A reply to Bishop Scott-Joynt on religion and civil partnerships

By Iain McLean
5 Mar 2010

At the beginning of February 2010, Oxford politics Professor Iain McLean wrote an open letter to the Anglican Bishop of Winchester, Michael Scott-Joynt, about civil partnerships on religious premises, after the bishop publicly opposed such a development. The bishop responded personally. This is Professor McLean's further reply, following the House of Lords vote on an amendment to the Equality Bill on the issue.

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your courteous reply to my recent ‘Open Letter’, which reached me just before the Lords’ debate on the Alli amendment. In your reply to me, you made some points similar to those on which you were recently quoted in The Times, the Daily Telegraph, and the Christian Institute website.

I agree with you that the state ought to allow religious organisations a zone of spiritual freedom. Therefore I support what the Americans call a ‘ministerial exemption’ to allow religions the freedom to control their own spiritual discipline. In my book, What’s Wrong with the British Constitution? I argued that the Church of Scotland Act 1921 gets the balance right here. But, as Richard Harries said on Tuesday night, religious freedom is indivisible. It follows that we, the Liberal Jews, and the Unitarians need the same space as other denominations claim to follow their spiritual leadings.

The issues which still divide us seem to be:

Does passing the Alli amendment send us down a slippery slope? The Times and Telegraph reports on what you say about this are, I think, rather uncritical. I am surprised that the Government Equalities Office has not commented on them, since, as you know, Lord Alli and the three denominations that sought his amendment all insist that it is designed to apply only to those denominations that request it, hence the ‘for the avoidance of doubt’ clause that he added in the version that was carried in the Lords.

Neither the Quakers nor the Church of England are congregationalist. Our Yearly Meeting decided to seek what is now the Alli amendment. It is, presumably, for your Synod to discuss the same subject and come to its own view. If it does not wish to offer civil partnerships in church, how might your (and/or Lord Tebbit’s) nightmare unfold?

Case 1: an incumbent conducts a civil partnership ceremony in defiance of his/her bishop. But the ceremony would have no legal standing unless the incumbent had applied to be a ‘religious organisation’. I am sure the regulations can be drafted so as to ensure that applications to conduct civil partnerships are only entertained from the highest judicatory of the denomination.

Case 2: a militant same-sex couple apply to a church for a partnership purely in order to sue the vicar after the application is refused. First, I deplore the efforts of Ben Summerskill, Peter Tatchell and others to use the Alli amendment as a wedge to drive civil partnership into an unwilling Church of England. Nor was the letter to The Times that some of your colleagues signed so intended. I drafted it to make clear that it was not about the Church of England.

Second, I cannot see how such an action would get anywhere in a UK court in the face of the clear wording of the Alli amendment. In recent discrimination cases, the courts have been unsympathetic towards politically motivated anti-discrimination claims.

Case 3: a loving same-sex couple do the same, in sorrow rather than anger. It would be very peculiar for them to put their litigiousness ahead of their love. If they are comfortable with the usage of Friends and willing to follow the (quite onerous) requirements laid down in Quaker Faith and Practice to test their commitment, then I hope they would choose that route. I am sure the Unitarians would also welcome them.

In none of those three cases do I see any road to Strasbourg.

Maintaining the distinction between civil partnership and marriage. I think that you need to address the asymmetry we mentioned in the Times letter. Straight couples may choose either a civil or a religious partnership. Gay couples may choose only the former. That discriminates against gay couples of faith.

The Quaker understanding of marriage is explained in our leaflet We are but witnesses which we sent to partner churches after our Yearly Meeting last year. In the lapidary words of George Fox in 1669:

For the right joining in marriage is the work of the Lord only, and not the priests or magistrates; for it is God’s ordinance and not man’s and therefore Friends cannot consent that they should join them together: for we marry none; it is the Lord’s work, and we are but witnesses.

Therefore the only declarations made in a Quaker marriage are (in either order):

Friends, I take this my friend [name] to be my wife (husband), promising, through divine assistance, to be unto her (him) a loving and faithful husband (wife), so long as we both on earth shall live.

Arguments which draw a distinction between partnership and marriage based on statements made in the marriage services of other denominations therefore have no bearing on Quaker marriage.

In the Alli debate, much was made of the absurdity of having a civil registrar popping in and out during a civil partnership ceremony on religious premises. Unfortunately neither the Bishop of Bradford, nor Baroness Morris for the Opposition, nor Baroness Royall for the Government was correctly briefed on the Quaker position regarding registrars. Since 1753, we have had the right (in England and Wales) to register our own marriages and report them to the state in due course. As far as I can see, the question of a civil registrar having to pop in and out of a civil partnership ceremony to avoid being tainted by any religious language simply does not arise with us.

In Friendship,

Iain McLean

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(c) Iain McLean FBA is Official Fellow in Politics and Professor of Politics at Oxford University. He is author of What's Wrong with the British Constitution? (OUP 2009), with Scot Peterson, and is a Quaker with a background in the Church of Scotland.

His initial open letter to Bishop Scott-Joynt was published on Ekklesia here: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/11194

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