Saturday, 3 September 2011

More harm than good...?

News has surfaced that a Tory MP has written to the PrimeMinister advocating that Churches who refuse to conduct same-sex Civil Partnerships should be banned from conducting weddings.

Mike Weatherly, an MP in Brighton has written that, "As long as religious groups can refuse to preside over ceremonies for same-sex couples, there will be inequality.  Such behaviour is not tolerated in other areas, such as adoption, after all. "

Whilst I can see that the letter will express the frustration of many LGB&T people who are being snubbed by churches, the letter will probably do more harm than good.

The UK Government has been consulting for some time on changes to the Civil Partnership laws that would allow CP's in religious buildings.  One of the arguments that conservative Christians have used against this progression is that such a change would ultimately allow legal challenges to force churches to conduct CP's.

This was expressed most recently by Lyndon Bowring, Associate Minister at Kensington Temple and Executive Chairman of CARE,  in 'Sorted' - a Christian magazine formen.  It is a measured and conciliatory article in which he describes attending a Civil Partnership ceremony and encourages Christians to "do all we can to be compassionate and generous in all our relationships  and not condemn or reject people on the grounds of their sexual orientation or lifestyle."

But he also warns of the dangers of changes to the law which might, in time, be used to force churches to act against their conscience.

"A minister who refused to allow [a Civil Partnership] might be taken to court for discriminating against a same-sex couple...  We hope that the courts would uphold the churches' position but... as we have seen, they have the power to rule differently from what the politicians intended.   The Government says it has no intention of compelling churches that do not want to host Civil Partnership ceremonies to do so, but just one successful case could set a legal precedent."
For some in the church this is clearly a genuine fear, and Mr Weatherley's letter will do nothing to reassure them.  Others have used this fear as an axe to grind against Civil Partnerships, and the letter plays right into their hands as they seek to spread fear and mistrust.

Fundamentally however, his letter goes to the heart of the debate about balancing human rights and religious freedom.  This has been hotly contested in recent years, and is a continual source of energy and press coverage for religious groups who are rigidly opposed to same-sex relationships. 

There has to be a balance between the rights rightly given as we progress towards equality for all, and the right of people of faith to follow their religion, where that does not cause harm to others.

The idea of compelling churches to act against their understanding of their faith in these circumstances is unjust, counterproductive and flawed.

What is really required is the continual task of working within the Church towards a new understanding of sexuality which will result in same-sex couples being welcomed and embraced by church communities, not churches being forced into a begrudging and resentful obligation.


  1. I tend to agree with Mike Weatherly. If it was race or another group there would not be the same question of letting faith groups pick and choose. The law of the land is the law of the land. I believe that we have to get tough just as with the gay adoption issue. Not humour those who would discriminate . It is because opponents of women's ordination were humoured that there have been such entrenched issues there. The church should not be above the law whether we are talking gender or sexuality discrimination.

  2. I would not want to have a wedding service in a church where it would not be welcome. Yes, there might be in civil law a provision that registrars (who are public servants) may not refuse to conduct a same-sex ceremony. However, I'd be a bit nervous about requiring clergy to conduct them or requiring a denomination to allow clergy to conduct them if the clergyperson felt called so to do.

    The analogy with adoption services is flawed. Adoption is not a religious rite. When a church-based organisation facilitates an adoption, it is acting as an agent of the state. As long as marriage is viewed as a religious ceremony, it is outside the competence of the state to require any religion to hold a religious ceremony not of its choosing.

    The ultimate solution for this question is for denominations that do not agree with the idea of same-sex marriage to refrain from conducting the civil part of any marriage ceremony (signing the register). This works well in Mediterranean countries, where a civil marriage is conducted in the presence of a civil officer, and those who feel called to have a religious ceremony then repair to their church, where that happens. Those churches and places of worship that wish to conduct both parts of the marriage rite (in the UK) might then do so for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples if they like.

  3. I do agree, Benny. I would rather win hearts and minds than force churches or ministers to act against their conscience. At the same time, I can see that, from a purely legal point of view, it is discrimination. I can envisage a time when a couple might win such a case - perhaps on the grounds of European law and the Human Rights Act.
    I can understand why conservative Christians might be fearful.

  4. There has to be a balance between the rights rightly given as we progress towards equality for all, and the right of people of faith to follow their religion, where that does not cause harm to others.

    Discrimination, bigotry and prejudice cause harm.

  5. Thanks everyone for your thought provoking comments.

    I am not unormally the 'conservative' voice in my blog, and I do take seriously the comments that question why churches should be allowed to opt out of something that is fundamentally about equality of access.

    I think that the difference may be found in the peculiar relationship between the Church and the Sate on marriage. Churches (even the CofE)do not simply act as a agent of the State when they marry people. The relationship is much deeper and richer than that.

    Similarly there are significant differences between the marriage service offered by the church and those in a registry office. My fear is that the rich theology and understanding of marriage which churches offer would be damaged if they were compelled to do something they didn't believe in.

    This in turn would impoverish this key ministry of the church to everyone's detriment - gay or straight.

    So for me, the route is persuasion, not compulsion, but there is much which I need to reflect on further. Thank you all.