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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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.