Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Do Civil Partnerships undermine marriage equality?

I was never in favour of civil partnerships. Living in Massachusetts in 2004 I saw marriage equality come to that state, and I was very aware of all the debates at that time. In the American conversation civil partnerships were the conservative compromise position. Pro-marriage equality campaingners generally considered them to be based on a doctrine of "separate but equal" which had been rejected as a racial philosophy in America a generation earlier.

So I was very ambivalent when civil partnerships came into force in the UK. They certainly provided a lot more rights for same-sex partnerships but they also made it very clear that same-sex partnerships were inferior to different-sex partnerships which could be solemnised as marriages.

One of the ways that inferiority was expressed was that civil partnerships had to be, well, civil: i.e. non-religious. There was no way that same-sex couples could affirm their relationship in a religious ceremony. As a person of faith and a queer person, I found this offensive. The government had declared that same-sex relationships could not be holy. That to me seems like something the government has no right to legislate on.

The rest of the Unitarian community, as well as Quakers and Liberal Jews also came to this position and began to campaign for civil partnerships to be allowed in religious buildings. Lord Alli in 2010 then proposed an amendment to the Equality Bill to lift this ban which was passed allowing this to happen.

We are now in a period of consultation on this. The consultation closes on 23rd June. You can contribute to the consultation by clicking here. I went to a consultation meeting in Manchester a couple of weeks ago, and I've come away pretty disappointed.

So let's be clear about what the government are proposing:
Civil partnerships will still be civil and cannot contain any religious language or music while the partnership documents are being signed.
Civil partnerships will still only be able to be performed by civil registrars.
The ONLY difference is that civil partnerships will be able to be performed in religious BUILDINGS.

This means that instead of having a civil partnership registration in the registry office then walking across the road to the church for a blessing you can have the civil partnership registration in the building and then stay where you are for the blessing. BUT THERE WILL STILL BE A SEPARATION BETWEEN THE ACTUAL LEGAL ACT AND ANY RELIGIOUS ELEMENT. The separation will simply be in time and not space. This separation is not a requirement for different-sex couples wishing to marry.

This seems to me to be a hell of a lot of fuss for a tiny change. And I wonder whether the whole concept of "religious civil patnerships" is not completely flawed logically, theologically and tactically.

If we believe in equality, we believe in equality. If we believe in equality then nothing less than marriage equality is good enough.

You see I'm not sure I believe in civil parnerships at all. I believe in marriage. I'm not sure if civil patnerships undermine the institution of marriage, whereas opening marriage to same-sex coiple renews the institution of marriage.

The Quakers have come to a very clear coherent, theologically and spiritually grounded position on marriage. Unitarians have not. As often happens Unitarians have been reactionary liberals, simply offering a knee-jerk reaction to events rather than doing some deeper thinking and actually approaching the question, "What is marriage?"

I am in favour of marriage equality. But I would not want to simply propose a General Assembly motion in favour of it. Because I think our position on marriage would have to be deeply rooted in the lives of individual congregations. I would want each of our congregations to spend a year thinking about the question "What is marriage?" before we come to a position. This is what the Quakers have done.

The government have made a commitment to "look at" the issue of marriage equality, but I wouldn't underestimate the upward struggle it would take to achieve that. However regardless of how difficult it might be we Unitarians do need to be able to say clearly, rooted in our faith, what our position on marriage is and to campaign for that with vision and integrity.


Blogger Bill Baar said...

As often happens Unitarians have been reactionary liberals, simply offering a knee-jerk reaction to events rather than doing some deeper thinking and actually approaching the question, "What is marriage?"

Our preachers find rights but whether or not we're wise to exercise them left to us. The preachers without opinion.

5:17 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

There seems to be a vague notion that we should tolerate homophobia in our midst, because we're tolerant.

This view has hamstrung any attempts to reach a coherent view on this issue (and probably several others).

There is no requirement to tolerate homophobia.

I agree that we need dialogue and discussion on this issue.

12:48 pm  
Blogger Anna Trapnel said...

Thanks so much for such an interesting post. I had not realised quite how much poor-relation-ism was being incorporated into the proposals, although of course I realise CP is a bit second class. As ever, the Quakers are in the vanguard, leading the way! I love their position on marriage being "the Lord's work" only etc. I shall quickly put my two penn'orth into the consultation. Thanks again.

8:51 am  
Anonymous Angela @ liveunitarianly.com said...

I do not tolerate homophobia. I expect other Unitarians not to tolerate homophobia and to work on being less heterosexist (as I am).

In terms of the CP in religous buildings, I think we should support every step in the right direction, whilst continuing to maintain that full equality is the only acceptable permananent solution.

I read Lynne Featherstone's (MP for Equality) comments in The Inquirer. It seems to me absurdly difficult for people to realise that being able to marry same sex couples in our congregations is something that we actively want.

But then I became a Unitarian in part because I thought Unitarians were already religious liberals who welcomed diversity and used reason, rather than appeals to spurious authorities to form their opinions. Sometimes I feel like I was slightly mislead by the rhetoric.

9:49 pm  

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