Comment: Religious opponents of equality should follow the Unitarian Church and agree to marry gay couples

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The Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches Derek McAuley hopes that other faith groups will follow his organisation’s lead and agree to marry gay couples.

Older LGBT people may remember Dudley Cave who died in 1999. A pioneer for gay rights he was a Unitarian. He would probably be astonished by the progress made and the possibility, dare I say probability, of same-sex marriage being permitted in church, synagogue or other religious buildings. He was an active lay preacher and amongst the first to promote same-sex blessings. We look forward to celebrating legally valid same-sex marriages in our churches and chapels. Having pioneered civil partnerships in religious premises we will certainly make use of the freedom the legislation will give us.

As a faith group the Unitarian support for same-sex marriage arises out of our deep spiritual values. We believe that everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves. This commitment to private judgment in spiritual matters has of course implications for how we see people and regard civil liberties. “The individual is a fact of existence insofar as he steps into a living relation with other individuals” wrote the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Commenting upon this Unitarian minister Philip Hewitt has written: “To put the same idea more simply, but not necessarily more comprehensively, to live is to love. The person who is not loving is to that extent not living.”

Over the centuries Unitarians have been open to change drawing upon new understanding and insights. We had our first woman minister in the early 1900’s well before women had the vote in national elections. In our evolving thinking LGBT was seen as part of the natural spectrum and that people should give full emotional and physical expression of their sexuality. – “to live is to love”. Unitarians came to understand that to imply that lesbian and gay relationships are somehow lesser than heterosexual, or in the notorious language of Clause 28 a “pretended family relationship”, is just plain wrong.

Unitarian ministers and celebrants performed same-sex blessings when few others were prepared to do so. Of course, these challenged some congregations to put their liberal principles into action as each congregation being independent is and will be free to decide their approach on this as on other matters. The law needs to recognise this autonomy.

I am pleased that some of the lessons arising from the introduction of civil partnerships in religious premises have been learned. We are comfortable with the concept of opting-in both in terms of the premises and also the appointment of authorised persons. We feel that basing the provisions on the current arrangements for marriage is both easier administratively but also in terms of the message it sends out that same-sex marriage is not in some way inferior or second rate. We will be wishing to see issues that have arisen with fees for civil partnership registration to be addressed.

We have always argued that the freedom to say “yes” to same-sex marriage must be accompanied by the freedom to say “no” for churches and individuals. The opposite must of course apply. We hope that over time others will come to share our understanding of same sex relationships and how the churches can contribute to wider public acceptance of diversity in a more inclusive society.