The end of the traditional church wedding?
If the Church of England is to avoid substantial numbers of its clergy being prosecuted under the Equality Act, it could have to stop registering marriages when Parliament legislates for same-sex marriage.
That is the clear implication from the commendably candid briefing the Church House Legal Office has just given General Synod members.
The advice is clear that Anglican parish churches are no more required under the Equality Act to register civil partnerships than gentlemen’s outfitters are required to sell women’s clothes. But 'if Parliament were in due course to legislate for same sex marriage, as recently suggested by the Prime Minister, we would of course be in new territory'.
Quite so – we would be on our way to a very cold place indeed for British Christianity.
If the law of the United Kingdom were to define marriage as both between a man and a woman and between two persons of the same sex, then it must become discriminatory for a registrar to refuse to conduct ceremonies for people who are legally entitled to get married.
The legal reasoning given in the Church House briefing on civil partnerships in religious premises explains why and merits careful reading:
A key relevant provision is section 29 of the Equality Act which makes it unlawful for 'a person (a "service-provider") concerned with the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public' to discriminate on various grounds, including sexual orientation, 'against a person requiring the service by not providing the person with the service'. A Church which provides couples with the opportunity to marry (but not to register civil partnerships) is “concerned with” the provision of marriage only; it is simply not “concerned with” the provision of facilities to register civil partnerships.The briefing continues:
That would be a different 'service', marriage and civil partnership being legally distinct concepts. If Parliament were in due course to legislate for same sex marriage, as recently suggested by the Prime Minister, we would of course be in new territory. But that is a separate issue which would have to be addressed in the course of that new legislation.Clearly, if the Established Church decides that the price of continuing to register weddings is too high under the same-sex marriage regime, then that would be a significant social change for the nation. The traditional church wedding to which the eligible residents of an ecclesiastical parish are legally entitled is part of the national collective memory. Its cultural continuation is the legacy of the fact that Britain was spared the 19th century revolutions that convulsed mainland Europe, particularly France.
Unlike France, Britain had an evangelical revival in the 18th century in which Anglican clergy such as Wesley and Whitefield proclaimed God's message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Thankfully, the soul of Britain did not fall for the unenlightened cynicism of Voltaire, which meant that our country was spared a state monopoly on marriage registration.
But the Church of England could not be blamed for making such a change in order to protect its front-line clergy from getting sued.
Can there be any reasonable hope that on present form homosexual activists would refrain from pursuing vexatious litigations against churches? Witness what happened to the Bulls.
The fact is that front-line clergy are not wealthy people nor in many cases are the churches we serve. Furthermore, orthodox clergy should not expect a great deal of moral or indeed financial support from their congregations. Often, Christian people in Anglican churches, even evangelical ones, are biblically illiterate compared with previous generations and so are less than clear on the biblical issues at stake. It takes a long Bible teaching ministry in one place to turn that around.
Orthodox Anglican clergy could find themselves quite isolated in civil actions, as well as finding their piggy banks depleted due to legal costs. It is also highly unlikely that there would be much of an outcry from the public over clergy going bankrupt.
In most people's eyes, clergy were dog-collared oddballs on the margins of society even before they started being pictured in the papers on the steps of the Crown Court for being homophobic.
Regular members of churches could still have a Christian service after their civil marriage. But the terms under which such services were offered would need to be carefully crafted in order to avoid falling foul of the Equality Act.
How ironic and indeed tragic that an intellectually able and politically gifted Conservative Prime Minister could unwittingly prove to be the midwife to the end of the traditional church wedding.
Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire. He blogs as Cranmer's Curate.