Churches can now conduct civil partnerships, but should they even be allowed to conduct weddings?

The current legal situation around marriage and civil partnership is incoherent.

The current legal situation around marriage and civil partnership is incoherent.

Since 5th December, under the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) (Amendment) Regulations 2011, religious bodies in England and Wales have had the right to register same-sex civil partnerships as well as religious weddings, should they wish to do so.

This doesn't mean that same-sex couples have had the right to bang on the door of their local parish church and demand that the vicar conduct a civil union ceremony. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Church of England has made it clear that it has no plans to avail itself of the provisions. No Anglican clergy, however liberal or enthusiastic at the prospect, will be entitled to conduct civil partnerships. And I'd guess the likelihood of the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference repudiating the Pope by signing up to the scheme is vanishingly small. Some believers may have better luck. Liberal synagogues are said to be keen on the measure, the Quakers have already signed up, and the United Reformed Church has promised to consider the matter in July.

It should be clear, then, that the government has bent over backwards to ensure that religious bodies are not compelled to endorse civil partnerships, even to the extent of making life difficult for clergy who, left to their own devices, would like to do so. Yet an Evangelical Tory, Baroness O'Cathain (pronounced "Cahoin"), today forced a House of Lords debate on the issue. Her motion, if passed, would have cancelled the new regulations. In the event, she withdrew it before it reached a vote. Perhaps the tone of the debate had led her to expect a heavy defeat. More likely, in getting the subject debated she had already achieved her aim.

It's not surprising to find Lady O'Cathain's name associated with today's move. A former director of the Barbican Centre ennobled by John Major, she has long had a reputation in the Lords as a campaigner for traditional and religious values. In 2004 she attempted to have civil partnerships excluded from her native Northern Ireland (her intervention, it is rumoured, led to her departure from the board of British Airways after Stonewall threatened a boycott). The same year she opposed the legal recognition of sex changes on the grounds that "the basic proposition of the Bill is mistaken. A man cannot become a woman. A woman cannot become a man".

She also mounted a rearguard attempt in 2008 to save the ancient crime of blasphemy, on the grounds that "as long as there has been a country called England it has been a Christian country, publicly acknowledging the one true God."

Her legal worries about the impact of the new regulations are almost certainly groundless - although to be fair their drafting is sufficiently obscure to allow lawyers to have led one of Britain's most distinguished judges, Baroness Butler-Sloss, to admit during the debate that she had some difficultly understanding them. But in any case, today's debate was mostly about putting down a marker.

What really frightens campaigners of Lady O'Cathain's mindset is the government's desire to legalise full-fledged gay marriage. The current distinction between (exclusively heterosexual) marriage and (exclusively homosexual) civil partnership may be largely an artificial one but it does have significant cultural and religious implications. Many gay couples want to be allowed to call themselves married. Some heterosexual couples would prefer to live without the historical baggage of the word. To offer both types of partnership to every sort of couple seems both liberal and logical.

But not without difficulty. As long as the two are distinct, churches and other religious organisations that offer marriage can legally do so only to heterosexuals; and if they decline to offer civil partnerships to gay people they will not be available to heterosexuals, after all. There will be no discrimination involved, at least not a discrimination that would engage the 2010 Equality Act.

But as soon as marriage is open to all regardless of sexual orientation (and perhaps civil partnership too) this position becomes much harder to sustain. So too does the current distinction between civil weddings and those conducted in a church or other religious building. Something will have to give. Either marriage (and civil partnership) registration will have to become a purely civil matter, with religious bodies free to offer blessings afterwards if they so desire (that being, after all, no concern of the state). Or else, conversely, the state should remove itself from the marriage business entirely and leave it to churches and other voluntary associations to conduct ceremonies and offer pieces of paper to their members that have no more than internal or spiritual relevance. In that case the legal registration of relationships would become a purely administrative matter.

However unfounded Baroness O'Cathain's fears in this particular instance, she's right to note that the current legal situation around marriage and civil partnership is incoherent. The source of the trouble, though, is something of which she presumably approves: the role played by churches and other religious bodies in conducting and registering legally binding marriages. However normal it may seem for people to get married in church, in reality the whole process is a confusion of the proper spheres of religion and the state no less than the presence of bishops in the House of Lords.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496