A range of Christian groups have joined with others in welcoming a vote in Parliament to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales. MPs voted yesterday evening (5 February) by 400 to 175 in favour of the proposal.
The bill will now face challenges and possible amendments as it goes through committee stage in the Commons before returning to the whole chamber. It will then pass to the House of Lords, where opposition is expected to be stronger.
As MPs debated the bill, both supporters and opponents of equal marriage gathered outside Parliament, with Christians represented on both sides. Christian supporters of same-sex marriage were singing hymns and displaying placards opposite Parliament when news of the result came through.
Emma Anthony, a Christian youthworker in a same-sex relationship, was among those demonstrating at Westminster. She said, "It’s a very good day for equality. For some people, a life-changing decision has been made. I think there is no possible way that Jesus would have voted against this bill. We have to do what Jesus would do if Jesus still had an earthly body.”
The group Christians for Equal Marriage UK said they were "thrilled that Parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage, a vote which reflects the great support this move has throughout the country."
They added, "It's our hope and prayer now that those who have reacted negatively to the bill will begin to realise that their fears for the institution of marriage are not valid."
The result was seen as good news by Christian denominations that want to take advantage of a change in the law in order to carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies in their own churches.
Derek McAuley, chief officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, described the vote as "another important step on the journey to marriage equality".
He explained, "The Unitarian support for same-sex marriage arises out of our deep spiritual values. Marriage is not simply a legal contract. Our experience has been that the intentions of a same-sex couple wishing to celebrate their relationship has been the same as heterosexual couples."
British Quakers are already carrying out same-sex marriage ceremonies without legal recognition. Quaker representative Paul Parker said last night, "We have been waiting for the law to catch up. Today that has come a step closer."
Several Christian commentators urged the media not to portray the issue as a conflict between religion and gay rights. Rev Sharon Ferguson of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) pointed out that "many MPs spoke movingly about the issues involved, including a number whose Christian faith has led them to support equal marriage".
"Jesus modelled relationships based on love and justice – much harder than following a set of rules," argued Symon Hill, a Christian writer who walked from Birmingham to London in 2011 as a pilgrimage of repentance for his former homophobia and who yesterday demonstrated for equal marriage outside Parliament.
He added, "Jesus motivates many people to work for a more just and less sinful world – campaigning against inequality, war and government cuts. We've heard lots from anti-equality Christians. It's vital that pro-equality Christians speak up just as clearly."
Several campaigners have warned that the struggle is not over.
"There is still some way to go before the bill becomes law, so we should not be complacent," said LGCM's Sharon Ferguson. "Those who believe in equality need to continue to make the case for allowing couples to pledge their love and commitment to each other in marriage, and for faith communities which wish to celebrate this to be allowed to do so."
Opponents of equal marriage also seem convinced that the battle is far from over. Christian Concern, a group campaigning against same-sex marriage, said last night that "there is everything to play for".
Others spoke of the need to continue struggling for equality within churches themselves.
"Same-sex couples are still not treated as equal by most churches and cannot get married in church," said Christians for Equal Marriage UK. "Many clergy wish to provide blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples as they have in the past, but are being prevented by church hierarchies who, as soon as this became a big public issue, sent out letters forbidding it."