I had the first same-sex marriage in the UK – why is the Church taking us backwards?

It is time for the established church to catch up with UK society and recognise the dignity of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation

Peter McGraith
Friday 27 January 2023 16:12 GMT
Church of England plans for same-sex couple blessings 'a joy', says Bishop of London

One could flippantly say “who cares?” to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s refusal to bless same-sex marriages. We already have the opportunity to marry here in the UK, should we wish. But that’s not the point.

Justin Welby has influence over Anglicans in the UK and around the world, so what he says and does matters. As one-half of the first gay couple to be legally married in the UK, I have an interest in the debate within the Church of England on the blessing of same-sex marriages.

As a humanist, I am disappointed by Justin Welby’s decision not to bless the marriages of lesbian and gay Anglicans. The Church of England, as the established church in this country, has a special relationship with the state, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s views have sway around the Commonwealth and beyond. The Church’s teachings and practices are intertwined with the laws and policies of the country.

This is an anomalous situation, as the population is overwhelmingly non-Anglican and society’s attitudes towards LGBT+ rights have evolved significantly. Yet the Lords Spiritual number 26 votes in our unelected upper chamber of parliament. These people still have power. So why has Justin Welby decided to steer clear of blessing gay and lesbian couples’ marriages?

I believe that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s apology about the Church’s treatment of LGBT+ people is genuine, so it follows that I see his personal decision not to bless same-sex marriages as a failure of moral courage on his part, aimed at assuaging the ire of those parts of the Anglican Communion that find same-sex relations repugnant, un-Christian or intrinsically immoral. 

This is not cognitive dissonance. This is the type of hollow virtue signalling that leaders get themselves into when, for self-interest (for the cohesion of the Anglican Communion in this case), they pander to ultra-conservatives while hoping to advertise their own liberal, progressive leanings. 

The Archbishop cannot be all things to all Anglicans. The head of the established church is using his authority to send signals of appeasement to Anglican bishops in countries where LGBT+ rights are not recognised by the church or state. This is a transparent and cringeworthy political compromise.

Even Theresa May, who was for many years an active opponent of LGBT+ rights, came to declare that marriage equality exemplified the best of British values. If Justin Welby were a civil servant or registrar, he would have no opt-out on this matter. He would be required to perform same-sex marriages, just as he would be required to perform opposite-sex marriages. 

LGBT+ firefighters and surgeons don’t halt their work to check whether or not a person in need holds homophobic or transphobic views, but can they even now be certain that they will be treated equally when ordering personalised cakes, say? Never mind having the option to marry in the CofE, if they so wish. It is time for the established church to catch up with UK society and recognise the dignity of all people, regardless of their sexual orientation.

The Archbishop should act on his heartfelt apology and lead the way towards the Church of England conducting same-sex marriages. I am no fan of the institution of marriage, or the automatic benefits and higher status it confers on married couples. Single people, unmarried couples, and those in other types of relationships, short or long term, are all too often treated with condescension and even suspicion.

I chose to marry my partner as soon as the law changed because I knew that an arbitrary privilege would go to the first gay couple to be legally married. I didn’t want a socially conservative couple with nothing to say about the ongoing struggle for LGBT+ rights to squander the privilege of having access to the media. 

Marriage equality is not the pinnacle of LGBT+ rights, but it can be used as a lever for greater progress around the world for sexual minorities. An irony of the current debate is that legally recognised humanist marriages are not available to gay or straight couples in England. This is because the government has been continually reviewing the matter over the last 10 years, since the passage of the Same-Sex Marriage Act.

This particularly affects the LGBT+ community, as we are more likely to be non-religious or in couples of mixed faith backgrounds. Some government ministers have criticised the lack of same-sex Anglican marriages, but if they want the LGBT+ community to have a choice over where and how we marry, then they could proceed with legislation to sort out humanist marriage legislation.

Peter McGraith is a writer, activist, and designer. He was one half of the first gay couple to marry in the UK, and is a supporter of Humanists UK

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