Monday, 6 June 2011

Civil Partnerships in Jersey

The Jersey Proposition on Civil Partnerships says that:

'Civil Partnerships will not be allowed to be held in a place of worship.'

The Jersey government, as usual, is behind the times!

The UK is moving towards an "opt in" clause whereby particular religious groups would be able to "opt in" to conducting the civil partnership in a church. The Consultation document makes this clear:

These measures are entirely voluntary, giving faith groups the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to allow civil partnerships to be registered on their premises. Those faith groups that do not want to use their premises for the registration of civil partnerships will not be compelled to do so.

It seems perverse that Jersey would not at least conduct a similar consultation before deciding on behalf of religious groups (such as Quakers, who are in favour) when the UK has launched one recently. Do we always have to be 5 years or more behind? Can't we be proactive just for once?

Article 13(1) provides that a civil partnership may be solemnized on authority of a licence only on approved premises. By Article 13(2), premises may be approved by the Connétable of the parish in which the premises are situated. The premises provided for the Superintendent Registrar are also approved premises. Under Article 13(3) the Minister must by Order publish a scheme for the approval of premises and Article 13(4) describes what provisions may be included in such an Order. Article 13(5) prohibits premises used principally for religious purposes from being approved premises. (Draft Jersey Law)

It is pretty convoluted stuff, and civil marriage ceremonies can take place in other locations that a registry office, for example:

Couples can also get married at "Approved Premises," which have been licensed for the celebration of Civil Marriages. These premises include Jersey's magnificent medieval castles, other heritage sites, manor houses and hotels.
I assume that the articles cited give the civil partnership the same freedom for "approved premises" as civil marriages; unfortunately the pre-amble does not make this comparison, and I don't have the time for a clause by clause comparison of the two documents. For the sake of clarity, it would be useful to have this question answered.

I personally am in favour of an "opt in". I don't think it would be right to force religious groups to have to have a civil partnership - after all there is a conflict of freedoms here - but if there is no conflict, they want to "opt in", then they should have the right to do so. To remove that to the decision of the State is very "Yes Minister", especially as the State has non-Christians among its midst as well.
Quite how it would work if the place of worship also doubles as a secular place, such as (for instance) a house church, or in fact Hautlieu School Hall, has also not been considered. Presumably such a place would not be deemed to be "used principally for religious purposes". The clause in question is worded as follows, forbidding approved premises to be:

5) Premises that -
(a) are used solely or mainly for religious purposes; or
(b) have been so used and have not subsequently been used solely or mainly for other purposes, may not be approved premises.

That would presumably mean that it would be possible to use Hautlieu school hall, or for that matter, a large room or hall used once a week by a house church, but used for other purposes on the rest of the week.

But this is surely a very constrictive way in which "place of worship" is considered. Christianity's formative worship took place in a "house church" kind of environment, especially after Christians were expelled from the synagogue. To ignore that is to simply neglect history. There are "house church" Christian groups in Jersey, and while they would probably not be of the kind of Christian persuasion to want to "opt in", if they wanted a civil partnership in a house, under 5(b), there is no reason why they should not be "approved premises".
As far as the local Pagan community goes, anywhere inside or outside, could become a place of worship, as indeed they do when rituals are celebrated. A hand-fasting with a civil ceremony at a a heritage site ( a castle or a dolmen) would presumably be legitimate under 5(b), but that opens up everywhere as a "place of worship", especially as civil weddings themselves need not take place in a registry office, and presumably the same is true of civil partnerships.

But of course, there is an additional caveat that:

14 (5) No religious service shall be used at the solemnization of a civil partnership on approved premises.

which would prevent the local Pagan community as well from celebrating a civil partnership at an "approved site".

But that, of course, begs the question of what exactly constitutes a religious service, and it is not clear how any texts that would be read out would be "vetted"  against being religious. While some texts may be quite ambiguous, what may seem a religious texts in some circumstances might be considered quite secular in another.

A goodly chunk of 1 Corinthians 13 (see below from the ISV), often chosen in marriage ceremonies, surprisingly does not actually mention God in most translations (and the original Greek), so that it could simply be taken as a text in praise of love - even Richard Dawkins could use it without problems, so it is not possible to just rule out the Bible!

Of course, how the text is interpreted may be in a religious sense, but that will depend upon the hearer, and unless the law is going to do what Elizabeth I did not, and try to "to make windows into men's souls", there may be problems in restricting the use of material in the civil partnership ceremony which may be capable of religious interpretation - unless, of course, the States of Jersey is planning its own "index" of forbidden books or texts!

Returning to the subject of  "places of worship" is buildings set aside purely for that purpose, but if that is the case - and a house church would thereby be an acceptable place (a house where Christians regularly meet), this would make the building (church, synagogue, Quaker meeting House) intrinsically distinct, and I'm not sure such a distinction could really be coherent.

As far as theology goes, it seems the government is trying to make a theological distinction about the merits of historical sites that even the Pope would not!
And it is also a betrayal of Jersey history; if there was one lesson from the Reformation in Jersey that should be learnt, it was that worship in buildings could take the form of worship of buildings, and the Reformation leaders in Jersey designated "the church" as the people, and the building as "the temple" to make that distinction quite clear. Otherwise, they said, it is a form of idolatry, of worshiping stones and mortar, where the people and their relationship with God was more important to them than the place they worshiped in. As Joy Davidman said (in "Smoke on the Mountain"):

I am still an idolater. I have fallen into the last and subtlest trap; I bow down to wood and stone, in the shape of a church building. Through regular attendance, through handsome financial contributions, through raising the minister's salary and redecorating the altar and improving the organist's technique and encouraging the foreign missions, I expect to be saved. To put it bluntly, I have forgotten that the church itself is not God.

Clearly, the clause forbidding a civil partnership in a "place of worship" goes counter to that whole principle. That's not to say people can't see the place they worship in as a "sacred space", but that's grounded in quite different concepts.
As far as the Quakers go, I'm certain it is not exact as to how defined their "meeting hall" would be as a "place of worship" in their own understanding of worship; I suspect they would certainly be less fixated on place, and they certainly want an "opt in" opportunity.

Quakers consider that they should be able to follow the insights of their membership in celebrating life-long committed relationships between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, in exactly the same way as they currently recognise the marriage of opposite sex couples.

Who can have their civil partnership or marriage solemnized in a Quaker meeting house?

Quaker marriage is not open to all, but is for members and those who, while not in formal membership, are in unity with its religious nature and witness.

Each Quaker area meeting appoints suitable members as registering officers who are normally present at the solemnisation of a marriage at a meeting for worship. They ensure that marriages are prepared, celebrated, witnessed, reported to the state, and legally valid. Quaker meetings do not have clergy.
That is why the "opt in" UK option is so much better - because it focuses on the community that worships in the "place of worship", and their freedoms, and not on the building itself. And it is not compulsory for religious groups; it requires an "opt in", which preserves freedom for the religious group as well  - it is a fair balancing act:
Derek McAuley, Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches , said "We were pleased to work with the Quakers, Liberal Judaism and the Metropolitan Community Church and others to build a coalition for change. This went a long way to breaking down the stereotype that people of faith are in cultural opposition to the lesbian and gay community. This was a matter of equality and religious freedom. The amendment does not compel religious groups to register civil partnerships on their premises. With our historic Unitarian commitment to civil and religious liberty that what we desire for our communities we do not wish to force on others.

It certainly seems to be the case that the Jersey Government has not carried out consultation with the representatives of religious community, as the Quakers would almost certainly have pointed them in the direction of the UK consultation. Half a loaf, of course, may be better than no loaf at all, and at least Civil Partnerships are on the way, but it would be good if the States gave even a nod towards the possibility of the changes that are taking place in the UK.


If I speak in the languages of humans and angels but have no love, I have become a reverberating gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can understand all secrets and every form of knowledge, and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains but have no love, I am nothing. Even if I give away everything that I have and sacrifice myself, but have no love, I gain nothing. Love is always patient; love is always kind; love is never envious or arrogant with pride. Nor is she conceited, and she is never rude; she never thinks just of herself or ever gets annoyed. She never is resentful; is never glad with sin; she's always glad to side with truth, and pleased that truth will win. She bears up under everything; believes the best in all; there is no limit to her hope, and never will she fall. Love never fails. Now if there are prophecies, they will be done away with. If there are languages, they will cease. If there is knowledge, it will be done away with. For what we know is incomplete and what we prophesy is incomplete. But when what is complete comes, then what is incomplete will be done away with. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways. Now we see only an indistinct image in a mirror, but then we will be face to face. Now what I know is incomplete, but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. Right now three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 13:1-13)


Anonymous said...

The law has already foundered - as has just been reported, the civil partnership legislation will not put CP couples on the same legal footing as married couples (Married couples are allowed to jointly purchase property if one is residentially qualified: but in a civil partnership both will need to have quallies).

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful. The biblical quote at the end was perfect. Thank you.