Over the last decade or so, the number of times when New Labour has created legislation in what ‘the Simpsons’ would call ‘the American way’ – i.e. do a ‘half arsed job’ – has been legion. There must be some sort of finishing school for NuLab legislators where they go to have that bit of the brain responsible for common sense somehow removed. And now Lord Ali has kept up the tradition by tabling an amendment to the Equality Bill that allows civil partnership ceremonies on religious premises. Note the juxtaposition of words there…civil…and religious.
In a letter to The Times, Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, has expressed his concerns about this amendment.
Now, I was of the impression that the reason civil partnerships existed was for people who could not or would not undertake a religious marriage (irrespective of religion) but still wanted to publicly commit themselves to each other. Look what the direct.gov website has to say on the issue:
“A civil marriage ceremony cannot have any religious content, but you may be able to arrange for individual touches such as non-religious music and readings to be added to the legal wording, and for the ceremony to be videoed. The register office where you intend to marry will be able to tell you more about the options available.
A Civil Partnership is legally formed by the signing of the civil partnership schedule. Like a civil marriage, this is also non-religious, but couples who wish to arrange for a ceremony should discuss this with the registration officials.”
Seems pretty straight forward there. They even say ‘cannot have any religious content’. With me so far? Good. Let’s take a moment to thing about religious buildings – and I’m going to include churches, mosques, chapels, synagogues and temples here. Most religious buildings are built with certain tenets, based on the religion in question, in mind. Ignoring the theological issues around whether the church refers to the building or the people who celebrate there, and focusing purely on the building itself, there are aspects of the construction and furnishing of most churches (and other religious buildings) that are symbolic – altars, crosses, positioning of certain fittings and furnishings, the orientation of a building within a plot of land – all can be highly symbolic, and hence ‘religious’. So, to be strictly within the letter of the law, any ceremonies held would have to somehow remove the symbolism from the building. Do we have to take away a cross because it might show up on a video, for example?
We then have the whole raft of issues around desecration; if a Mosque were to be used, do we insist on all those entering the main part of the room to be barefoot to respect the building, or do we allow any footwear? Same with clothing. Or is it likely that this opening up of religious buildings would only apply to, for example, Christian denominations or faiths that do not insist on certain rules around footwear / clothing / etc.?
And this applies whether the couple participating in the ceremony are heterosexual or homosexual; we have here a simple issue of a law being bought in as part of an ‘Equality Bill’ that will actually remove the rights of religious communities to indicate how their buildings are used by non-believers. Hardly equal rites for them, is it? Especially as in many religious communities the fabric of the buildings is maintained not by state or local government but by the religious group themselves.
A religious building is for the celebration of religious events. It’s not to provide a photogenic backdrop for people with no beliefs at all. It isn’t to provide yet another football in the political battles around the rights of homosexuals vs heterosexuals in our communities. By hanging this legislation of the Equality Bill, I’m afraid that it will end up putting some priests, Imans and vicars in a terrible position of being asked to go against their conscience or against the law in the name of equal rites – which don’t seem to apply very much to religious folks in these sorts of situations. A vicar can refuse to marry people in a Church based on any number of reasons – divorce, where the people live, lack of obvious connection with the Church / parish. These restrictions have been in place for centuries in some cases, and apply to everyone irrespective or sexuality, race, whatever who wish to use the Church.
This law seeks to effectively de-consecrate religious buildings for a short period of time – it should be resisted.
Now – here is where what I write will start getting contentious and I expect to be upsetting a few folks with what I say next.
It’s no secret that I am a religious man. I like to think of myself as a fairly tolerant and reasonably non-judgemental fellow, but it increasingly seems to me that when our Government talks of tolerance and equality it usually means that religious folks are going to get it in the neck, and be expected to suspend some of our personal beliefs in how we conduct ourselves in our day to day lives. If we’re now going to start being told who we can and can’t allow to use our own churches and holy places, then our rights are being eroded, and perhaps it’s time for some tolerance to be shown to us and our beliefs.