BBC seesm to have answered my question - churches will be allowed to "host" civil partnership ceremonies but will not be required to do so.

"The government has announced plans to allow churches in England and Wales to host civil partnership ceremonies.
Ministers sought greater "equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people", but said no religious group would be forced to host the ceremonies.
The Church of England has said it will not do so. Quakers have welcomed the plans, with support also expected from Unitarians and Liberal Jews."


How does that cause any problem for the Catholic Church?

Interesting taht the CofE has said it will not do so. 

Andy Buechel
12 years 3 months ago
Mr. Ivereigh-
I agree with John.  How is this an assault on religious liberty?  You seem to imply that that's obviously absurd, but how is simply allowing religious bodies to provide these partnerships, without requring it, a problem?  Isn't it an affront to religious liberty if Quakers wish to provide them and the state forbids it? 

Secondly, the history you give of marriage is quite erroneous.  It was not an institution which, from the beginning was all about the safety, stability and well-being of children.  It was about property and its easy transfer.  This of course included children (and wives) but was certainly not around for their benefit.  Your statement reflects well the current church's attitude toward (modern) marriage, but like the church, utterly ignores the actual-rather than romanticized and sanitized-history.

And, finally, at least in the US (I'm not familiar with English marriage law) your argument that the state doesn't get to define what marriage is for civil purposes also ignores history.  Here, it always has, with children never showing up in the law.  If the state did not have this ability, it would still be illegal in many parts of the country for an African American and white person to marry. 
Vince Killoran
12 years 3 months ago
Whoa, man-what a long post! The toughest writing I require of my students is the weekly 300 word memo, not the 9,000 word essay.

In any case,you give us lots to consider but could you stop using the label "gay rights lobby"?  There's no way to read this except in a negative way. It's loaded with implication and unhelpful to a respectful debate.  The gay rights movement is a complicated one and it includes local groups and individual public figures as well as those who knock on legislators' doors.  

Also, when you wrote  "marriage is not, nor has ever been, a "right" in canon and civil law, there is a whole range of impediments to marriage" I hope you were not speaking of U.S. law where the courts have long treated it as a civil right. And, contra Rick Santorium et al. contention that gay marriage would make marrying your goat or children permissible, gay marriage would conform to Anglo-American law between consenting adults. 

Finally, I would argue that the state should get out of the business of "solemnizing."  The government can certify all domestic partnerships-hetero-and homosexual-and leave the rest to churches.
Juan Lino
12 years 3 months ago
I am going to post a few nascent thoughts now and more developed ones later. 

It seems to me that the fight really centers on this question: Does a person have the right to dissent from today’s zeitgeist?  And will we, as a culture, respect each person’s (or a group of person's) right to do so?

I have been thinking about this a lot lately because of the attack on “conscience clauses” in the medical field.  In fact, I often find that those that advocate tolerance are intolerant – and sometimes violently so – against those that do not agree with them.  (And I, too, like most of us, fall into this trap in many subtle ways) and thus it truly requires a tremendous amount of honesty and courage to not be afraid of another person’s freedom, even the freedom to make what one considers to be the wrong choice. 

A concrete example – I have a friend who comes from a family of 8 and she has told me that people have approached her mom (she was there when it happened) and started telling her mom that she was irresponsible to have so many children because they use up so many resources, etc., etc.

So, while many say that the separation between “Church” and “State” will ensure that those religions that will not bow down before the “State” will not be forced to go against their beliefs, I don’t believe it and so I agree with Austen’s post very much.
ed gleason
12 years 3 months ago
When asked by young adult grandchildren about our opinion on same sex marriage we respond 'we have a 56 year sacramental covenant'. .this sets up a differentiation from both most hetero and all gay unions. As a gay friend asked, where are the objections to a hetero couple being 'married' for the 8th time in the city hall basement by an Elvis impersonator? Google that>>> 
Juan Lino
12 years 3 months ago
To ed and peg: You've lost me - what are you trying to say?

"Sacramental covenant" comes from the Faith so I get that. 

The other sentence though...
Jim McCrea
12 years 3 months ago
When the church tries to play hardball with a secularized state, guess who is doomed to lose?
12 years 3 months ago
Last night we listened to the score of the musical, Fiddler on the Roof.
While the opening number states the importance of tradition, the musical is aboutthe breaking away from the arranged marriage tradition long held and the wonderful  dream sequence  allows love, with all its pitfalls and problems including the coming pogrom, to triumph.
In our time, the importance of the relational aspects of marriage havegrown and I think it fair to say  that we have and are continuing to change and refine our  understanding.
There is currently a bright line between the Anglican and Catholic Church on the issue of gays and their place in matrimony and orders - which in turn shapes the reactions to civil issues.
I think the younger generation is much more open to change and sees this as another divisive issue; I suspect then while battles rage, further change is on the horizon.
John Hayes
12 years 3 months ago
"Unlike other churches, Anglican churches are marriage registrars; the religious ceremony and the civil ceremony are the same."

Does that mean that if you are married in a Catholic church in the UK you are not validly married in the eyes of the state until you have also gone to a registry office and had a separate civil ceremony there?

In the US, you first go to the town or city clerk's office to get a marriage license. After a few days wait, you either come back to the clerk's office for a civil marriage ceremony or you go to a church (of any denomination) and are married there. The priest or minister then signs the marriage license to witness that the marriage has taken place and returns it to the clerk's office so themarriage can be legally recorded.  No separate civil ceremony is required. 

The state does not require any church to perform a marriage - that is strictly between the couple and the church. 

From the standpoint of the state, all marriages are civil marriages. The couple may express their marriage vows in the context of a religious ceremony if they wish but the state neither requires nor prohibits that. 

Catholics contract two marriages in a single ceremony - a legal marriage in accordance with the requirements of the state and a religious marriage in accordance with the requirements of the church. Confusing the two leads to unnecessary public disagreements when the legal requirements change. 

Kang Dole
12 years 3 months ago
I am very, very confused. Can somebody explain to me a few things?  Based on an articlle I read in the Economist, it seemed to me that this is not a bill that is going to me reigious institutions to conduct gay marriages in their buildings, but rather that this bill will actually simply allow them to do so-something that they were hithherto not allowed to do.


So how does this restrict religious liberty rather than increase it? Am I just misreading everything?
Kang Dole
12 years 3 months ago
*correcting terrible typos above*

Based on an article I read in the Economist, it seemed to me that this is not a bill that is going to make religious institutions conduct gay marriages in their buildings, but rather that this bill will actually simply allow them to do this. What they hithherto could not do, they now will be allowed to do.

John Hayes
12 years 3 months ago
Out of curiosity, I looked up the text of the Civil Partnership Act of 2004. It is available at


It says that the parties must sign a civil partnership document "in the presence of a civil partnership registrar" 

From a search on "religious" it appears that:

-"No religious service is to be used while the civil partnership registrar is
officiating at the signing of a civil partnership document."

-"The place at which two people may register as civil partners of each other... must not be in religious premises

So it appears that there is nothing, even now, to prevent the couple from going from that signing ceremony to any church which is willing to perform a religious service for them - whether it be called a "commitment service", "sacramental marriage" or anything else. Neither they nor the church require any permission from the state to do that. On the other hand, no church is obliged to do that.

If the proposed change is simply that the "civil partnership registrar" can witness the signing of the document as part of the ceremony at the church, it's hard to see why "The Church will have to fight this attempt to redefine marriage."

It's not obvious how that kind of change would redefine marriage at all. 
John Hayes
12 years 3 months ago
"Maybe comparing the 2004 legislation with the new legislation would suggest an answer to that.  Is it, too, online?"

Looking around, this seems to be it:


Perhaps Mr. Ivereigh could comment if that's not it.

The principal changes seem to be:

"Omit section 6(1)(b) and (2) (prohibition on use of religious premises for registration of civil partnership)."


"For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in this Act places an obligation on religious organisations to host civil partnerships if they do not wish to do so."

Here is an announcement on the Home Office website:

John Hayes
12 years 3 months ago

You've given a very good theological explanation of why we don't perform same-sex marriages here in our Catholic church.

But the Episcopal, UCC and some other churches down the street do - because they have a different theology of marriage. 

Should our goal be to have the state endorse our theology and tell the other churches that they can't do what they are doing? I don't think so. Our view as Americans has been that the state should keep out of religious issues. That separation works both ways and protects us, as Catholics, from other groups that may want to impose their views on us.

As Catholics, we deal with "sacramental marriage." The state deals with "marriage" or, more properly,"civil marriage," which is essentially a set of legal rights and responsibilities. I think it's only when we forget that basic difference that we begin to worry that a change in "civil marriage" will do harm to our "sacramental marriage". 



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