According to Neil Addison, the director of the Thomas More Legal Centre, the government’s insistence that the Churches would not be allowed to carry out religious marriages for gay couples is worthless. Two judgements by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and a British a Court of Appeal ruling in 2010 establish that the Government would be acting illegally if it allowed civil gay marriages without “permitting” them on religious premises too.
This, he says, means that if the Coalition Government presses ahead with its plans to redefine marriage to include gay couples the Catholic Church could face prosecution under equality legislation for acting in accordance with its teachings. The Court of Appeal judgement he is referring to here is that against the registrar Lillian Ladele, who in 2009 took Islington Council to court for refusing her the right not to officiate at same-sex civil partnership ceremonies. The judges decided that her Christian view of marriage “was not a core part of her religion”. Thus, says Mr Addison, “Churches which perform heterosexual marriages will have to be willing to perform same-sex marriages and they will have no legal grounds to resist since the courts have determined that the ‘orthodox Christian view of marriage’ is not a ‘core’ part of Christian belief.”
Well, I am not a lawyer, but I need to know a bit more about all this before being entirely convinced. The government says it won’t “permit” gay marriages in Church: Mr Addison says that various legal judgements have already made that intention non-operative: in other words, we would be in fact “permitted” to enact gay “marriages”: but does that actually mean that we would be obliged to do so? After all, we are presumably already legally “permitted” to marry divorcees in church, just as a number of Anglican clergymen have already done. There is by English law no distinction between Anglican clergy and ours: but I have yet to hear of anyone going to law against a Catholic priest for refusing to marry a couple one or both of whom are already married.
Would it be different over gay so-called marriages? It wouldn’t of course be, in canon law, a real marriage. A civil marriage would have to be carried out in any case: and what happened in church would be a simple mockery, no marriage at all. Can the law really force us to carry out something we ourselves define as non-existent?
As I say, though I speak in ignorance, I’m not yet convinced that we would be in danger from the law. But could we be in another kind of danger, the danger that already exists from the enemy within? Just think of all those gay activists who attend the Soho Masse—which are, don’t forget, permitted by the archdiocese of Westminster. Some of them, I believe, are already united in the “civil unions” which are so warmly spoken of by the archbishop of that jurisdiction. Suppose one of these couples persuades a priest known to have little regard for the laws and teachings of the Church (they do, I am told, exist) to perform such a ceremony: a civil ceremony would take place; the couple would then repair to the church premises of the priest in question, who would celebrate for them a nuptial mass, incorporating the marriage liturgy of the Catholic Church. They would certainly make sure that the media were in attendance: this would be a great propaganda occasion for their cause. There would be front page stories, with photographs. It would be a great blow struck, before the gaze of the disbelieving world, against the Magisterium of the Church, by disloyal Catholics who would doubtless be jubilant in their moment of triumph.
What would the archbishop then actually do? He would issue, no doubt, a disapproving statement. But how disapproving? Would he declare the ceremony just performed to be absolutely null and utterly void? Would he excommunicate the priest who had performed it, or at least suspend him? What would he do?
If the gay marriage legislation actually ends up on the statute book, and Mr Addison is right, if, that is, such a “marriage” could indeed take place with the support of the UK courts and the ECHR, unless the archbishop makes it absolutely plain that by acting in this way any priest involved would be putting an end to his priestly ministry, sooner or later it will happen. But will he? We don’t yet know that he won’t: but what can we be sure of?. We need to know.
Meanwhile, we have to carry on with the fight to prevent this devil’s law ever being enacted in the first place. Mr Cameron sometimes wavers in the face of public opinion: maybe it could happen in this case too. The Coalition for Marriage’s online petition against it is already one of the most massive ever mounted. It is currently edging towards the half million mark. As I write, it stands at 466, 101; next Monday marks the petition’s first ten weeks, and the Coalition are keen to get the total up to half a million by then. So if you haven’t yet voted, do it now.