Saturday, 1 June 2013

Should Heterosexual Christians Choose Civil Partnership Over Marriage?

Next week, the House of Lords debates the controversial Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill, which plans to do what it says on the tin - extend the institution of marriage to couples of the same sex.

One change to note is that the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 will be amended to remove any concept of conjugal rights between a same-sex couple (i.e. an opposite-sex marriage is voidable if a one spouse is unable to, or refuses to - in the delicate language of the law - consummate the marriage, whereas an same-sex one won't be) and also amended - with this affecting all married couples, regardless of gender - so that a divorce on the grounds of adultery is only possible if a spouse has sexual activity with someone of the opposite sex.

This ties in with the Civil Partnership Act 2004 which states that a civil partnership cannot be dissolved on the grounds of adultery or non-consummation.

Although same-sex marriage, just like civil partnerships, gets referred to as "gay marriage", this is technically incorrect, as it makes no presumption on sexual activity between the spouses/partners. Indeed, there is nothing to stop two heterosexual people of the same gender entering into a civil partnership, or a same-sex marriage when the Bill becomes law.

A couple of years ago I was sitting an insurance exam, and one question was an older man wanting to leave most of his estate to a younger male friend and looking at how to reduce the income tax liability. I suppose I should have written something about putting it in trust, but my memory went blank, and with time running out I suggested they enter a civil partnership as the younger man gets the estate free of Inheritance Tax and gets a spouse's/civil partner's pension on top.

That was probably not what the examiner was looking for.

Memo to self - must resit that exam when I have time.

Let's face facts here. Same-sex marriage will happen. How should the churches respond?

The Submission of the Clergy Act 1533 forbids the Church of England from passing any canon law (in this case the relevant canon is Canon B30) that is incompatible with the state law, hence there needed to be provisions in the Bill to ensure that Church of England clergy were not required to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies - indeed the Bill prevents same-sex marriages from being solemnised "according to the rites of the Church of England" (by the way, could Government ministers stop being disingenious by talking about "civil marriages" and "religious marriages"? Even the Home Office consultation paper was titled Equal Civil Marriage. The law recognises marriage which can be solemnised by either a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony - marriage is marriage is marriage regardless of where the ceremony took place).

Though, actually, when people make this non-existent distinction between "civil marriages" and "religious marriages", they could be, unwittingly, coming across the solution for the churches.

One friend of mine was the pastor of an evangelical free church in the USA, and when it looked like his state could introduce same-sex marriages, was of the opinion that if the state redefined marriage from its historic definition of one-man-and-one-woman, then he would have to "get out of the marriage business".

I wonder, instead of getting out of the marriage business, the churches could develop a rival to the state-run marriage business.

As the Bill went through the House of Commons, there was an attempt to amend it so that civil partnerships were extended to opposite-sex couples. The current version of the Bill requires the "Secretary of State" (currently referring to Maria Miller, the Culture, Media & Sport Secretary and Minister for Women & Equalities) to hold - and have published - a review into civil partnerships, which has to include a public consultation.

And this could be a way forward for churches which no longer feel they could conduct marriages if the term has been redefined, or individual Christians who feel that they could not enter into a marriage under the new legal definition.

Why not have a marriage ceremony, but without the signing of the register? It is the signing of the register that makes a marriage valid in the eyes of the state. But in the eyes of the congregation, and the couple's family, friends and acquaintances? The couple have made a public commitment to each other, before people they know, and have uttered vows to each other before God. In everything apart from the law, they are a married couple.

But what about the legal aspect? The Home Office consultation document noted:

Married couples and civil partners are entitled to similar rights and responsibilities but there are some differences around eligibility for some pension rights and laws around adultery and non-consummation and courtesy titles.

Such a couple could get the legal benefits of marriage, and the state's recognition of their relationship, by entering into a civil partnership. The circle will have been truly squared.

The Church of England would need to get the approval of the General Synod for this, but, as far as I can tell, would not be acting illegally by holding marriage ceremonies without the marriage.

To avoid people getting "married" to one person in one church and then to another person later elsewhere, then something along the lines of the approach used for the Order for Prayer & Dedication after a Civil Marriage would be needed (churches outside the Church of England would need to use their own formula) - just as you cannot have this ceremony without having had your marriage solemnised in a civil ceremony, then the church "marriage service" would only be open to opposite-sex couples who had entered a civil partnership beforehand. In addition, to prevent a future church questioning whether a couple had got "married", there would need to be a central register of such marriage ceremonies - perhaps held by an ecumenical body such as Churches Together in Britain & Ireland.

When marriage is redefined, the churches will need to start thinking outside the box on this.

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