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.