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‘God has had no other way to get Cameron’s attention’ than sending severe floods across the nation, according to one former UKIP councillor. David Silvester caused a media storm in January by suggesting in a letter to the Henley Standard that Britain’s inclement weather was divine retribution for making gay marriage legal. Though it had serious implications for his UKIP membership, few took him seriously, including his fellow Christians. This stance, which Silvester saw as being honest about his beliefs, also resulted in having his doorstep egged and a rainbow banner fixed to the wall of his house by protesters.

While most wouldn’t stretch to making meteorological predictions, many Christians were openly opposed to the change in the law. MP David Burrowes, chair of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, led the parliamentary opposition to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, and more than 600,000 people signed a petition led by the Coalition for Marriage against the Bill when it was first proposed in 2012.

Other Christians welcomed the change, and indeed felt it long overdue. The parliamentary vote in favour of same-sex marriage in July 2013 was greeted with applause in the House of Commons. So while for many 29th March can’t come soon enough, churches have some catching up to do in terms of how they respond, beyond what they think about it. It’s time to think about what the change in the law means: what are the implications for churches?

(Photo: London News Pictures/REX)

What is the Law?

In July 2013 the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was given the Royal Assent. This means that from the end of March 2014 same-sex couples will be able to get married in England and Wales – soon to be followed by Scotland. But the churches are playing catch-up. Aside from the theological debate about what the Bible has to say on homosexuality, there are a number of legal considerations for churches. Each of the major UK denominations could end up with a slightly different policy, but they’re still working that out.

As the state Church, Anglicans are the most tightly regulated. An addition to the Bill in December 2012 meant that it would be illegal for the Church of England and Church of Wales to conduct same-sex marriages. Without this, Anglican churches would be bound by law to marry any gay couple from their parish who wished to have a church wedding.

Culture secretary Maria Miller made clear that a ‘quadruple lock’ had been incorporated within the Bill to protect all religious institutions from having to conduct marriages against their beliefs. This included an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 so that no discrimination claims could be brought against religious institutions for refusing to marry a gay couple. It also made sure that governing bodies of religious organisations would have to ‘opt in’ to marry same-sex couples.

This doesn’t prevent any Anglican acknowledgement of gay marriage though. While guidance from the Church of England’s House of Bishops, released after the Synod meeting in February 2014, clarified that Anglican churches would not be able to hold blessings for same-sex marriages, it did sanction an ‘informal prayer’ for couples wishing to have their marriage recognised by the Church. A distinction was made between the guidance for lay church members and clergy and those seeking ordination; gay clergy have been told they will not be able to get married, nor can those already in a gay marriage go for ordination.

Non-Established Churches

For the non-established churches, things are a little less prescriptive. Within the Baptist Union, individual churches or ministers are able to opt in and re-register their buildings if they wish to hold same-sex wedding ceremonies, without a preceding decision by the Union. The Baptist Council will meet to discuss the issue on 19th March, but at time of writing we do not know whether it will be issuing any specific guidance.

The Methodist Church would have to ‘opt in’ as a body to conduct gay marriages before individual ministers would be permitted to do so.

PEOPLE ARE EXPECTING TO GET MARRIED IN A CHURCH; THEY DON'T REALLY KNOW THEY CAN'T

A working group consultation closed in February and a decision will be made at the annual Methodist conference in June-July. FIEC churches agreed that they would not conduct blessings or ceremonies for same-sex marriages, and the Catholic Church in England and Wales operates a similar policy.

The United Reformed Church has not yet made a decision about marriages of same-sex couples – the issue will be debated at the denomination’s General Assembly this July. A resolution passed at the 2012 General Assembly enabled individual United Reformed churches to decide if they wished to allow civil partnerships to be registered in their United Reformed church building. 

A number of smaller denominations, including Unitarians and Quakers, actively promote gay marriage.

Why the Delay?

But given that the law was passed in July 2013, why the delay in issuing clear guidelines? Churches were among the numerous individuals and groups that participated in the government’s consultation process for the Bill, but this doesn’t seem to have prepared them for the eventual outcome. ‘The government has moved the goalposts,’ says Stephen Keyworth, leader of the faith and society team for the Baptist Union. ‘When they began this process with the consultation it was for civil marriage only – and wasn’t going to have any religious input at all. During the consultation they suddenly changed that, because they were being lobbied to do so. So that came out of left-field.’

In December 2013 the government announced that the law would change in March 2014, not in June 2014 as previously anticipated. ‘Government departments have kept us informed, but only the moment before these things have been happening,’ says Keyworth.

Is it Going to Work?

Gradually churches are working out what they will do, but it won’t be long before these policies are contested in the courts. At least one couple has said they are prepared to take legal action against the Church to win the right to get married. Barrie and Tony Drewitt-Barlow, currently in a civil partnership, want to get married in the CofE church they regularly attend near their home in Essex. And they’re not afraid of a fight. They were the first gay people in the UK to use a surrogate mother, having taken their battle to court. They now have five children by a surrogate, and Barrie is CEO of the British Surrogacy Centre.

In an interview for the Essex Chronicle, Barrie said: ‘I am a Christian – a practising Christian – my children have all been brought up as Christians and are part of the local parish church in Danbury…I want to go into my church and marry my husband.

‘The only way forward for us now is to make a challenge in the courts against the church. It is a shame that we are forced to take Christians into a court to get them to recognise us.’

So are they likely to succeed? The ‘quadruple lock’ is thought to be relatively sound. Even for churches outside of the CofE’s legal block, it is thought to offer robust protection for those not wanting to conduct gay marriages. ‘I’ve never heard of a case anywhere in the world of a minister being forced to conduct a gay marriage,’ says Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute and co-director of the Coalition for Marriage.

The lock is a good thing if you’re a church leader who doesn’t want to marry same-sex couples, but if you’re among the minority of CofE vicars who would like the right to marry gay couples, you’re stuck, because it’s illegal.

If the legal duty of the CofE were repeatedly challenged in Europe, resulting in pressure on them to marry gay couples, questions could be raised about the disestablishment of the Church.

‘There may come a point if there is litigation in Europe that the Church of England is faced with giving up its duty to marry everyone and therefore its established status is undermined – that’s an instability that’s been created,’ says Hart.
‘People often revert to disestablishment as worst case scenario,’ says Rev Bob Callaghan, director of Inclusive Church. ‘That’s not what anybody wants. Neither does anyone want to bring disunity into the Church.’ Callaghan doesn’t see disestablishment as a likely outcome, nor does he think it would resolve differences of opinion. ‘The non-established churches have the same problem; it’s not going to make it easier either way,’ he says.

Public Sector

But Hart feels it is not churches, but those working in the public sector that are most at risk of discrimination from the change in the law. While there are specific provisions for churches, the rights of teachers, for example, are not so clearly protected.

This concern may be justified, according to Alasdair Henderson, a barrister specialising in discrimination law. While religious organisations have specific protections, public sector workers do not. Teachers are subject to the Education Act (1996), which says they should promote marriage – and that now includes same-sex marriage.

‘Despite lots of noises about freedom of speech and freedom of conscience…in reality, we now have a situation where expressing the view that marriage should just be between a man and a woman is seen as bigoted and intolerant,’ he says. ‘However much in law it’s still technically protected, it does have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to say it.

IT WON’T BE LONG BEFORE THESE POLICIES ARE CONTESTED IN THE COURTS

‘You might have litigation brought against people, and people settle, or people get fired or disciplined at work and they just don’t want to cause a fuss, even though if it went to court and all the way through the system they probably would have their rights upheld.’

For the moment, these are more or less hypothetical questions. There are more concrete issues that churches will face within the next month.

Implementation

Implementing the changes for churches isn’t entirely straightforward, as past experience has demonstrated. The Civil Partnership Act was passed in 2004 (and came into force in 2005), giving homosexual couples the right to have a civil ceremony that gave them most – but not all – of the legal rights given to married couples.

The advice issued by the House of Bishops at the time did not prevent clergy from entering civil partnerships, on the basis that the law did not specify the relationship as necessarily sexual. However, it did prevent Anglican churches from conducting blessings for civil partnerships and did not create specific liturgy for such occasions. But unofficial ceremonies have been taking place for many years.

Unaware of the nuances of church regulations, people are already confused by the new law. ‘People are expecting to be able to get married in church; they don’t really know they can’t – out there in the real world they don’t know the intricacies,’ says Callaghan.

There are ambiguities in the bishops’ guidance which need further clarification. Anglicans may find some leniency in the term ‘informal prayer’ as distinct from an official marriage blessing. Churches that wish to conduct a celebration of some kind may work around the language.

The parish of St Laurence Cowley in London, for example, advertises on its website that it offers ‘blessings to same sex couples in committed and faithful relationships’. This is perhaps carefully worded to avoid saying ‘marriage blessings’, although it could be interpreted as going against the House of Bishops’ guidance.

Boundaries will certainly be pushed. ‘Some bishops are going to turn a blind eye. Others will want to make it very clear that they could discipline. The clergy will work the system as we always have. Church ministers are being careful to make sure they don’t make this decision on their own – I think [there will be] a lot of consulting with their PCC…[It’s] harder…for bishops to discipline the PCC,’ says Callaghan.

But what kind of Church does this create? ‘It’s going to force the Church to be in the position again where we run a Church based on lies, which is exactly what we didn’t want,’ says Callaghan. ‘We want honesty, and integrity and truth. We may have difference of opinion, but we are supposed to be able to live with a difference of opinion.’

Cultural Change

The law is only one small step in reflecting broader cultural change with regard to sexuality. How to juggle different theologies and different policies with appropriate pastoral care for homosexuals within churches is the real challenge. These are not just issues of legality, they are matters for discipleship.

Archbishop Justin Welby is one of a number of high-profile Christian leaders who has made public apologies in the last year for the Church’s treatment of homosexuals – even calling the Church to repent of its ‘homophobia’ during a visit to the Evangelical Alliance.

‘The Church has not been good at dealing with homophobia,’ he said. ‘In fact we have, at times, as God’s people, in various places, really implicitly or even explicitly supported it. And we have to be really, really repentant about that because it is utterly and totally wrong.’ However, the archbishop also said he did not regret voting against same-sex marriage in the House of Lords.

Not all agree that the Church has been homophobic. And many would want to draw the distinction between homophobia and expressing the view that active homosexual relationships are sinful. ‘I’m a believer in public confession if we know what we’re confessing,’ says Adrian Reynolds, director of ministry at the Proclamation Trust. ‘But “homophobia” is a slippery term. Some people would say that standing up and saying that homosexuality is a sin is homophobia. I don’t think that it is; it’s saying you don’t agree with something. I’m a little bit nervous about putting my head above the parapet. I don’t mind being shot, but I mind being misinterpreted.’

Henderson says the new law is likely to make Christians holding a traditional view of marriage quieter about their opinions in public. ‘It’s hard to stand up for your rights if you’re the sole teacher in the classroom who thinks this way,’ he says.

The differences within the Church are obvious. Archbishop Justin prefaced the House of Bishops’ pastoral guidance on same-sex marriage with an acknowledgement of the range of responses within the CofE. The bishops’ letter itself caused further disagreement. And though its traditional stance on marriage came as a relief to some, it is clearly not without confusion.

EXPRESSING THE VIEW THAT MARRIAGE SHOULD JUST BE BETWEEN A MAN AND A WOMAN IS SEEN AS BIGOTED AND INTOLERANT

‘While I think it’s good they’re upholding traditional marriage,’ says Hart, ‘there are fault lines and inconsistencies in the position: why should it be ok for a member of the laity [to be in a same-sex marriage] but not for the clergy? Gay rights groups are already pointing this out and they’re right, really.’

Callaghan considers both the bishops’ approach and the outcome to be flawed. ‘It’s been issued with no consultation with the people who are going to be directly affected by what’s been said…It feels like a bunch of slightly scared blokes lashing out. It’s almost like we’re being told off by the headmaster.’

Future Frustration

Christians – and Anglicans in particular – wanting to challenge the new legislation are aware that it may be a long process. It seems the greater frustration is felt over banning blessings in CofE churches. So while gay rights groups are celebrating the opportunity to get married, some gay Christians have a more muted response.

Kate Monaghan is a committed Christian who is currently planning her summer wedding to her fiancée, Holly. As an Anglican she won’t be able to have either the ceremony or a blessing in church.

‘The step between civil partnership and marriage is a really important step in equality for gay couples,’ says Monaghan, ‘but for me it hasn’t made that big of a difference because the Church hasn’t caught up yet.’

‘It makes me very frustrated, [but] it doesn’t make me angry...I’m not going to change anyone’s mind by getting angry. But it makes me feel – “Why is my relationship less important than somebody else’s?” I’m a solid Christian, I’m on the DCC, I’m on the PCC. [Our] relationship is strong, stable and lovely. Why should somebody judge my relationship as less important than anyone else’s?’

Beyond questioning her relationship, she feels it’s a public judgement of her faith. ‘It feels like I’m being told I’m less Christian than other people because of this relationship, which I think is actually a stronger and more grounded relationship than a lot of people I know who are getting married in church. It frustrates me that people who don’t even have a faith are allowed to get married in a church, but I can’t.’

As ever, it’s impossible to please everyone. Some see the change in the law as a worrying redefinition of marriage. For others, the changes don’t go nearly far enough. Ten years ago the law on civil partnerships marked a huge step in gay rights. Ten years from now, how will the Church relate to gay people, both within the Church and without?

This is a corrected version of the original article with regard to the stance of the URC.