Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Government muddies the waters on gay marriage

Tough spot: the Government’s proposals on same-sex marriage have complicated the matter

This has been an important week for religion, with the announcement of the Government’s proposals on same-sex marriage, and also the publication of the 2011 Census findings in Northern Ireland.

The Government's proposals for same-sex marriage will add further complications to this contentious issue, rather than helping to solve anything.

It is an attempt to please everyone and it will end up by impressing no one. The idea of banning the Anglican Church in England and Wales from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies, while allowing non-Anglicans to do so, is discriminatory.

Certainly I would be extremely annoyed if I was a gay Anglican in England or Wales and my Presbyterian next-door neighbour could apply for a same-sex ceremony, but I could not.

The Government's proposals are naive. They would allow non-Anglicans to ‘opt in' to these ceremonies, if they so wished, but the chances are that most churches, apart from the Friends and some others, would not sanction a same-sex marriage.

The politicians stress that no church will be compelled by law to conduct same-sex marriages, but I doubt if this will be enough to satisfy a Human Rights directive if two homosexuals take their case to Europe.

Already the UK authorities are questioning the right of a European court to force the Government to grant voting rights to prisoners.

However, I am not sure how far any UK Government would back the churches here in a legal battle with Europe on the human rights of two homosexuals who insist in being married in a church.

My guess is that in practice the majority of UK churches will not sanction gay marriages, but that some sympathetic cleric will offer a blessing to a gay couple, provided that the ruling body within that church — for example a Select Vestry or a Kirk Session — approves of this course of action.

All in all it remains a tricky problem, but even if the proposed legislation is passed in Britain, it may still be delayed or voted out by the Stormont Assembly which is not known for its liberalism on abortion, creationism and other issues. So perhaps the only solution for an Anglican gay couple in Northern Ireland is to leave their church, and try to find a friendly cleric in some other denomination in Britain.

Meanwhile, the 2011 census results have revealed that 48% of people here would claim to be Protestant and 45% Roman Catholic, with only 7% claiming to belong to another denomination or none.

This means that 93% of us claim to belong to one or the other main religious denomination, but I doubt if that number are regular worshippers who take an active part in the life of their local church.

Taken at face value it suggests that the declining number of Protestants would ultimately lead to a Catholic majority and the possibility of Irish unity, but that is not necessarily so.

A significant group of 21% now regard themselves as ‘Northern Irish' which opens radical possibilities for the long-term future.

Meanwhile, the current religious affiliations are, for many people, little more than tribal labels which distinguish them from those on the ‘other side'. The recent flag-waving and violent demonstrations had nothing to do with true religion and respecting one's neighbours.

If you want to cite an example of true religion you should look no further than the vigil at the Belfast City Hall this morning when people of all backgrounds held hands together and prayed for peace.

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