“Gay marriage to be illegal in Church of England,” declared the BBC earlier this week. “Gays left at the altar,” announced the Metro. They were attempting to make sense of the government’s confusing proposals to legalise same-sex marriage.
While these headlines are broadly accurate, they leave a lot unsaid – including some of the worst aspects of the government’s plan. To recap: the government conducted a consultation on same-sex marriage in England and Wales.
Cameron’s ministers had been expected to propose only civil ceremonies for same-sex marriage, which would have maintained discrimination against religious same-sex couples. Last week, Cameron said he had changed his mind.
He backed the right of faith groups to hold religious same-sex weddings if they choose to do so. This followed years of lobbying by Unitarians, Quakers, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and other pro-equality groups.
Then came the details.
Culture secretary Maria Miller proposed a “quadruple lock”, that seems to be designed to reassure people who fear churches will be forced to host same-sex marriages against their will. This fear has been whipped up by right-wing lobby groups to the extent anecdotal evidence suggests many Christians appear to believe it.
In reality, there is no organisation calling for the hosting of same-sex marriage ceremonies to be compulsory. No European country that has legalised same-sex marriage has seen the European Court force them onto churches. A religious marriage is an act of worship and almost everyone would agree nobody should be forced to participate in an act of worship in which they do not believe.
Two of the “locks” clarify that no faith group or minister of religion will be obliged to host same-sex marriages. One states a faith group can carry out same-sex marriages only if its governing body has applied for permission. This reveals a worrying level of ignorance about British faith groups.
For example, the United Reformed Church and the Baptist Union may well decide it is up to each congregation and minister to choose for themselves. But those congregations and ministers will be unable to marry same-sex couples if the national body has not applied for permission to do so.
The most surprising provision concerns the Church of England and the (Anglican) Church in Wales, in which Miller wants to make same-sex weddings illegal. It would be the first time since 1874 that Parliament has passed a law banning certain forms of worship in the Church of England.
Maria Miller referred to the Church in Wales as an established church. She is 92 years late. Wales has not had an established church since 1920.
Some of these measures seem designed to appease opponents of same-sex marriage. The problem is that many of them will never be appeased. They will not accept any provision that increases lesbian, gay and bisexual people’s rights. Assuring people they won’t be forced to go against their conscience is one thing; appeasing homophobia is quite another.
These confused proposals face determined opposition from Tory backbenchers, many peers and a number of bishops who sit in the House of Lords. We cannot assume the equal marriage campaign is won. There is still a long way to go.
• Why should gay couples have to wait for equal pension rights? – May 20th, 2012
• Osborne’s gay marriage vow undermined by Tory record – April 12th, 2010