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22 March, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

The Church Against the Government

The Church of England and Catholic Church condemn plans to allow gay marriages

Few issues have put the Church on such a radical and tempestuous confrontation with the Government in Britain as the proposal, supported by Prime Minister David Cameron, for gay marriage.

Both the established Church of England and the minority Roman Catholic church have denounced newly announced proposals that would allow homosexuals a full civil marriage with exactly the same rights and obligations as heterosexuals. The Roman Catholics, reflecting the strong stand on the issue taken by the Pope, have been the most vociferous. In early March Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leaders of the Catholic church in Scotland, called the proposal "madness" and accused the Government of trying to "redefine reality".

And in language that has caused fury among gay rights activists and has been widely denounced for its intolerance, he called the plans a "grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right". One Member of the European Parliament who supported him compared the immorality of gay marriage with slavery, and backeted it with incest and polygamy.

In 2,500 Roman Catholic churches throughout Britain last Sunday (March 11), clergy read out letters from Catholic leaders calling on congregations to sign a petition against the move, and said that changing the legal definition of marriage would stip it of its distinctive nature.

The Church of England has been less outspoken, but its top bishops also oppose the Government proposals. The Uganda-born Archbishop of York, the second most senior in Britain, said a change in the law would force an unjustified change and inevitably transform society's understanding of the purpose of marriage.

Cameron, however, has refused to back down. He said he supported the change because gay people were entitled to full equality. And although the Conservative party has in the past been associated with traditional family values, Cameron said he favoured the change "because I am a Conservative". The equalities minister in the Government has also said she fully supports the plans for change.

Britainalready has an institution called civil partnership, introduced in 2005. This allows same-sex couples to formalise their relationship in a civil registry office in the same way as men and women formalising a civil marriage. A civil partnership has the full force of law, and gives each partner the same financial, tax, inheritance and pension rights and obligations as heterosexual couples. Civil partnerships can be dissolved only by a legal process similar to divorce.

The partnerships have proved extraordinarily popular, with almost 100,000 gay men and women registering their relationships in ceremonies in town halls and wedding venues across the country since 2005. Among the best known were Elton John and David Furnish. But because of religious opposition, these partnerships cannot be conducted in churches, nor do most churches yet permit a religious blessing of the relationships - although many defiant priests have ignored their bishops' instructions and gone ahead with the blessing of such unions.

The partnerships are, in all but name, gay marriages. And the proposal to call them marriages arose because many people thought it still discriminatory that the state recognised two different kinds of union depending on the sex of those involved.

Public opinion on the issue has changed remarkably over two generations. Until 1967, all male homosexual activity, even between consenting adults in private, was a criminal offence, and thousands of men (but not women) were arrested and imprisoned each year. Social attitudes slowly softened, but in 1988 Margaret Thatcher's government made it an offence for schools or teachers to "promote" homosexuality in school sex education lessons - with the result that most schools forbade any discussion of the subject altogether.

That law was repealed in 2003, and since then there has been a rapid change of attitude, especially among older people, who more and more support the tolerance - verging on indifference over the issue - widespread among young people in Britain today. This reflects the visibility of gay people in music, the arts and fashion and the growing number of people whose sexuality is widely know, including members of parliament and senior businessmen. Tony Blair's Labour government, which introduced civil partnerships, had three gay ministers at one point.

Many Conservative members of Parliament are wary of a confrontation with the Church. But voters are not. The latest opinion poll shows a surprisingly large majority in favour of gay marriage - 45 per cent supporting it, compared with just 36 per cent against it. Mr Cameron knows that the Conservative party needs to appeal to a younger generation with attitudes that seem modern and not "Victorian".

Britainis one of the least religious countries in Europe, and religion does not play a big role in public affairs. But recently the influence and visibility of the Church has grown considerably, especially in the debate over British identity, moral values and the role of Muslims in Britain. The Pope made a successful visit to Britain last year. But sexual scandal has plagued both the Anglican and Catholic churches. The Church of England is deeply divided over the issue of its own many gay priests, and has almost split over the question of women priests and the ordination of gay bishops. And the Catholic church has suffered a number of very damaging scandals over child abuse by Catholic priests.

Both churches have been widely denounced as hypocritical in their campaign against gay marriage. But it is an issue that arouses strong emotions, and is likely to remain in the headlines for many months to come.

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