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Topics In the News
Anglican Clergy Endorse Same-Sex Marriage
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/22/12
Last updated on: 04/23/12
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Dr. Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales.

As the U.K. undertakes a "consultation" on marriage equality, some leading Anglican clergymen, including the Archbishop of Wales and the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, have endorsed same-sex marriage. The consultation, which began in March, seeks the views of interested parties and members of the public as to how to make civil marriage available to same-sex couples.

The two highest ranking members of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York, quickly announced their opposition to the government's plans to make civil marriage available to same-sex couples. In January, John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, compared Prime Minister David Cameron to a dictator, saying that the passage of equal marriage rights laws is equivalent to the actions of a dictator. In somewhat milder terms, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, also announced his opposition to marriage equality. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, has also vociferously opposed same-sex marriage.

However, the divisions within the Church of England on the question have now become clear. For example, the new Bishop of Salisbury, Rt. Revd. Nick Holtam, and the new Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, the Very Revd. David Ison, have called on the Church of England to embrace gay couples who wish to marry.

In February Bishop Holtam told The Times (London) that he is no longer convinced that marriage should be only between a man and a woman. "We are living in a different society. If there's a gay couple in The Archers, if there's that form of public recognition in popular soaps, we are dealing with something which has got common currency. All of us have friends, families, relatives, neighbours who are, or who know someone, in same-sex partnerships."

As Edmund Broch of Pink News reports, Bishop Holtam on April 21 compared the current opposition to equal marriage by Church leaders as comparable to eighteenth-century Christians who accepted slavery as "God-given." At a conference on homophobia in the Church, the bishop said, "Experience might lead us to be cautious about the certainty with which moral positions are built with Biblical support. Before Wilberforce, Christians in this country saw slavery as having Biblical support for what was the God-given in the ordering of creation. In South Africa, Apartheid was seen in the same way by the Dutch Reformed Church."

On March 8, Ison, a married grandfather, told The Times (London) that the institution of marriage does not "belong" to the Church of England. He said, "We need to take seriously people's desire for partnership and make sure that the virtues that you see in married relationships are available to people who are gay."

In his former position as Dean of Bradford, Ison performed informal ceremonies for gay couples' partnerships and said that he would willingly do the same at St Paul's.

On April 18, 2012, the Archbishop of Wales, Dr. Barry Morgan, endorsed the government's extension of civil marriage to gay and lesbian couples. According to Wales Online, the Archbishop, who had previously called for "full acceptance of gay and lesbian people," said, "If the legislation to allow civil marriage is passed, I cannot see how we as a church, will be able to ignore the legality of the status of such partnerships and we ought not to want to do so."

"The question then, as now, is," he continued, "will the church protect and support pastorally, faithful, stable, lifelong relationships of whatever kind in order to encourage human values such as love and fidelity and recognise the need in Christian people for some public religious support for these?"

On April 21, a group of leading Anglican clergymen, in an open letter published in The Times (London), said that the Church of England has "nothing to fear" from same-sex marriage. In what must clearly be seen as a swipe at the anti-marriage equality activism of Sentamu, Williams, and Carey, the clergymen said "A number of recent statements by church leaders past and present may have given the mistaken impression that the Church is universally opposed to the extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples. We believe that does not adequately reflect the range of opinion which exists within the Church of England."

The letter, signed by 15 prominent figures, including five former bishops, notes that "Marriage is a robust institution, which has adopted much over the centuries." It asserts that the fact that gay and lesbian couples want to marry "should be cause for rejoicing in the Christian Church."

Among the clergy signing the letter is Dr. Jeffrey John, the openly gay Dean of St. Albans, whose appointment as Bishop of Reading in 2003 was withdrawn after protests by conservative factions within the Church.

The division within the Church of England in regards to marriage equality reflects a larger division about homosexuality in the Anglican communion itself.

From this perspective, Archbishop Morgan's statement is particularly interesting since he occupies the position held by the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, before he was elevated to Canterbury. Williams recently announced his intention to resign at the end of the year. It is thought that both the fierce opponent of same-sex marriage John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, and the strong supporter of same-sex marriage, Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales, will, by virtue of their positions, be considered as leading candidates for replacing Williams.

Currently, same-sex couples in the U.K. are permitted to register their relationships as civil partnerships, which have been available since December 2005. A civil partnership provides same-sex partners virtually all of the rights and obligations of married heterosexual couples, including automatic legal recognition as next of kin, inheritance, and pension rights.

The most significant differences between civil partnerships and marriages are religious. In deference to the Church of England's opposition to same-sex marriage, the government made civil partnership an entirely secular process and even restricted the places where civil partnerships could be executed to non-religious venues.

Prime Minister Cameron's government has recently relaxed some of the religious restrictions on civil partnerships. For example, religious denominations and groups will soon be allowed, at their discretion, to host and participate in civil partnership ceremonies just as they do marriages.

The main objection to civil partnerships by most glbtq people, including activists such as Peter Tatchell, is that separate legal classifications are inherently unequal.

Cameron's plan to upgrade civil partnerships to marriage is thus an attempt to grant glbtq citizens full equality under the law in the United Kingdom.

Interestingly, the current consultation will consider ways of introducing civil marriage to same-sex couples, but it will not include consultation of civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples.

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