Marriage (Same Sex Couples)

Memorandum submitted by the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (MB 26)

The General Assembly welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. We are pleased that the Government has responded to representations made during the consultation exercise on equal marriage.

The position of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches was clearly expressed in a Resolution approved by at the Annual Meeting in Keele in April 2012:

"This General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches calls upon Her Majesty’s Government and the Scottish Government to ensure that legislation is passed so that all couples, same-sex or mixed sex, have equal access to civil marriages, religious marriages and civil partnerships. We have no wish to impose this legislation on those faith traditions who feel, for religious reasons, unable to comply."

The Resolution was supported by 130 for, 4 against and 12 abstaining.

This resolution builds upon the commitment over many years of Unitarians and Free Christians to equality in many spheres of public life. The General Assembly has expressed its support for full equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people, with in 1977 making it clear that ministry in the denomination was open to all and expressing abhorrence of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 1984 an equal age of consent was supported and in 2000 the repeal of Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was demanded along with calls for equal acceptance of lesbians and gay men in all walks of life. In 2008 the General Assembly called upon the Government to introduce legislation permitting civil partnerships to be performed in any place of worship or other premised licensed for the celebration of marriage. We gave our full support to the amendment to the Equality Bill to permit civil partnerships to take place in a religious premises and Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester was the first such religious premises to take advantage of the new provision. We understand that the first such registration took place in May 2012 at Ullet Road Unitarian Church in Liverpool.

This position reflects our longstanding acceptance of the equal validity of same sex relationships in the same way as opposite sex and that they should be celebrated as part of the life of our community of faith.

As a faith group the Unitarian support for same sex marriage arises out of our deep spiritual values. We believe that everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves. This commitment to private judgment in spiritual matters has of course implications for how we see people and regard civil liberties. "The individual is a fact of existence insofar as he steps into a living relation with other individuals" wrote the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Commenting upon this Unitarian minister Philip Hewitt has written "To put the same idea more simply, but not necessarily more comprehensively, to live is to love. The person who is not loving is to that extent not living."

Over the centuries Unitarians have been open to change drawing upon new understanding and insights. We had our first woman minister in the early 1900’s well before women had the vote in national elections. In our evolving thinking LGBT was seen as part of the natural spectrum and that people should give full emotional and physical expression of their sexuality. – "to live is to love".

In 1993 the General Assembly published a book of special services "Celebrating Life", which included material to be used during a blessing of a same sex partnership. Some Unitarian ministers have been performing same sex blessings since the 1970s.

"Celebrating Life" highlighted that:

"The intentions of a same sex couple seeking a blessing on their relationship are, for the most part, similar to those of a heterosexual couple seeking marriage. So most of the material in the Marriage section is appropriate and can easily be adapted, Within the Marriage section there is actually some material which was originally written for same sex ceremonies."

One example in the marriage section relates to the "giving and receiving of rings" with the words "With this ring I join my life with yours. May it be a symbol of my enduring love and the blessings of our community" drawn from Becky Butler’s book "Ceremonies of the Heart: celebrating lesbian unions". As Rev Maud Robinson told the General Assembly; marriage is a sacred covenant" reflectinga deep and sacred relationship.

Religious marriage in the United Kingdom is, of course, governed by legislation which has, unfortunately, not kept pace with our changing thinking and that of society more generally, on same sex relationships.

In considering the principles of equal marriage we also draw upon our history as religious dissenters. Taking the "long view" we see the evolution of the legislation governing marriage as a progressive opening-up from the rigidities of Hardwick’s Marriage Act of 1753. In the 1820s the Unitarian MP, William Smith, promoted a Unitarian Marriage Bill to secure for Unitarians the same rights as Quakers and Jews however this was rejected. Unitarians were the main protagonists for civil marriage registration and it was a Unitarian MP, John Bonham Carter, who chaired the select committee which led to civil registration of births, deaths and marriages in 1837 and religious marriage outside the Church of England. In the 20th century Unitarians were amongst the first religious groups to re-marry divorcees and pioneered marriages between people of different faiths. Equal marriage is for us a further step towards in the journey to a more just society.

The General Assembly is therefore also fully supportive of allowing all couples, regardless of gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony if that is their wish. In welcoming civil partnerships on religious premises we made clear that this should not be seen as a substitute for equal marriage; but merely a stepping stone on the road to equality. Our support for civil marriage is based on principle but again is not a substitute for religious marriage.

We welcome the decision to legislate to allow those religious bodies who wish to do so, in line with their deeply held beliefs, to conduct marriages for same-sex couples in the same way that they may do for opposite-sex couples. This is a matter of religious freedom; we do not wish to impose our views on others; however, their opposition should not prevent us from doing what we believe to be just and right.

The General Assembly is supportive of the continuation of civil partnerships and would wish this status to be opened up to opposite-sex couples. For some opposite-sex couples, marriage implies a "traditional" status which they do not wish to perpetuate yet at the moment they are denied many of the rights that same-sex couples can received in a civil partnership.

We would welcome the opportunity for couples to convert a civil partnership into a marriage and a religious blessing may be a means to mark this change.

The position of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches is one shared by other religious groups. By our stance we demonstrate that this is not a debate between religion and secular viewpoints and must not be presented in this way.

Background Information

General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

The Unitarian Movement has 170 congregations and fellowships in Great Britain. It is a progressive and liberal religious movement which grew out of the Radical Reformation and is now open to insights from other faiths and philosophies. Unitarians and Free Christians have long been at the forefront of religious and social reform; including in 1904 appointing the first women minister in any denomination.

Unitarians believe that everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves and that the fundamental tools for doing this are life experience, reflection, intuitive understanding and the prompting of conscience. On the individual spiritual journey we are inspired by:

· The example and spiritual insights of others; historically of the man Jesus

· Writings of various faith traditions

· Traditions of critical and philosophical thought

· Ongoing creative work of artists, musicians and writers

· The search of science for knowledge and understanding

Derek McAuley

Derek McAuley is Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. He worked in the National Health Service for over 17 years before joining the General Assembly in 2009. He is a member of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester and a trustee of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association Incorporated, Dr Williams’s Library and the Hibbert Trust.

February 2013

Prepared 27th February 2013