Do Civil Partnerships undermine marriage equality?
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.