United Reformed Church offers freedom to marry same-sex couples

By Savi Hensman
July 12, 2016

The United Reformed Church will let local churches host marriages of same-sex couples, if congregations so choose . On 9 July 2016 it became the largest UK denomination to say yes.

A two-thirds majority was needed at the General Assembly, which met in Southport. When votes were counted, over nine-tenths were in favour (240 votes compared to 21) – an overwhelming majority.((http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/23249))

No minister will be forced to conduct such a wedding. However, if a local church registers, a neighbouring minister can be invited to take the service.

As the resolution made clear, “General Assembly does not consider it appropriate to express a single view on behalf of the whole United Reformed Church on the matter of the marriage of same-sex couples.”

Since 2012, local churches have been allowed to host civil partnerships if most members believed it was right to do so. When equal marriage was introduced in England and Wales, then Scotland, some thought the same principle should apply.

In 2014, there was a thoughtful and moving debate at the General Assembly, and most were in favour. But voting procedures required a consensus, which could not be achieved.

Giving each Church Meeting (made up of full members of the local church) the right to decide was agreed in principle in 2015. This was then discussed by 13 regional synods, covering different parts of England, Scotland and Wales. None said no to taking the matter forward.

This is an important step forward in making the church more welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It also creates space for the many heterosexual people led by conscience to affirm marriage for all wishing to make their vows and seek God’s blessing on a committed, self-giving life-partnership.

At the same time, the conscientious beliefs of those not currently willing to conduct or host weddings for same-sex couples are also respected.

This approach builds on a 2007 Commitment on Human Sexuality. This recognised that “this is a deeply emotive and potentially divisive issue” and “human sexuality and the language we use about it raises many complex questions, not least in the area of biblical interpretation.”

Nevertheless, this took the view that “Christ calls us to strive to live together” and agreed “to continue to explore these differences in the light of our understanding of Scripture and under the Holy Spirit's guidance for our individual and shared life in today's world.”

The URC is part of many Local Ecumenical Partnerships in which different denominations share buildings and other resources. Its recent decision will encourage other churches seeking to become more inclusive.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/2261

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.