In a historic move, the United Reformed Church (URC) has become the largest faith group in Britain to decide to host same-sex civil partnership ceremonies on its premises. The URC's General Assembly voted yesterday (7 July) to take advantage of a change in the law that means civil partnerships can be solemnised on religious premises.
The move was described as "wonderful" by Rev Adrian Bulley of City URC in Cardiff, a church that has long supported Christian blessing for same-sex partnerships.
The decision on whether to host the ceremonies will be left to each URC congregation. No church or minister will be obliged to be involved if they do not agree.
Many churches within the URC have been blessing same-sex partnerships since 2005, but these have not been recognised in law. When civil partnerships were introduced in 2005, the law prevented the inclusion of religious elements.
The situation changed - but only in England and Wales - in December 2011, when the law was ammended to allow civil partnership ceremonies to take place in religious premises. The first civil partnership ceremony in a religious building took place in May at Ullet Road Unitarian Church in Liverpool.
Christian denominations who already plan to host civil partnership ceremonies include the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. The move has long had the support of Liberal Judaism, and the larger Movement for Reform Judaism has recently joined them. The URC are the largest group so far to add their name to the list.
The URC's General Assembly heard both sides of the argument before reaching the decision which will take effect immediately. A URC spokesperson said it was not possible to say how many of the denomination's churches will choose to register their premises for a civil partnerships, but a number have already expressed interest in doing so.
Adrian Bulley made clear that his church would be among them.
“For many years this church has been hosting services of blessing for those who have entered a civil partnership," he explained. "How sad that these couples have had to go through two ceremonies to enable their union to be blessed by God in the context of prayer and worship".
He added, "How wonderful that General Assembly has now opened the door and enabled those local churches that wish to do so, to register their premises in order that same-sex couples may have a single ceremony – both religious and legal – to mark their commitment to each other".
Kirsty Thorpe, a former Moderator of the URC, said that the resolution would help those congregations who are on a "journey" towards greater support and acceptance of same-sex couples. But she acknowledged that not everyone in the Church would be happy with the decision.
She said, "There are other congregations in the United Reformed Church for whom the possible recognition in church of same-sex relationships would be a total contradiction of their theological understanding and identity. I hope and pray that we can continue to respect one another’s diversity on this matter, as we do in positive ways for other issues in our denominational life where we don’t all share the same views.”
The URC's decision was warmly welcomed today by the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, one of the first Christian groups in the UK to bless same-sex partnerships.
Derek McAuley, Chief Officer of the Unitarians, described the move as “another step forward towards full inclusion of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people within the churches. This goes a long way to breaking down barriers between people of faith and the LGBT community.”
But he warned that there could be trouble ahead. Faith groups in some areas have found that local authorities are charging widely varying rates to register religious premises for civil partnerships. The cost has proved prohibitively expensive for some. In June, a same-sex Quaker couple in Birmingham were prevented from registering a civil partnership at Bournville Friends' Meeting House because it would have cost the Meeting thousands of pounds.
Derek McAuley said that he hoped the URC would join Unitarians, Quakers, Liberal Jews and Reform Jews in helping to “strengthen the pressure to ensure these concerns are addressed”.
The United Reformed Church was formed in 1972 by a merger of the Presbyterian Church of England with most of the churches in the Congregational Union of England and Wales. They were later joined by other groups within the Reformed Protestant tradition.
The URC has about 60,000 members in 1,529 congregations.