MOST couples celebrating the most important day of their lives have a choice of a either civil or religious ceremony – but for gay and lesbian couples there simply isn’t a choice.
Although civil partnerships have been legal for six years now, many campaigners such as gay rights’ activist Peter Tatchell believe they are “not good enough” and create a two-tier system.
At present civil partnerships cannot have any religious elements, which effectively means that gay and lesbian believers can’t celebrate their union in a way they would wish.
To rectify this, Liberal Democrat equality minister Lynne Featherstone recently announced a proposal to end the ban on same sex marriage and allow civil partnerships to be held in religious buildings.
Although full marriage equality is unlikely to be in place until 2015 and religious institutions aren’t forced to host ceremonies if they don’t wish to, equality campaigners believe it’s a step in the right direction.
Depending on which survey you read, public support for same-sex marriage ranges from 41% to 61% and is growing every year, but the Catholic Church, British Muslim groups and The Church of England are strongly opposed to same sex unions.
But not all religious groups feel the same, and some already offer blessings for same sex couples after their civil partnership.
The Rev Jonathan Adams from Sunderland is a Church of England priest at St Thomas’ Church in Newcastle. In the past the church has taken a campaigning stand on issues such as the ordination of women, fair trade and poverty.
“The congregation is open and welcoming when it comes to celebrating gay partnerships,” says Mr Adams, who claims the church is “a little more outspoken” than many but is keen to point out it “isn’t full of radical activists”.
The church hit the headlines in 2005 when vicar Christopher Wardale and retired Northumbria University lecturer Malcolm McCourt had a thanksgiving service there after their civil partnership, going against the advice of the House of Bishops.
Mr Adams says that if Government proposals were adopted, they would need a thorough debate on the issue.
“My hunch is that most people don’t really see the need for a distinction between civil partnership and marriage, but it hasn’t been discussed,” he admits.
“We’re striving to be open and welcoming so it’s an issue we’re going to have to address.
“St Thomas’ has on occasions in the past been prepared, because it believed in something strongly, to break the guidelines. It doesn’t set out to be an awkward place and it wouldn’t be done without careful consideration. There’s no point being in a church with bishops if you don’t pay any attention to them. But church law stands until a large body of people are breaking it and then it gets adapted.”
He cites the example of divorced couples marrying in church. “The official guidance was opposed to that for a long time after large numbers of people were doing it,” he says. “Eventually the numbers were so large that the guidance had to be changed.”
The issue has particular personal resonance for Mr Adams as his 32-year-old daughter is a lesbian and his brother-in-law is gay.
“I did my wrestling with the issues about 30 years ago,” he says. “I’m getting a bit tired of it going on and on in society. What we’re interested in around sexuality is love and commitment, and affirming those things when we see people flourishing in their relationships. Some people allow their worries about sexuality to spill over into campaigning against the lifestyles of others, and we’re trying not to do that.
“In some circumstances I’m supposed to look at a couple and say I see love, joy, peace, gentleness, humility, truth and we celebrate that as the work of the holy spirit. If they happen to be of the same sex I’m supposed to see it as wicked – well I just think that’s a nonsense. Let’s cure world hunger, not worry about what people get up to in bed.”
Also behind the Government proposals are the Quakers, who have been campaigning on the issue since last year.
Of all the religious groups, The Quakers are known for being more liberal, inclusive and open-minded. They don’t share a fixed set of beliefs or follow a strict doctrine, preferring to find unity in a wider definition of spirituality. Some don’t even believe in God in the traditional Christian sense and would describe themselves as humanists, agnostics or non-theists.
Sarah Richards, from Forest Hall is a clerk for Newcastle Quakers and has been involved on a national level in getting the Quakers equality proposals heard by the Government.
“We had heard stories of same sex couples who felt a civil partnership was second best as they are forbidden from having any spiritual content in the ceremony,” she says. “But we have a historic tradition that says marriages are made in heaven.”
Page 2 - What the law says… >>
What the law says…
Same sex marriage is not legal in the UK.
Since 2005 same sex couples have been able to enter into a civil partnership, which gives similar legal protection as marriage such as inheritance and adoption rights. Differences include the grounds for dissolution and some insurance and pension rights. A civil partnership doesn’t have the same status as marriage abroad.
A civil partnership must take place in a public building overseen by a government registrar. It cannot be held in a church or have any religious references.
The Government wants to allow civil partnerships to be held in religious buildings, and has said it will lead to a consultation on whether same sex couples should have the right to marry.
Religious institutions would not be forced to perform ceremonies for same sex couples.
Church can't be bullied into changing ways
DAN CUNNINGHAM, 25, who performs as Miss Rory in Newcastle’s Boulevard cabaret club, wanted to be a Catholic priest when he was young, and feels the law should be changed.
The former Ponteland High School student, who lives on Newcastle’s Quayside, says: “It’s nice for people, if they feel it’s right for them, to be able to have it in a church, but I don’t think the church should be bullied into changing its ways.”
As for the distinction between a civil partnership and marriage, Dan says: “As long as those two people are happy, does it matter if they’re married or in a civil partnership? It’s just in a name. As long as they’ve got the same rights, that’s what matters.”
Ceremony would make us special
AS believers, Terry Ward and Denis Beckwith were eager to have a religious ceremony when they decided on a civil partnership two years ago.
Denis, 62, a manager at Asda in Cramlington, had been married before but Terry, 50, hadn’t. “I always said if I was going to do it, I wanted it to be in a church,” says Terry, who works in a call centre for East Coast trains.
Although the couple have been together for 15 years, under current laws they weren’t allowed to get married in church.
Instead they had a civil partnership at Newcastle Civic Centre followed by a blessing the next day at St James’s United Reformed Church.
“I didn’t think we’d be allowed in a church,” says Terry. “But it was an absolutely beautiful service. I went down one aisle and Denis went down the other. We both lit a candle to our lives in the past. Then we lit three more candles, one for my future, one for Denis’s future and one for God to guide us. It was a very religious service.”
Cecilia Eggleston, a minister for Newcastle Metropolitan Church, carried out the service. “We told her all about ourselves and it was tailored to our own needs,” says Terry, who thinks it’s about time the law is changed. “I would have preferred it all to be in one place,” he says. “The way it was done, it was two sets of money.
“Although it feels special being in a civil partnership, I think with a proper marriage ceremony you would feel that little bit extra special.”