It's time we considered adopting the French system

An item in the Telegraph for 21 July has caught my attention. It concerns advice given to Sikh temples as a consequence of the new law on same-sex marriage. It seems that these temples have been advised by their own advisory body “to halt all civil marriage ceremonies on their premises to protect them from possible legal challenges for refusing to conduct same-sex weddings.” It is the first religious group to consider this course of action.

I can understand why the Church of England would not be keen to surrender its licence to conduct the civil formalities of a marriage, because it is the national Church and cannot easily separate itself from the state. But I am surprised that the Catholic Church, which has stood out against this new legislation alongside the Sikhs and the United Jewish Synagogue, has not (yet) thought of doing the same thing. The Sikh advisory body, which sent the letter of advice to all Sikh temples or gurdwaras, sounds clear-sighted and realistic. They are not persuaded that the so-called “quadruple lock”, designed to protect certain groups from being compelled to carry out same-sex weddings, would offer any protection under the European Court of Human Rights if a challenge were brought to its notice.

Harmander Singh, principal adviser to the Sikhs in England commented that “we are concerned that he quadruple lock isn’t going to be worth the paper it is written on.” I agree with him. If gurdwaras were to “deregister” as venues for civil weddings, couples would have to go through a separate ceremony in a register office as well as their own religious wedding rites. This is what happens in France, where couples have a civil wedding at the town hall with a separate church service if they choose. What’s wrong with that? Of course, it is a neat arrangement to combine these two aspects, civil and religious, under one roof but it isn’t necessary. Indeed, to separate them would emphasise for Christians the religious nature of marriage. It would also remove Christian marriage from the possibility of state interference.

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Fr Dwight Longenecker, an American priest and popular blogger, made the same point in a recent blog. He has decided not to register weddings any longer when he conducts marriages in his parish church. He will advise Catholic couples who come to him to have a civil marriage and then follow it with a nuptial Mass in church. He intends to call this “Holy Matrimony”, to distinguish it from the word “marriage” which no longer means what it has always been understood to mean: the union of a man and a woman. Perhaps this should be the way forward for the Church in this country too? Harmander Singh says it straight: “We have no authority, neither has the Government, to change our scriptures. We are bound by our religious teachings and we have been put in a difficult position.”

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