The following letter will appear in The Times tomorrow. It is on the newspaper’s website now.
It’s discrimination to stop gay couples taking vows in church
It is inconsistent to affirm the spiritual independence of the CofE but also deny the spiritual independence of three small communities
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.
In the same debate, the bishops were crucial in defeating government proposals to limit the space within which religious bodies are exempt from anti-discrimination law. They see that as a fundamental matter of conscience. But it is inconsistent to affirm the spiritual independence of the Church of England and simultaneously to deny the spiritual independence of the three small communities who seek this change for themselves (and not for anybody else).
The bishops’ “slippery slope” argument is invalid. Straight couples have the choice between civil marriage and religious marriage. Gay couples are denied a similar choice. To deny people of faith the opportunity of registering the most important promise of their lives in their willing church or synagogue, according to its liturgy, is plainly discriminatory. In the US it would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise . . . of religion.
The amendment will be re-presented by Lord Alli on March 2. We urge every peer who believes in spiritual independence, or in non-discrimination, to support it.
Iain McLean, Professor of Politics, Oxford
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church, Oxford
The Right Rev David Stancliffe, Bishop of Salisbury
The Right Rev John Gladwin, Former Bishop of Chelmsford
Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Former Bishop of Oxford
The Right Rev Bill Ind, Former Bishop of Truro
The Right Rev Peter Selby, Former Bishop of Worcester
The Right Rev Kenneth Stevenson, Former Bishop of Portsmouth
The Very Rev Nick Bury, Dean of Gloucester
The Rev Jeremy Caddick, Dean, Emmanuel College, Cambridge
The Very Rev Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans
The Very Rev Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark
Canon Dr Judith Maltby, Chaplain, Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Canon Brian Mountford, Vicar of the University Church, Oxford
Canon Jane Shaw, Dean of Divinity, New College, Oxford
The Rev Sarah Coakley, Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, Cambridge
Sarah Foot, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History
Alec Ryrie, Professor of the History of Christianity, Durham
Stuart White, Director of the Public Policy Unit, Oxford
Jill Green, Quakers
There is also a leading article, Equal before God.
This Government has done much to bring the law into line with modern attitudes towards homosexuality. It scrapped Section 28 , equalised the age of consent and ended the ban on gays in the Armed Forces.
Now it must resolve the legal asymmetry that prevents homosexual civil partnerships from taking place on religious premises. In a letter to The Times today, a distinguished group of mostly Anglican clergy correctly point out that “straight couples have the choice between civil marriage and religious marriage. Gay couples are denied a similar choice”. That clearly discriminates against homosexuals who are also believers, and three faith communities — Liberal Judaism, the Quakers and the Unitarians — now wish to register civil partnerships on their premises. A legal amendment permitting them to do so is expected to be debated in the House of Lords next month.
The Church of England has so far resisted change, arguing that if some religious groups are allowed to hold civil partnerships then the pressure on the C of E to follow suit will become intolerable. It is a feeble argument. No one is arguing that any church should be forced to conduct a civil partnership. But willing churches should not be precluded from doing so.
Benjamin Disraeli believed the Church of England to be “a part of our liberties, a part of our national character”. If it has any hope of continuing in that role, the Church — and the Government — must recognise that our liberties today should include the right of homosexuals to register the most important promise of their lives in a church.