Thursday 29 July 2010

Marriage equality for LGBT people is now firmly on the agenda, including marriage in church

Reports of the meeting held on Tuesday afternoon in a House of Commons Committee room with Lynne Featherstone MP, Equalities Minister, and five civil servants have been issued by Peter Tatchell and Pink News. Also present were Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, the Rev Sharon Ferguson of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, Paul Martin of the Lesbian and Gay Foundation Manchester, and myself.

The meeting was the first of a series of private meetings being held this week by the government's equalities office with interested parties to to look at possible next steps for civil partnerships including the possibility of holding civil partnerships for gay couples in church and the option of extending civil marriage to same-sex couples. I don’t know whether the government’s consultation extends to meeting with Christian leaders opposed to marriage equality in church for LGBT people though Lynne Featherstone is reported as acknowledging that any consultation would take into account the views of those who are vehemently opposed to equal marriage.

Four of the five LGBT leaders present argued strongly for full marriage equality. Stonewall is not opposed to marriage equality but does not see it as a priority.

My focus was on the Church of England, which as the established church with bishops in the House of Lords and strong conservative lobby groups, has undue influence on the progress of legal reforms that affect the lives of LGBT people in general and Christians in particular.

The meeting attempted to identify the difference between civil partnerships and marriage and why we were so adamant that we wanted equality. The legal provisions are effectively exactly the same. There are two practical differences: in marriage, vows are exchanged whereas the registration of a civil partnership requires a register to be signed; and civil partnerships cannot be contracted in religious buildings. LGBT people want the freedom to commit ourselves to one another in the same way by the exchange of vows and rings – in church.

The real difference lies in people’s perception. They habitually call civil partnerships ‘marriage’ and this is what they perceive them to be in all but name. Families, friends, colleagues and members of their congregation see gay couples getting married, with all the significance of meaning that attaches to marriage.

The nature of marriage has already been significantly reconstructed by cultural, social and religious changes in the past 50 years and has always been an institution subject to revision and change. The Church of England has changed the nature of marriage radically by accepting that couples have the freedom to use contraception and to remarry in church following divorce.

Feminists and some LGBT people do not want to adopt the values of marriage, seeing it as indelibly patriarchal or embodying commitments they do not want to make. LGBT people will inevitably further deconstruct and reconstruct the nature of marriage. I would argue that Christian LGBT people want marriage to be a covenant relationship focused on the loving relationship between a couple who intend life-long fidelity mirroring God’s covenantal relationship with us and all creation.

Peter and Sharon have both said they felt the meeting had ignored their main concern of winning the right to full marriage equality. Sharon said: "It just wasn't taken on board how strongly we feel that civil partnerships are discriminatory. They are not equal to marriage." She thought that the equalities office just wanted us to say we were happy with religious civil partnerships and then to silence us so they could go to the faith groups and tell them they didn't have to worry about gay marriage. Peter said: "The meeting mostly focused on civil partnerships in church. I got the impression that the coalition government doesn't feel confident enough to push ahead with same-sex civil marriage."

Peter, arguing for full equality, said that marriage is the gold standard and civil partnerships are second best. They are not equality. A separate law is not an equal law. Civil partnerships create a two-tier system of partnership recognition: one law for heterosexuals, civil marriage, and another law for same-sex couples, civil partnerships. In reverse, he argues that the homophobia of the ban on same-sex civil marriage is now compounded by the heterophobia of the ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships. Just as a gay couple cannot have a civil marriage, a straight couple cannot have a civil partnership.

Peter urged the coalition government to undertake a public consultation to determine whether the ban on gay marriage ought to be lifted. He said it should invite representations from individuals and organisations and, on the basis of the submissions received, decide if the ban should stay or go.

Changing Attitude needs to focus on the reaction of the Church of England to the proposal to extend the registration of civil partnerships to religious premises and to the desire for full marriage equality. We have to think carefully about educating the church and to building a coalition of groups, parishes and church leaders who will be committed to work with us to achieve our goal.

Colin Coward


  1. Jeremy Pemberton29 July 2010 at 10:22

    Colin - Is there another point here? As I understand it, and I am no lawyer and am happy to stand corrected, if a marriage is not consummated then it can be annulled - in other words, sexual relations are part of what constitutes a marriage. Civil partnerships carry no such expectation - and, indeed, we know that many of them are between couples who do not have an active sexual relationship.

    Is there something to be said for considering opening civil partnerships to heterosexual people at the same time as opening marriage to LGBT people, so that all have the opportunity to have the civil and legal status that most appropriately fits their circumstances?

  2. Jeremy, Peter Tatchell's argument is strongly for total equality, opening civil partnerships to all, which is what conservative Christians wanted. They don't want full equality, of course - gay marriage, let alone in church.

    I've been contacted today by one of the LGBT faith community leaders not at the meeting asking why other groups weren't represented. What was very, very curious about the meeting was that of the five LGBT leaders present, only two were from faith groups, Changing Attitude and LGCM.

    Why Stonewall, OutRage! and the Lesbian and Gay Foundation were there talking about civil partnerships in religious buildings, when representatives from the Quakers, Sibyls, Courage and Jewish groups were not present is a mystery.

  3. Thanks for making the point in your comment Colin, about the 'missing' groups. I am staying with Rosie from Sibyls, who, as you know, was told the room was too small for her to attend! In the blog piece you mention a series of meetings on this subject, and the DoE has begun to consult Trans organisations, so one would hope that they would undertake a separate trans consultation on this topic which is relevant to many trans couples. The Minister must be very aware of this having been one of the key players in progressing the Gender Recognition Act. I hope to post on this shortly.

  4. Jeremy Pemberton30 July 2010 at 14:07

    Further to the above: I find, in
    "Under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 grounds for annulment are:

    -if it has not been consummated owing to the incapacity of either party;
    -if it has not been consummated owing to the wilful refusal of the respondent, that is, the party against whom the petition is brought"

    The absence of sexual relations, therefore, is still a ground for the annulment of a marriage, and in that sense marriage differs from a civil partnership. I can see why the bishops could hold their noses and not try to bar clergy from contracting civil partnerships, where the presence or absence of sexual relations has no bearing on the status of the partnership - but they will not like equal marriage, both because they will feel it undermines Christian teaching about marriage per se, but also because of the underlying assumption that sexual relations are part of what constitutes a marriage, the absence of which makes it voidable in law. And that they would not be prepared to sanction for their clergy.

    I am inclined to think that a campaign for equal marriage should also be accompanied by one for equal partnerships - though those should be on the same basis as for the present civil partnerships (i.e still governed by the tables of kindred and affinity).