The Church of England and Same Sex Marriage

It has been reported that the Church of England Bishops are proposing no changes to recognise same sex marriages ahead of a General Synod vote next month. It has been reported that prayers for a blessing of a same sex couple will be adopted. See:

Issues of religious doctrine and teaching – and the articulation of these in internal rules and laws – are, of course, a matter for religious groups themselves. In the same way as the rules of a golf or football club are a matter for that sports organisation.

However, this is subject to where those internal rules clash with the external laws and expectations of national and international bodies. To take an extreme example, the State could not turn a blind eye to a golf club which had the rule that the losers should be murdered.

State laws protecting sexual orientation have rightly grown in recent years. And these laws have recognised that religions may still have different perspectives on this.

Religious groups enjoy a number of exceptions in the Equality Act 2010 that recognise that they may have a different understanding on the matter than society at large.

And in relation to marriage laws, the matter is more complex because of the archaic ways in which the law is expressed.

The Marriage Act 1949 distinguishes between marriages solemnised according to the rites of the Church of England (which for these purposes include the Church in Wales) and all other marriages (which includes civil ceremonies, Jewish and Quaker ceremonies and those conducted in a registered place of religious worship).

It is also understood that parishioners have the legal right to be married in a Church of England / Church in Wales church. This has been recognised judicially and in legislation in recent years. Indeed, the right has been extended to all those with a qualifying connection to the parish.

This is why the Church of England / Church in Wales are in a different position under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. The Act does not allow the Church in Wales or Church of England to opt in to conduct same sex marriages, unlike other religious groups who have this opportunity.

The 2013 Act also provides special protection for the law and practice of the Established Church to continue to follow the previous understanding of marriage as being between members of the opposite-sex. Section 11 provides that ‘in the law of England and Wales, marriage has the same effect in relation to same-sex couples as it has in relation to opposite-sex couples’ and this applies to all ‘legislation whenever passed or made’. However this does not apply to laws
made by the Church of England or other ecclesiastical law.

It is also stated that: ‘Any duty of a member of the clergy to solemnize marriages (and any corresponding right of persons to have their marriages solemnized by members of the clergy) is not extended by this Act to marriages of same-sex couples’ (s1(4)).

Like the Equality Act 2010, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 recognises and facilitates the right of religious groups to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation. It does this on grounds of religious freedom.

However, it can be questioned whether this can be justified especially perhaps in the context of marriage law given the limited choice in terms of legally recognised marriage forms.

What about the religious freedom of a same sex couple of Church of England believers who are not able to marry in a way that reflects their beliefs?

This points to the need to ensure that discussions about the need for change occur within religious groups. Wider social change can often be a catalyst for reform.

It also may suggest that our convoluted marriage laws are in need of modernisation. Even if religious opt outs were not removed, relaxing the ban on religious content in civil ceremonies or recognising marriages conducted by independent celebrants would recognise ceremonies where religious sentiments could be expressed by the parties where their religious groups continue to opt out.

For many, the conclusion reached by the CofE Bishops will be insufficient. It is a step forward but still lags behind societal expectations. It is bound to raise questions of the appropriateness of legal exceptions that enable religious groups to take such positions as well as wider questions about whether it remains appropriate to have an established Church – with the legal benefits and burdens that brings – which has a divergent understanding of marriage and equality.

The forthcoming debate in General Synod underlines that this will not be the final word on the matter.

See also:

For more on religion and marriage law and the need for reform, see:



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