England’s Experiment in Marriage

What is it like to live in a country where legally registered same-sex unions are the norm? People in Britain will soon know.

Across the country, local authorities are already offering same-sex commitment ceremonies with music, readings, flowers and the traditional trimmings of marriage, presided over by “celebrants” and formally registered. Later this year, when the law introduced by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government comes into effect, such same-sex unions will have legal status.

One of the pioneering cities, which advertises its commitment ceremonies in a brochure featuring a traditional male-and-female wedding scene alongside a similar scene showing two men, is the city of Liverpool. This city, once famous for its Irish-Catholic heritage, is now leading the way in offering a Partnerships Register and lavish ceremonies in attractive settings.

Its promotional material describes the ceremonies in glowing terms, using quasi-religious language: “You will be able to agree with the celebrant your own choice of music and/or readings to personalize the ceremony and discuss any involvement you may like your guests to have.”

It emphasises that the ceremony is a central aspect of the scheme: “Registration at Liverpool is, without exception, preceded by a commitment ceremony. There is no ‘registration only’ option.”

This poses a problem for Catholics who work in the registration service. Hitherto, the registration of births, marriages and deaths was essentially an exercise in paperwork. A registrar who presided at a legal marriage ceremony did so at a desk, simply stating the legal requirements for marriage, welcoming the couple and their witnesses, and hearing the couple’s vows before inviting them to sign the relevant documents.

Today, a Catholic employed in Liverpool’s registration service could be faced with a moral dilemma if ordered to preside at a commitment ceremony at which he or she was described as the “celebrant” and expected to play a leading public role in honoring a union between two people of the same sex.

When a national newspaper highlighted the style and flair of the Liverpool Partnerships Register scheme, other local authorities wrote in to emphasize that the city was not unique and that they, too, offer attractive ceremonies and traditional trimmings normally associated with weddings.

Richmond-upon-Thames in London and Brighton in Sussex are two notable local authorities where same-sex unions are celebrated in style. Brighton, on the coast, has long been noted as a “gay center.” Same-sex unions are celebrated in the Brighton Pavilion, built by King George IV, who entertained his various mistresses there and turned the small seaside village into a nationally-known fashionable resort.

The Catholic bishop of Arundel and Brighton, Bishop Keiran Conry, said he was troubled by the confusion that could arise, as people believed these ceremonies to be on a par with marriage. “The first thing to understand is that this is not legal marriage,” he said. “Legal marriage is still only between a man and a woman.”

But he admitted that this situation could change, first when the “civil-unions” legislation becomes operative later this year and also through decisions made at the European Union level — already a number of European countries have full legal marriage for homosexuals, and there is pressure to grant marriage laws indemnity across all the states.

He admitted that a Catholic could be put in a difficult position by being obliged to perform such a ceremony. “But the person performing the ceremony would not actually be conferring anything on anyone — that is done by the couple themselves,” he said. “It does have to be said that the person doing the ceremony could be put in a difficult position. Perhaps it is a bit like a lawyer who, regardless of what he personally thinks, has to do his best and uphold the law.”

Catholics who work in the registration services have not been given any formal guidance from the Church, and there is no opt-out clause in the planned legislation. “I just don’t know what I would do,” said a Catholic commentator who preferred to remain anonymous. “Quite frankly, I think I’d just claim to be ill on that day and unable to work.”

The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have opposed the government’s plans for “civil unions,” as the same-sex unions are to be known. They have pointed out that the plans will undermine the status of marriage as the basic unit of society and the best for raising children and ensuring a stable community.

Various evangelical groups, headed by the Christian Institute, have also been vigorous in opposing the plans. But the government has a substantial majority in Parliament and the Civil Unions Bill looks set to become law. An attempt in the House of Lords by Catholic peeress Baroness O’Cathain to amend the law failed by a narrow majority.

Meanwhile, the ceremonies already being performed at town halls up and down the country are increasingly accepted as normal and featured in local newspapers. Although the number of homosexuals who actually want to make any sort of commitment are small — and, as evidence from Holland and elsewhere shows, will continue to remain small — the social impact they can have is considerable.

Joanna Bogle

writes from London.