ENGLAND: House of Lords backs civil partnership ceremonies in churches

March 3, 2010

The House of Lords, the upper chamber of the U.K. Parliament, agreed March 2 to amend the Equality Bill so that religious organizations could decide to hold civil partnership ceremonies in places of worship. The bill, intended to form the basis of anti-discrimination law in the U.K., still requires the approval of the House of Commons, but reports indicate that any significant changes to the amendment are unlikely. The Rev. Colin Coward, director of Changing Attitude, a U.K.-based LGBT advocacy group, told ENS that the House of Lords' decision represented "another step towards the church recognizing honestly the huge numbers of people who affirm lesbian and gay relationships and the majority who can't see why the church shouldn't be celebrating the love of a same-sex couple." Coward said the amendment will be used as "an opportunity for gay-affirming priests and lesbian and gay Anglicans to contract civil partnerships in their own churches and to integrate their relationship and their desire for fidelity with their commitment to God." The U.K.-based Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement also welcomed the decision, noting that currently opposite-sex couples can choose to have either a religious or civil marriage whereas same-sex couples cannot. "This is a wonderful first step towards equality," said the Rev. Sharon Ferguson, chief executive of LGCM, noting that the vote was overwhelmingly in favor by 95 to 21, "which clearly expresses the Lords' opinion that God should not be excluded from the celebration of our relationships." The amendment was put forward by Waheed Alli, a gay Muslim and member of the House of Lords. Critics have expressed concern that the amendment would cause confusion between civil partnerships and same-sex marriage. Bishop David James of the Diocese of Bradford, a member of the House of Lords who spoke against the amendment, warned of "unintended consequences." "The fundamental difficulty that many churches and faiths will have with this argument is that we, like the government and the courts, have been quite clear ever since civil partnerships were introduced, that they are not the same as marriages," he said. James, the only bishop who spoke during the debate, is one of the 26 Lords Spiritual that sit in the House of Lords by virtue of their ecclesiastical offices. The Lords Spiritual include the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of London, Durham, Winchester, and the 21 longest-serving bishops from other dioceses in the Church of England. Bishop Martin Wharton of Newcastle, who voted for the amendment, was the only other bishop to attend the debate. The amendment would provide the legal framework for any denomination or faith throughout the U.K. to perform the ceremonies. But Ferguson said that, contrary to some claims, the amendment would not force religious organizations to perform same-sex ceremonies. "The law does not force ministers and other religious leaders to marry opposite-sex couples now, and won't force them to conduct civil partnerships for same-sex couples," she said. "The change to the law will however enable those organizations who wish to offer this to be able to do so." The Church of England currently makes no provisions for civil partnership ceremonies in its churches, although some clergy are believed to perform blessings at their discretion. Civil partnerships were legalized in the U.K. by the Civil Partnership Act of 2004.