No gay unions here, says Church of England

In the UK, same-sex civil partnerships can now be held in places of worship for the first time – but the Church of England isn’t playing ball. What does the future hold for gay marriage?

On December 5th, 2005, Matthew Roche made a lifetime vow of commitment to his partner. It was his final achievement. The following day he died from the cancer he had battled for months.

Roche’s union was more, though, than a personal goal. He and his partner Chris Cramp had become the first UK couple to enter a same-sex civil partnership.

Since then, thousands more have taken vows – but, until now, none have been able to use any religious elements in their ceremony.

This week, however, the law changed to allow civil partnerships to be held in places of worship. And although the option is only open to religious organisations that request it, it has ignited a debate about the institution of marriage becoming available to same-sex couples.

Already, the Church of England has prohibited any civil partnerships from taking place on its premises. Bishops are worried that marriage and civil partnerships could eventually merge – and same-sex marriages could tear the church apart.

In Scotland, too, religious groups have launched a ‘campaign for marriage’ against the possibility that same-sex unions could be called marriages rather than civil partnerships.

Many of these campaigners think marriage is a bond that should exist only between a woman and a man, that it is the best way to bring up children and a sacred religious institution. Redefine it, they say, and you undermine a cornerstone of our society.

Because marriage and civil partnership are currently different, those churches that don’t want to hold civil partnerships are on solid legal ground. As bishops have argued, forcing churches to provide civil partnerships (as opposed to weddings) is like forcing ‘a gentleman’s outfitter to supply women’s clothes’. But if the UK moves to legalise gay marriage – as David Cameron has indicated may happen – that legal situation will change.

Tying the knot

Religions, some argue, should be able to define the terms of their beliefs in whatever way they wish. Christians’ view of marriage, as a bond between a man and a woman, is a deeply held conviction based on years or history. The views of others should not force them to change their beliefs.

If marriage is such an essential cornerstone of society, others say, it should not be barred to gay people. The nature of marriage, after all, has historically changed to keep pace with social development: now it must do so again, and accept the widely held view that same-sex relationships are as loving and healthy as those between heterosexuals.

You Decide

  1. Should the Church of England allow same-sex partnership ceremonies to take place on their premises?
  2. Would allowing same-sex partnerships in churches be an infringement of religious freedom?

Activities

  1. Pick one culture which has a different attitude to marriage than your own. Research people’s attitudes to marriage and relationships, and how they function in that culture, and present your finding to the class.
  2. Conduct a survey on attitudes to marriage. How would people define marriage? Do their ideas differ according to their age, or religious background?

Some People Say...

“Marriage should be between a man and a woman.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How has the institution of marriage changed in the past?
Marriage has been far from consistent throughout history. Until 1957 divorce was illegal in the UK, and the concept ofmarital rape was not recognised until 1991. Interracial marriage only became fully legal in America in 1967 – and before the 19th Century, marriage meant a woman would lose all property rights.
Can straight people have a civil partnership if they wish?
Not at the moment in the UK, although some couples are campaigning to open it to straight couples, as well as allowing gay couples to marry. Their reasons vary, although many don’t want to subscribe to an institution which they feel is steeped in sexist traditions, associated with a religion they don’t believe in, or that gay couples are wrongly excluded from.

Word Watch

Church of England
The Anglican Church is the national church of England. It rejects the Pope as its head, but combines elements of Catholic and Protestant religion.
Outfitter
A shop that sells men’s clothing, often specifically for the pursuit of certain activities.
Marital rape
Having sex with a married partner without consent. In the past – and in some countries even today – it was considered to be a man’s right to have sex with his wife, regardless of her wishes. Today, though, the sexual autonomy of women is respected in marriage.
Interracial marriage
Marriage between two people of different races, which was only made legal in many US states after the civil rights movement.

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