Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Green light for gay weddings?

‘C of E gay marriage to be illegal’ is perhaps not the headline David Cameron had hoped his consultation might herald. Of course, from the Culture Secretary’s comments on non-straight nuptials in the Commons, the BBC News website could just as easily have concocted; ‘nothing changes in Church of England’. Although arguably true of any time this side of the Reformation, I concede it's a little less eye-catching.

Maria Miller’s announcement that under proposed legislation it would be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples, was in direct response to strong opposition from both organisations. This caveat forms part of the “quadruple lock”, roughly translated as four ideas, intended to safeguard religious freedom. Also included is the guarantee that religious groups won’t be strong armed into holding gay weddings. Such ceremonies will also be unlawful unless the governing body of a religious movement has officially ‘opted in’. Crucially, the proposal includes an amendment to the 2010 Equality Act protecting ministers from discrimination claims if they refuse to perform a same-sex ceremony, a key concern for clergy, given the ominous shadow of European law.

Bearing in mind the plethora of passionately held opinions on the proposal, any conclusions would have always had compromise crayoned all over them, which explains some of the resultant mumbling, both measured and more manifest. However, despite the disappointment of many, and the predictable backlash from the jam and Jerusalem brigade on the Tory backbenches, this is a diplomatic decision against a backdrop of contrasting concerns.

Gay couples keen to marry, or graduate from civil partnerships, could do so in registry offices, and selected churches outside the C of E umbrella. Clergy opposed to same-sex services will not be obliged to conduct them, contrary to their convictions, and the state will not be seen to be reaching beyond its remit, by prescribing church policy.

Few democratic solutions are without winners and losers. Those on the sharp end of this legislation remain same-sex Christian couples unable to celebrate their wedding amid church communities in which they worship every week. They would, at least, be able to walk down the aisle, if not always the nearest available.  

I wonder if it may even be more frustrating for some ministers to have to deny same-sex Christian couples their vows before God, than marrying the manifestly agnostic who just want a photo in a charming churchyard. If the Coalition are still consulting, why not consider allowing any Christian couple a cheap church wedding, charge a four figure fee for the religiously indifferent, irrespective of sexual orientation, and make churches splash the cash on underfloor heating? After all, God loves everyone, no matter their choice of bedfellow, and it’s hard to commune with your maker if you can’t feel your feet. Just a thought.

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