[Episcopal News Service] U.K. government plans to enable same-sex couples to have a civil marriage have come under attack by the Church of England, which says that “such a move would alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”
The church’s comments were made in a submission to a government consultation on same-sex marriage, which was launched in March and closes on June 14.
The consultation said that it plans to “enable all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony.” The government has acknowledged that it intends to introduce same-sex civil marriage by the next general election in 2015.
Civil partnerships were legalized in the United Kingdom by the Civil Partnership Act of 2004, which became law in December 2005. The Church of England currently makes no provisions for civil partnership ceremonies in its churches, although some clergy are believed to perform same-sex blessings at their discretion.
The government intends to retain the option of civil partnerships for same-sex couples, including the ability to have a civil partnership registered on religious premises, but it says it would make no changes to religious marriages. “This will continue to only be legally possible between a man and a woman,” its report states.
The church’s submission, which is unsigned but reportedly drafted by members of the House of Bishops and other senior figures in the Church of England, states that marriage “benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which includes, for many, the possibility of procreation. The law should not seek to define away the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women.”
The Church of England’s marriage liturgy notes: “Marriage is intended by God to be a creative relationship, as his blessing enables husband and wife to love and support each other in good times and in bad, and to share in the care and upbringing of children.”
The church’s submission criticizes the government for implying that there are two categories of marriage – civil and religious. “This is to mistake the wedding ceremony for the institution of marriage,” the submission says. “Changing the state’s understanding of marriage will, therefore, change the way marriage is defined for everybody and, despite the government’s assurances to the contrary, will change the nature of marriages solemnized in churches and other places of worship.”
The Rev. Colin Coward, director of LGBT advocacy group Changing Attitude, issued a statement June 12 saying that the church’s submission was a “disaster” and that it had been drafted “without consulting those most affected by the proposal – lesbian and gay members of the Church of England.”
“The Church of England’s statement and response have achieved headlines which send a message to the nation that Christians are prejudiced against lesbian and gay people and have set out to block moves to equality in marriage and justice for lesbian and gay couples,” he added. “It is a disaster for the mission and evangelism of the church.”
Archbishop of York John Sentamu, the Church of England’s second-most-senior cleric, has been outspoken in opposing the government’s plans.
In an interview with The Telegraph newspaper earlier this year, he said: “Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are.
“We’ve seen dictators do it in different contexts and I don’t want to redefine very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time and then overnight the state believes it could go in a particular way.”
Roman Catholic bishops in England and Wales also responded to the consultation urging the government not to proceed with the proposals “in the interest of upholding the uniqueness of marriage as a civil institution for the common good of society.”
The Methodist Church of Great Britain also has opposed the government’s proposals.
Among the religious groups that have supported same-sex marriage are Quakers in Britain, Unitarians and Liberal Judaism.
The government has assured religious institutions that they would not be compelled to perform same-sex ceremonies on their premises.
But the Church of England states that several major elements of the government’s proposals have not been thought through properly and are not legally sound.
“Ministerial assurances that the freedom of the churches and other religious organizations would be safeguarded are, though genuine, of limited value given that once the law was changed the key decisions would be for the domestic and European courts,” the submission states, adding that the consultation exercise is “flawed, conceptually and legally.”
Coward argues that many lesbian and gay Anglicans want equal marriage, religious as well as secular, in church “because for us marriage is a spiritual as well as a legal institution which strengthens and enriches both the couple and society.
“There is no evidence to support the Anglican hierarchy’s claim that to change the nature of marriage to include same-sex couples will be divisive. The recognition of long-term same-sex relationships has no impact on the institution of marriage for heterosexuals.”
About a quarter of weddings in England take place in Church of England churches. According to the church’s website, marriages in the Church of England increased by four percent in 2010 to 54,700.