GS Misc 1005
CIVIL PARTNERSHIPS IN RELIGIOUS PREMISES Note from the Secretary General
1. In view of the likely media interest in and possible controversy over a change in the law which comes into effect on 5 December this note and the attachment prepared by the Legal Office provide some background information and explanation for the benefit of Synod members.
2. The Civil Partnership Act 2004, which came into force in December 2005, provides for two people of the same sex to register as civil partners. A civil partnership must be registered in a register office, or on premises approved by a local registration authority (“approved premises”). The Civil Partnership Act as originally enacted provided that civil partnerships could not be registered on “religious premises” (defined as premises which are used solely or mainly for religious purposes, or which have been so used and have not subsequently been used solely or mainly for other purposes).
3. The House of Bishops issued a pastoral statement in July 2005 shortly before the legislation came into force. Among other things it affirmed that “clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership” and that “where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.”
4. In March 2010 Parliament decided, during the passage of what is now the Equality Act 2010, to remove the prohibition on the registration of civil partnerships on religious premises. Speaking on behalf of the Church of England in the House of Lords, the then Bishop of Bradford expressed caution over the proposed change in the law, partly because of a further perceived blurring of the distinction between civil partnership and marriage, partly because churches and faiths wishing to offer blessing after registrations could already do so, and partly because of a concern that what had been portrayed as simply an option might over time become an expectation and even a duty.
5. Clear assurances were however given in Parliament by the then Government that the new possibility for the registration of civil partnerships on religious premises would operate by way of denominational opt-in and that no Church or other religious body would be under any obligation to permit the registration of civil partnerships on its premises.
6. In March 2011 the new Government issued a consultation document on the way in which this change in the law would be implemented. It reaffirmed previous commitments. A response agreed by the Archbishops‟ Council and the Standing Committee of the House of Bishops stated:
“… the present objective, so far as the Church of England is concerned, is to ensure that the Regulations that the Government intends to make under the amended provisions of the Civil Partnership Act continue to provide unfettered freedom for each religious tradition to resolve these matters in accordance with its own convictions and its own internal procedures of governance. For most Christian denominations as well as other faith groups the issues involved are set to remain sensitive and, to varying degrees, contested.”
7. The Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 – which contain the new arrangements relating to religious premises – were laid before Parliament on 8th November 2011 and come into force on 5th December 2011. The Legal Office‟s analysis of the regulations is attached.
8. In short, the position under the new arrangements is that no Church of England religious premises may become “approved premises” for the registration of civil partnerships without there having been a formal decision by the General Synod to that effect.
William Fittall 1 December 2011
Church House, Westminster