Justin Welby, the recently enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury, has given his backing to heterosexual couples who want to enter civil partnerships – a right currently restricted to gay and lesbian couples.
He made the commitment during an unprecedented meeting in Lambeth Palace between the UK’s most senior clergyman and the veteran gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell.
Mr Tatchell went in hoping to persuade the Archbishop to overturn the Church of England’s opposition to gay marriage. There was no meeting of minds on that issue, but the fact that the meeting happened is a small milestone in the history of the church. The previous Archbishop, Rowan Williams, never agreed to meet Mr Tatchell.
It will also be a small victory for gay rights campaigners if the Archbishop votes in favour of extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, because that reform is seen as a necessary step towards equal marriage laws.
The Marriage Bill, now before MPs, would allow gay people the right to marry, though it specifically bars the Church of England from conducting same-sex marriages, to protect priests with a conscientious objection from falling foul of equality laws. When the Bill reaches the Lords, there is likely to be a vote on an amendment that would also grant heterosexuals the right to enter into civil partnerships.
“Justin Welby said he’s in favour of legal provision to recognise same-sex relationships but that he’s unhappy with the Marriage Bill,” Mr Tatchell said. “He tended to the view that gay relationships were intrinsically different and therefore should be acknowledged in a different legislative framework from marriage.
“I got the impression that he was genuinely struggling in his own mind to find a justification that he could say publicly.”