The local MP’s against gay marriage – but his constituents aren’t

Tom Peck finds a difference of opinion in a Cabinet minister’s seat
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It’s no surprise that so many people want to get married at St Alkmund’s Parish Church. More than 300 years old and standing at the top of the historic Shropshire market town of Whitchurch, the church could be the dictionary definition of picture-postcard beauty.

This year’s wedding season, and next year’s –  and even 2015’s – is already filling up. And the local MP, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, is unambiguous about what those weddings should look like.

An outspoken traditionalist, he is  expected to break ranks with most of his Cabinet colleagues today by  voting against David Cameron’s plans to legalise gay marriage.

But even in this little corner of middle England (Mr Paterson’s constituency, North Shropshire, has voted Tory every time it has been asked since  1832), it is near impossible to find a voice that agrees with him. And not St Alkmund’s vicar, for a start.

“I haven’t discussed it with local people, so I only speak for myself, but I would say yes,” Canon Judy Hunt told The Independent. “I would like to affirm stable gay relationships. Gay couples are right to want to get married in church. Many heterosexual, but largely non-religious, couples want to get married in church because they feel a spiritual connection, that they might not understand, or know how to explain, but they feel it. Many gay couples might feel exactly the same, and many of them are committed Christians.

“There are some difficulties. There would have to be changes. The service can’t be exactly the same, much like the service that ordains women priests had to be changed, but it can still be equal. There is very little about it in the Bible, but there are those who say that marriage must be between a man and a woman. I wish we could find a new, but equal, word for that between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. not a civil partnership because that’s a different entity. I wish different didn’t have to mean better or worse.

“Whitchurch is a town, she says, where “people just let people get on with things”.  She adds: “They don’t seek to make things an issue. I’ve met a few gay couples. I’ve never heard of any prejudice.”

If there are those of Mr Paterson’s persuasion in the town, they were not around yesterday afternoon. Not in the butchers, not at the gift shop, not in the antiques or carpet shops, or the town’s many pubs and cafés.

“I don’t have an opinion either way,” said Martin Cox, the owner of the White Bear pub in the town centre. “I’m from this town, and I think it’s pretty liberal. I’ve never been aware of any prejudice. We welcome the money over the bar, whether it’s gay or straight.”

It is a sentiment echoed by his customers. “Time’s moved on hasn’t it,” was a commonly expressed sentiment. “People have just got to be left to get on with their life.”

While those stridently opposed to gay marriage may be more reluctant to air their views in public for risk of being labelled a bigot, the Whitchurch locals approached by The Independent yesterday were affronted by any suggestion that – as residents of a rural market town – they might be slower to embrace changing social trends.

“There’s always weddings up at that church,” said Alice Sutton, walking her dog past the clock in the tiny square. “Some of them look so lovely. Not very nice if someone can have it, and someone else can’t. I don’t think anyone would mind in the slightest. And if they did, well they’re just wrong aren’t they?”