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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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.