Civil Partnerships – What now for the churches?

It has just been announced that a man and a woman have won their fight to enable them to register a Civil Partnership.

At first sight, it will seem only just and right to most people. If same-sex couples can enter either a marriage or a civil partnership then why shouldn’t an opposite-sex couple?

Put like that, it is a matter of simple justice and it is unsurprising that the Supreme Court has found as it has done.

However, if I’m honest, though I  believe that same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples should be treated in the same way, I don’t think that this was the best solution.

It seems to me now to be inevitable that we will have two statuses of partnership open to all couples – marriage and civil partnership. One gives fewer benefits than the other. Get married and you are far more likely to be treated as married when you travel than if you enter into a civil partnership. The benefits here in the UK are almost exactly the same. (I use the word almost even though I can’t now think of any differences at all apart from the name and the manner in which one can enter a civil partnership). The benefits when travelling the world will differ significantly. We fought for same-sex couples to be able to access marriage which conveys more benefits whilst now an opposite sex couple has fought for the right to be treated less well than married people.

Why people would want to fight to be legally partnered in a system which was once discriminatory to gay couples is complex but it usually is justified by the phrase “Well, Civil Partnership doesn’t carry the patriarchal baggage of marriage”.

Those who make this claim are denying all the work done over the last century to remove the patriarchal baggage around marriage. They are claiming that marriage hasn’t changed and are denying reality.

Personally, I would have preferred the Civil Partnership system to have come to an end once same-sex couples were allowed to get married. I’d have allowed those in Civil Partnerships to remain in them but not allowed any new ones to be registered.

This opinion sometimes leads to loud howls of protest from people who think (entirely wrongly) that marriage is inherently a religious institution. Anyone thinking it to be so simply doesn’t comprehend either the law of the land nor the history of marriage.  (Marriage was around before the church – no, really it was). This confusion is even promoted by the likes of the BBC which claimed today that “Civil Partnership is free of the religious connotations of marriage” as though entering marriage though a civil ceremony is a fraud.

The odd thing is that those who howl most loudly about this are people that I know to have rejoiced most loudly at the Irish marriage referendum which resulted in the Irish state doing exactly what I’d have wished for here – closing the Civil Partnership system and allowing all couples access to marriage.

I suspect that “the patriarchal baggage of marriage” is in fact a euphemism for stigma about divorce, which a good many righteous people have made worse over the years. (Yes, you know exactly to whom I am referring). And anyway, whilst we can argue about whether marriage carries patriarchal baggage there’s no argument about civil partnerships – they very certainly carry the baggage of inequality and oppression.

I think it may still be legally possible for the governments within  the UK to resolve this as I’d have hoped it to be resolved though I suspect that the momentum is with so-called “straight civil partnerships” now and politically their creation is inevitable.

But never mind what I think, what about the churches?

Interestingly, there was a proposal put forward to the Scottish Episcopal Church to allow Civil Partnerships (between same-sex couples) to be registered in churches. A number of us argued successfully against this in the General Synod three years ago, to the considerable surprise of some liberal friends who just presumed that the gays wanted everything offered to them. Th gays, so to speak, could see this coming over the horizon and had a fair idea that the church would end up in a terrible mess if we proceeded in that way. Firstly it would have lessened the case for allowing the marriage of same-sex couples in the Scottish Episcopal Church and secondly it would have led sooner or later to decisions about whether or not to allow opposite sex couples to do something in church that looked like marriage but which wasn’t marriage. And so, I joined others in arguing against it and that vote was comprehensively lost.

(As a side note, it is worth remembering that if those who might be characterised as being opponents of same-sex marriage had come forward with support for civil partnerships in church 10 years ago then I’d probably have bitten their hands off and I don’t think we would be anywhere near marrying same-sex couples now).

But back to the churches.

Where now for those who thought that Civil Partnership was a tidy hiding hole for the unfortunate people who feel the need to enter into gay coupledom who are not really fully human but can’t really help themselves?  (The Church of England, I’m talking about you, though not you alone). Seems to me that this judgement puts you even deeper into the mire.

Here are the obvious questions:

  • Will a man and a woman remain in good standing with a church if they enter a Civil Partnership?
  • In the Church of England will they remain in good standing only if they enter into a Civil Partnership but promise their bishop they won’t have sex?
  • Will anyone in a Civil Partnership be able to become ordained without the need of getting married?
  • Can a bishop (or archbishop) be in a Civil Partnership only if he or she is part of a same-sex couple?
  • How long will it be before there are liturgical resources for recognising Civil Partnerships in churches?
  • Will pro-gay campaigners, particularly in the Church of England now realise the absurdity of campaigning for anything that falls short of marriage?
  • Will those advocating the church recognise Civil Partnership continue to do so now if it is open to opposite sex couples?
  • What is the difference between a Civil Partnership and a Marriage?
  • Do the churches care about the fact that the number of marriages will now inevitably decline?
  • Will the churches see marriage as a better institution for opposite-sex couples than Civil Partnership and what will this say about their current and previous policy towards God’s beloved gay children?
  • Which churches will regard children born in a civil partnership differently from children born in a marriage?
  • Will this lead to greater equality in churches or less equality in churches?
  • Is the Church of England going to find itself in the absurd position of supporting Civil Partnerships for opposite sex couples in order to retain them for same-sex couples so as to deny marriage to same-sex couples? And what will the Global South make of that?



  1. T Brown says

    With reference to “Those who make this claim are denying all the work done over the last century to remove the patriarchal baggage around marriage. They are claiming that marriage hasn’t changed and are denying reality.”

    Firstly, I am someone who argues this point, that marriage holds a huge amount of patriarchal baggage. In no small part due to the substantial length of time that marriage was on the whole quite simply a transaction between a father/family of the bride and the groom/groom’s family with the bride being the “prize”. Sadly, a few years of marriage having become a less patriarchal institution does not undo such a huge amount of history.

    Further, I think that any institution that within living memory held a right for the husband to force sexual intercourse on his wife against her will and for that not to be considered rape, an exclusion in rape laws, that was only removed 24 years ago, cannot be considered to have washed itself clean of some pretty horrendous partriarchial “baggage”. There will be women, who may have been raped by a husband, who they are no longer married to. These women may be from ages 40 upwards. These women may find themselves in a new committed relationship, and these women may find themselves not wishing to have anything to do with an institution that allowed horrific abuses to be fetted upon them, with no legal recourse to protection.

    Sadly there are also continued aspects of the partiarchial system that is marriage, the requirement for the father’s name to be put onto the documents, not the mothers, was unfortunately carried over from marriage to civil partnership. To suggest that the partriarchial systems of marriage are over, is sadly incorrect.

    Further, I am quite confused by your comment of “I suspect that “the patriarchal baggage of marriage” is in fact a euphemism for stigma about divorce,”.

    I certainly see marriage as a patriarchal institution, one that in my life, yes, has changed, but that’s the point, it is within my and many other people’s lives that it has changed. Therefore we were brought up with marriage as a patriarchial system, and I personally still consider it soiled by it’s very very deep rooted history. I also have absolutely no issue, nor consideration that there is anything wrong with divorce and so my consideration that marriage holds a huge patriarchial baggage has absolutely nothing to do with divorce.

    • But can you not see that Civil Partnerships were discriminatory in their very origin? How can they be said to carry less baggage by your way of thinking?

      Marriage has changed. Many people have changed it, including those who worked to change it so that a wife couldn’t be forced to have sex by her husband.

      If marriage is intrinsically soiled by the past and intrinsically patriarchal then shouldn’t we be campaigning to abolish it?

      • T Brown says

        I agree with regards to what you said about the inequality of civil partnerships when created, I have strongly supported equal marriage (despite my own views that it’s a pretty odious institution) and I was dismayed when civil partnerships came in. “the same, but different”. “we’ll give you this to stop you suing us, but really, make sure you realise you ain’t the same” etc.

        I am not seeking to stop others from engaging in marriage. I can see how for many people marriage for so many reasons is something incredibly valuable and worthwhile.

        In the same way, I would hope that for some same sex couples who have entered into a civil partnership, they have found ways to rise above what the govt tried to do to them, and effectively stuck two fingers up. Made civil partnership their own.

        Therefore, I would hope that others who feel angry at civil partnerships, would recognise and respect that for some they offer a respite and a chance to commit to their partner, to share in something valuable, loving, and extremely important without having to enter into something that holds pretty unpleasant connotations for them. And therefore would not stand in the way, of something special coming out of the shit that was the govt creating civil partnerships in the first place.

        I have no wish to abolish marriage, marriage for many is an extremely important part of their identity, relationships and culture. I just am glad that I can now receive the security in law that marriage provides, and enter into a commitment with my partner showing the world that I love them and commit to them without having to do so in the name of an institution that still holds a huge patriarchial dominance.

        • T Brown says

          ps – I should say I am just glad that this ruling hopefully means that in not too long I will be able to receive……..

  2. T Brown says

    A further point to that above.

    Titles. A man is born Mr and changes his title on achievement, gaining a professorship, a lordship, etc. A woman, is born Miss and is Miss until she either gets fed up of having her marital status writ large and changes to Ms (which 50% of the time is heard as Miss once you get to the age that you are assumed to be Mrs, from experience) or until she “achieves” marriage and becomes a Mrs, or until she achieves something that is actually an achievement.

    Further, on getting to a certain age (for me it was when I hit around 40) many women will start to be addressed as Mrs, an assumption that by this age 1. I will be married 2. I will have changed my title from Miss to Mrs.

    Marriage still holds a strong partriarchial baggage.

    • How is someone given the title Miss at birth?

      • T Brown says

        There is law and there is culture. Culturally women are born Miss, men are born Mr.

        • Martin Reynolds says

          I was Master ….

          • T Brown says

            Absolutely, I’d forgotten that, my brother’s were both master, so thank you for providing that further bit of evidence to the fact that titles are discriminatory when it comes to gender. if men are given a childs title, they graduate out of it, with age, whereas again, women are consigned to their childish title which demarks their marriage status until they either marry, become obstreperous enough to choose Ms for themselves, or die.

  3. And the requirement to put the father’s name but not the mother’s name on documents is a comment about the law in England, not the nature of marriage. (Both parents appear on marriage schedules in Scotland).

    It should very obviously be changed in England for both marriage and civil partnership.

    • T Brown says

      You state in your blog that the partriarchial baggage is history, but that’s factually incorrect. Marriage is changing, I think that’s wonderful, it means that people who see the nice bits of it, are signing up to something that has relatively well cleaned out it’s house of the pretty odious bits. But, it’s not clean. Marriage holds a huge history of partriarchy and that partriarchy is still enshrined in law.

      • Are you talking about Marriage in England?

        • T Brown says

          I’m talking about marriage in the UK. Whilst the law may be different in Scotland, I don’t consider that to be a get out of the fact that the law within the UK holds to a patriarchial system for marriage. Scottish residents/nationals travel to England to get married, because it’s got some nice bits, English residents/nationals will travel to Scotland to get married, because we’ve got some nice bits (and also perhaps because thankfully our laws are more equal around marriage). But until we have independence my view is that England holding onto pretty odious laws that enshrine partriarchy indicate that marriage laws in teh UK have not shrugged off the partriarchial baggage. It is not history yet.

          My point is, you try to shrug off the historical deep rooted patriarchial baggage around marriage, by suggested that it’s all over now, it’s all good, it’s all been changed. But parts of the UK still hold to patriarchial laws around marriage, only 24 years ago a woman raped within marriage was not raped, it is still something that we are living. And even the day/weeks/months/years after the last bit of partriarchy is squeezed from teh laws on marriage, the history will still be too fresh for some to feel that they are able to enter into something, that is about love, commitment, security. We have law, which enshrines and crystalises disempowering treatment and inequality into culture. When the law goes, it takes time for culture and society to recover. We’re not there yet.

          • I think I would make a distinction between the law on marriage in different jurisdictions. If someone wants to get married using forms that name mothers as well as fathers they can come to Scotland to do so. (Plenty of people do come to Scotland to get married though I’ve not heard of that reason in particular).

            I don’t think I do shrug off historical issues so much as respect those who fought to change them. They’ve kept on winning.

            I think marriage has changed enough to be regarded as a partnership of equals now but count me in for any campaign to make it more so where legal changes are still needed. I still don’t understand why you think civil partnership, that emerged directly from a situation of inequality and which in England apparently also uses the same convention of asking only for the details of fathers is better and less patriarchal.

  4. T Brown says

    Both have historic roots in inequality, and yet for me personally, as a bi-sexual, I would have a civil partnership whatever the gender of a life partner that I were committing to. A civil partnership for me, feels the best of a two not great choices. I’m not interested in abolishing marriage, nor do I think that fighting to bring in something “other” would do much better. But a history of women sold into marriage, raped, and treated as property, versus a history of something that was a compromise on the route to equality for person’s committing irrespective of their gender, for me civil partnership has it. Absolutely some people voted for it, to prevent same sex couples from sitting at the same table, but a lot of people voted for it, to try to bring in equality and for that reason, I don’t it abhorrent and repulsive. And the stats showing that same sex couples are still having civil partnerships despite the fact that they could if they wished have a marriage show that I’m not the only non hetereosexual who feels that way.

    • Well not quite. Don’t forget that some people have to use civil partnership to regulate their domestic affairs because if they married get would risk getting the sack or being evicted. Whilst there are certainly many for whom civil partnership is seen as a virtue in and of itself we have no idea how many of those who currently enter civil partnership would in fact prefer marriage but are afraid of the consequences if they were to marry.

      • T Brown says

        I assume you mean because they work/live within or controlled by a religious institution, which due to religious privilege is exempt from equalities legislation. Whilst I absolutely stand with those individuals, I don’t consider doing away with civil partnerships the correct way to deal with the problems that religious privilege presents. Do away with religious privilege. Do away with religious institutions being legally allowed to discriminate.

        • My point is that the relatively small number of people registering civil partnership includes some who would prefer, all other things being equal, to be married.

          • T Brown says

            I don’t consider 7% of those same sex couples who choose to commit to a life partner in 2016 to be a relatively small number of people registering civil partnerships. I personally consider it to be quite large, when you consider 1. how strong an emotive pull marriage, having been around a wee bit of time, has for most people who wish to commit to their life partner. 2. how relatively new civil partnership is 3. how civil partnership is (as discussed here) rooted in inequality from it’s origins ……. it’s obviously not that odious if 7% of people are doing it.

            Re the numbers who are in a civil partnership rather than married because they will be fired/evicted by a religious institution if they had married, without providing the stats on this, I think that a healthy view on the numbers would be in the 4’s/5’s rather than in the tens/twenties per annum. Whilst this is further strong evidence of the harm that religious privilege causes, it is not appropriate to use that as evidence against civil partnerships.

            same sex couples are committing through civil partnerships rather than marriage, hetero couples would also like to commit through civil partnerships rather than marriage.

            Civil partnerships are here, let them be a force for good, rather than removing them, and hence removing the option for those who would rather live in insecurity for their future, than commit through the institution of marriage, which is absolutely repugnant to them.

          • Well we don’t agree.

            I suspect you’ll get what you wish for anyway.

  5. T Brown says

    It feels to me, as though for you the huge amount of work done by people to make marriage not patriarchial is sufficient to move it in your mind into a position of it being a positive, and I think that’s great. That’s not the case for everyone.

    And by the same token, either civil partnerships are something to be whitewashed out of history, a blip, a dirty mark in the road to equality – in which case individual histories are going to be whitewashed, those who do not wish their civil partnership to be whitewashed, those who do not wish to have been the few who had a civil partnership, who would not have married even when it became legal – to then find that they are a blip in history, they are still in a civil partnership, but no-one else is going to be allowed to join them.

    Or, as with marriage, for some, we could celebrate and create something special and wonderful out of what started out as born of inequality, but an rude attempt to try to find a way towards equality.

  6. Therese Christie says

    What is the difference between a Civil Partnership and a Marriage? It might have been useful to answer this before your other arguments.

    • Well no. I’ve given my answer in the post. Those are the obvious questions that I think that churches need to address.

  7. Martin Reynolds says

    An interesting conversation.
    The original Bill introduced by Lord Lester and largely the work of Stonewall while intended to give relief to gay couples was open to all couples.
    The conversation at the time was that CPs would replace marriage as the Gold Standard. However when the government took over the Bill it came back as a Gay only civil registration, requiring no promises or undertaking beyond a declaration of intent to make the contract.
    There were those in the Labour Party and Stonewall and even in the Home Office who argued that the final intention was still to see CPs as the civil gold standard leaving marriage as a religious add on, but that always seemed vague and unlikely and motivated (certainly within Stonewall) by several who though of marriage as an institution beyond redemption. The power exerted by the CofE at this point was considerable and it’s priveledged legal status was asserted both in Parliament but mostly behind the scenes. Marriage was not relegated to a religious add on and despite the fact that the government gave CPs nearly all the appearances of marriage (too close for people on both sides!) it was a gay ghetto and was never going to survive as such when challenged.
    Young people are untouched by the valid arguments of the past mentioned here, few even want to know, but it’s important to remember that for many in the UK who are devotees of a variety of faiths, entering a marriage still puts the man at the “head” and the woman in “submission” to him. Religions preserve some deeply troubling relationships.

  8. T Brown says

    I hope that our society does. And I hope that those who may feel threatened by it, due to the way it was created, can find peace and healing. But trying to stop other people having something that allows them to access legal security and profound ceremony that in the current set up they can’t have without having to sign up to something that either they strongly oppose, or that may cause them significant distress, because the Idea of It causes others distress is not ok.

    • Thank you for sharing your feelings. I’m not persuaded by your argument.

      • T Brown says

        And I thank you for yours and likewise I’m not pursuaded by your argument either, but it has been good to have a respectful and interesting debate.

  9. CRAIG NELSON says

    Another question in my mind is how the legal reasoning in the judgment would affect the situation in Northern Ireland

    • Steven McQuitty says

      A good point. We are on it in Northern Ireland, judgment is currently awaited in X’s petition wherein a gay couple who married in England (under the 2013 Act) and then returned home to Belfast sought a declaration from the High Court that they had a valid marriage under NI law. This was rejected by the High Court and we appealed. That judgment is, as I have said, pending. The decision of the Supreme Court in Steinfeld arguably strengthens the case for marriage recognition in NI, so might – despite Kelvin’s understandable general concerns re this development – help advance LGBT marriage equality a little bit in NI. Watch this space. In other news the Court of Appeal – today – ruled in support of humanist marriage in NI, albeit technically allow the government’s appeal on the question of relief, Re Smyth’s Application. We do indeed live in interesting times.

  10. Stephen Harte says

    A tweet from a transgender activist made you point well. She reminded folk that she was in a civil partnership because, as part of the original gender recognition legislation, she was forced by law to divorce her wife if she was to have her gender recognised. She then had to enter a civil partnership with that same wife. Her civil partnership certificate is, for this couple, a reminder of how the law stole their marriage.

  11. FakePete says

    If CPs in the church are sideshow, the real aim being equal marriage, why all the ooh-la-la over this judgement? Should we be wary of schadenfreude, and just focus on the just outcome.

Speak Your Mind