Comment: Religious civil partnerships are the first step towards religious same sex marriages

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For Rabbi David Mitchell, his true ‘partnership’ ceremony wasn’t in the registry office, it was in his synagogue. He explains why the government’s announcement of civil partnerships in religious buildings could be the first steps towards same-sex marriages in religious institutions, something welcomed by Quakers, Unitarians, Liberal Jews and from today the larger Reform Judaism movement.

On December 21st last year, unlike Elton and David, my partner and I forgot to celebrate our 5th anniversary. This wasn’t because we weren’t glad to have made history five years earlier when we were one of the first Jewish couples in the country to sign the Civil Partnership Register. It was because, for us, this amounted to a formal conclusion of a process we’d started five months earlier. I’m not saying that the events in the Barnet Registry Office were devoid of all significance, just that they were akin to the formal opening of a building after the premises have already been up-and-running for some months.

Our real ‘Partnership’ Ceremony took place on July 17th 2005 at a Reform Synagogue in London. We had originally chosen that date because it was never anticipated, by the then Government, that the legislative process for enabling Civil Partnerships would be as long or as arduous. We had hoped that as we could not celebrate our legal Civil Partnership in our Synagogue, we would, at least, be able to pop down to the Registry Office the same weekend as our religious ceremony. We really wanted to ensure that our new status as life-partners was legally recognised and protected.

As members of the Jewish faith, we were determined to formalise and celebrate our relationship within the context of a religious and cultural framework that resonated with our upbringing. Our Jewish Partnership Ceremony was a wonderful moment in our lives; all our relatives and friends attended the packed Synagogue and the three officiating Rabbis ensured that the proceedings were ritually robust and emotionally resonant. It was also an historic day for Reform Judaism in the UK, as it was the first same-sex ceremony to take place on one of their Synagogue’s premises.

Our choices were not for everyone in the Jewish LGBT community. Several of the couples we knew considered going down the same route as us, but then they decided to get married in Canada where they could have both their Jewish and Civil ceremonies on one day, in one location.

With today’s Government announcement, that Civil Partnerships can now take place in religious building and under the auspices of religious institutions, all that is now water under the bridge.

It has been well over five years since our Jewish Partnership Ceremony. In that time I have completed my training and I am now an ordained Rabbi working in a Reform Synagogue. My colleagues in the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK have just completed a two year process of review which led us to release a timely Statement on Same-Sex Commitment Ceremonies. This Statement includes:

We wish to encourage and enable ceremonies which enjoy the same religious status as the heterosexual ceremony whilst recognising difference… We require, therefore, that Rabbis only conduct Same-Sex Commitment Ceremonies with a prior or concurrent Civil Partnership ceremony.

Today’s significant shift in Government policy will enable all those same-sex couples belonging to progressive faith communities to mark their love and commitment to one another within a religious context and liturgical framework. What is even more important is that these couples can now celebrate their unions in ways that resonate with the core values, traditions and practices of their families and communities. The very same values, traditions and practices that underpin their relationships and the homes they build together.

Yet I suspect that this is not the end of this long and fraught journey towards marriage equality for all. Civil Partnerships are, by the very nature of the word ‘civil’, supposedly devoid of all religion. Accordingly, what the Government may have actually sanctioned is a gently pitched process towards same-sex marriage in religious institutions. This move may not be welcomed by every religious body in this country, but it will certainly be welcomed by the Quakers and both the Liberal and Reform Jewish Movements.

Personally, as a Gay Rabbi, I cannot wait for the first Jewish couple to come knocking on my Office door asking me to officiate at their Jewish ‘Civil’ Partnership.

Rabbi David Mitchell is a member of Keshet UK, the UK’s Jewish LGBT Forum