Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark has strongly criticised the Government’s intention to consider widening the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.
The archbishop, chairman of the bishops’ Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, said the Church would oppose the plans “in the strongest terms”.
His statement came after the Government indicated that it would start consultations on reforming the law to allow same-sex marriage.
Until now the Government’s plans have been only to let civil partnership ceremonies be conducted in religious buildings, which was intended as part of last year’s Equality Act.
Lynne Featherstone, the Lib Dem Minister for Equality, said the Government had identified “a real desire to address the differences between civil marriage and civil partnerships”. She said: “We are going to be the first British Government to formally look at what steps can be taken to address this.”
The change, which would apply to England and Wales only, would also allow heterosexual couples to form civil partnerships.
Archbishop Smith argued this week that marriage “did not belong to the state”. He said: “It is a fundamental human institution rooted in human nature itself. It is a lifelong commitment of a man and a woman to each other, publicly entered into, for their mutual well-being and for the procreation and upbringing of children. No authority – civil or religious – has the power to modify the fundamental nature of marriage.”
The archbishop also said the Church did not believe it was “necessary or desirable” to allow civil partnerships to be registered on religious premises.
He said: “A consenting minister is perfectly free to hold a religious ceremony either before or after a civil partnership. That is a matter of religious freedom, but it requires no legislation by the state.”
He said that lifting the religious premises ban “unhelpfully blurs” the distinction between civil partnerships and marriage.
The Government has announced a 12-week consultation on lifting the ban that will start in the spring. A separate consultation will be held on reforming the marriage laws to allow gay marriage.
Last week a Catholic barrister said the Government proposals could leave the Church open to lawsuits from same-sex couples.
Neil Addison, who runs the Thomas More Legal Centre, said: “In modern law, once something is allowed it becomes discrimination not to allow it.”
The change may also permit religious elements such as Bible readings and the singing of hymns to be included in a civil partnership ceremony for the first time.
At present civil partnerships must be secular in content and must not contain readings with words such as “God”, “heaven” and “angel”.
FULL STATEMENT FROM ARCHBISHOP SMITH
The Government statement on 17th February makes it clear that they are now considering a fundamental change to the status of marriage. That is something which was never envisaged by the Equality Act or any other legislation passed by Parliament. Marriage does not belong to the State any more than it belongs to the Church. It is a fundamental human institution rooted in human nature itself. It is a lifelong commitment of a man and a woman to each other, publicly entered into, for their mutual well-being and for the procreation and upbringing of children. No authority – civil or religious – has the power to modify the fundamental nature of marriage. We will be opposing such a change in the strongest terms.
The Equality Act was amended to permit Civil Partnerships on religious premises, which unhelpfully blurs the distinction previously upheld by Parliament and the Courts between marriage and civil partnerships. A consenting Minister is perfectly free to hold a religious ceremony either before or after a Civil Partnership. That is a matter of religious freedom, but it requires no legislation by the State. We do not believe it is either necessary or desirable to allow the registration of civil partnerships on religious premises. These will not take place in Catholic churches.