United Reformed Church to allow civil partnerships on its premises

The URC is the first mainstream christian denomination to do so

While most of the media have been focussed on the endless, anguished and still unresolved debate in the Church of England over the consecration of women as bishops, another denomination, the United Reformed Church, has taken a truly historic step at their General Assemby in Scarborough. The church, which has around 68,000 members in some 1,500 congregations, voted to allow the registration of civil partnerships on its premises following an hour long debate this afternoon.

The resolution takes effect immediately and will enable local United Reformed Churches in England and Wales to consider whether they wish to offer civil partnership ceremonies. The decision isn't binding on individual congregations in the URC, and the body has said that it "cannot estimate how many of its churches will take advantage of this resolution." However several have already indicated that they will seek registration under the terms of regulations brought into effect in December last year.

The URC's previous moderator, Rev. Kirsty Thorpe, acknowledged that some URC congregations remained opposed to civil partnership ceremonies. But she welcomed the vote, saying,

We have a long way to go in terms of recognising and supporting those people in our churches who are in lasting, loving, mature same-sex relationships. This resolution could help those congregations who are already on this journey to reach a new stage in their understanding of how best to support and relate to such couples.

Quakers, Unitarians and Progressive Jewish Synagogues have already made provison for same-sex civil partnerships on their premises, but the URC is the first mainstream Christian denomination to do so.

The government's current proposals to allow full marriage for same-sex couples will not extend to churches and other religious organisations, who will be barred from conducting them. However, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the Evening Standard that the ban might not be forever.

It was, he said, his personal view that:

In exactly the same way that we shouldn't force any church to conduct gay marriage, we shouldn't stop any church that wants to conduct gay marriage.

While the URC's decision does not relate to same sex marriage as such, it is likely to increase the pressure on other churches to reconsider their outright opposition to the proposals. It also underlines that there's no single "religous" viewpoint on these questions.

The United Reformed Church in Saltaire Village. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.