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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle