The Church in Wales
EQUAL CIVIL MARRIAGE: A CONSULTATION
(Government Equalities Office, March 2012)
This is a response from the Bishops of the Church in Wales.
We note that at no point in the consultation document is the Church in Wales mentioned: paragraph 2.10, for example, refers exclusively to the Church of England. The Church in Wales is in an almost identical position to the Church of England with regard to the solemnisation of marriages. The Church in Wales’ concerns about the legal implications are therefore the same as those of the Church of England. We have taken note of these, and would seek assurances that the Government would specifically include the Church in Wales in any provisions for the Church of England under the proposed legislation.
Purpose of this Response
The purpose of this response is not to engage in the debate about the nature of marriage, or the recognition of same-sex relationships, from a theological perspective. Christian churches, groups and organisations represent a wide variety of opinion on same-sex relationships. This debate will continue within the Christian community whatever changes are made to the legislation of England and Wales.
The Church is concerned with all members of society and with how society operates. The Church in Wales is present through the parish system in every community in Wales. It relates to people at all stages of life, and is practically involved with births, marriages and deaths through baptisms, weddings and funerals, as well as being an organisation to which many people turn in times of personal stress or practical difficulty, including around marriage and sexuality. In addition to the well-known work of parish churches themselves, the Church in Wales runs many programmes and initiatives which engage with the wider community, operating with specialised professionals as well as local volunteers. These including parenting education, children’s work, and relationship counselling; and the Church has links with other organisations providing services in the community, either through the involvement of churches or church members as hosts, volunteers or trustees, or through policy fora.
The purpose of this short response is to participate in the consultation as one of the institutions and groups of people in a democratic society who will be affected by the proposed change in the law.
Scope of the Consultation
We regret that the consultation focuses only on the practice of registering and recognising same-sex marriage, and does not invite comment on the principle. The question of why, and whether or not it is desirable to introduce the concept of marriage for same-sex couples should also be open to public consultation and debate.
In a consultation on legislation which potentially affects everyone, it is anomalous that the questions set in the consultation document are very restrictive. Eleven of the 16 questions are presented with a multiple-choice answer consisting of ‘Yes’, ‘No,’ or ‘Don’t know’/‘Doesn’t apply to me’. Only one of them allows a more detailed explanation (number 1), and where questions invite free comment (in only 4 of the 16) this is restricted to around 200 words. Six questions are exclusively aimed at people who either are or could be in a same-sex relationship (including transsexuals and their spouses). This suggests a strangely isolated approach to the institution of marriage, which is above all an institution in society, rather than a private arrangement between individuals.
The consultation document refers throughout to an alleged ‘ban’ on same-sex couples contracting marriages. In normal parlance, for something to be banned, it must be possible but disallowed –such as the ban on smoking in public buildings, or the ban on carrying liquids on to an aeroplane, or the ban on alcohol or gambling on many religious premises. (It could be argued that there is a ‘ban’ on the inclusion of religious content in civil marriage or partnership ceremonies.) This legislation does not lift a ban; it proposes the creation of a new state, ie marriage between persons of the same sex. A more accurate description would be, as in para 1.9(iii), that a same-sex relationship constitutes a ‘bar’ to marriage: it is a situation in which marriage cannot at present take place. It would be correct to acknowledge that the proposed legislation aims to bring into being a state which did not exist before.
Similarly, despite the number of jurisdictions which have already introduced same-sex marriage, it is disingenuous to say that ‘marriage for same-sex couples is not a new idea’ (para 1.8. p4). In the history of formally recognised social relationships it is very new indeed.
It is appreciated that the Government is attempting to allow churches and other faith groups to adhere to their traditional teaching on marriage, and to continue to promote marriage as they understand it. However, the consultation document on ‘equal marriage’ refers throughout to a new (and false) distinction between civil and religious ‘marriage’. There is no such distinction in law. There are no rights and responsibilities which apply to marriages contracted in civil ceremonies which do not apply to marriages in religious ceremonies, and vice-versa.
The present law recognises civil and religious marriage ceremonies, but the marriages themselves are treated as identical, provided that they accord with the law.
It is not at all clear in what ways same-sex marriage will be different in substance from existing arrangements for civil partnerships. They already appear to be in all respects the same, in the rights and responsibilities conferred on the parties; and with only very minor distinctions in the methods of registration, or the reasons for dissolving the relationship. Nor is it clear what will be the purpose of retaining the category of civil partnership alongside same-sex marriage, especially since it is not proposed that heterosexual couples be allowed to enter into a civil partnership. In the context of equality of access to registered relationships, this appears to create a new inequality.
The Church in Wales is committed to providing pastoral care and support to all who commit themselves to the important task of maintaining exemplary and faithful relationships, and nurturing family life. Arrangements for recognising and supporting these relationships are to be welcomed, but such provision already exists, and beyond raising the dangers of significant confusion and debate, the current proposals do not add to these provisions.