This afternoon the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church turned its attention to same-sex relationships, specifically whether or not to allow civil partnerships to be registered in United Reformed Church premises. During an hour-long debate both sides of the argument were heard, but the Assembly agreed the resolution (that local churches were able to take a decision on whether to allow registrations to take place in there buildings) and in so doing has become the first mainstream Christian denomination to allow same-sex partners to register their civil partnership in church.
This resolution takes effect immediately and enables local United Reformed Churches in England and Wales to consider whether they wish to allow civil partnerships to be registered on their premises (i.e. for the legal formalities, as well as the religious ceremony, to take place in church). Once a church has decided to take this step, it will need to ask its trustees to apply to the superintendent registrar of the relevant local authority to become registered as an approved venue.
The decision about applying to register as a legal place for civil partnerships will be in the hands of each local church meeting; the denomination cannot estimate how many of its churches will take advantage of this resolution. However, several of its churches have made it known that they will be seeking registration and are expected to be amongst the first wave of early adopters.
One such is City United Reformed Church in Cardiff; its minister, The Revd Adrian Bulley said: “For many years this church has been hosting services of blessing for those who have entered a civil partnership. How sad that these couples have had to go through two ceremonies to enable their union to be blessed by God in the context of prayer and worship. How wonderful that General Assembly has now opened the door and enabled those local churches that wish to do so, to register their premises in order that same-sex couples may have a single ceremony – both religious and legal – to mark their commitment to each other. This is a very welcome decision, finally enabling the Church to offer to same sex-couples what heterosexual couples have for so long taken for granted.”
The Revd Steve Faber, URC minister at Riverside Church in Sleaford, said: “This is a difficult issue but what is important to me is that we continue to work together, as we seek the mind of Christ over this issue. I’m saddened that we have taken this step before we have finished these conversations. Some of our ecumenical partners, who won’t support our move, will feel that we have reached a conclusion on the matter, when as a denomination; we are far from that place. We need to keep talking, not stop the conversation, through precipitate action by a few local churches. It is not about drawing battle lines, this is absolutely a conversation that I’m keen to continue.”
The Revd Kirsty Thorpe, immediate past moderator of the United Reformed Church, added: “We have a long way to go in terms of recognising and supporting those people in our churches who are in lasting, loving, mature same-sex relationships. This resolution could help those congregations who are already on this journey to reach a new stage in their understanding of how best to support and relate to such couples. There are other congregations in the United Reformed Church for whom the possible recognition in church of same-sex relationships would be a total contradiction of their theological understanding and identity. I hope and pray that we can continue to respect one another’s diversity on this matter, as we do in positive ways for other issues in our denominational life where we don’t all share the same views.”