Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Clerical life: Why can’t gay couples marry in our parish churches?

The Church of England has just agreed to bless same-sex couples in church. I think it should go further
March 1, 2023

Until two years ago—when it was stopped by the pandemic—we used to do a Marriage Preparation Day in this benefice. It ran from 10am until 4pm, beginning with coffee and biscuits and ending with tea and cake, with a lunch in the middle. “Always have a hot pudding,” was the advice we religiously followed. So, a hot pudding there was, generally a crumble. All the couples being married in the benefice would be invited.

In the morning, there was a short talk on the changing understanding of marriage over the centuries as demonstrated through the law, as well as on the intricacies of the ceremony now. One couple would act out how each takes the other’s hand to make their vows and repeats the words after the priest. Then they’d open their folder of questionnaires from counselling charity Relate and go off to discover whether they knew what their beloved’s favourite colour was—and recall whether they’d ever discussed money,  children or where to spend Christmas.

After lunch, there would be a panel of married couples—old married couples, middle-aged ones and people married in the past year or so—to answer questions about marriage and weddings and to talk about their own. There were more group discussions, including, as I recall, on the languages of love—that was the one where I learnt that my husband’s habit of bringing me, unasked, a perfect cup of tea just when I needed it was his way of expressing undying devotion. Which was good, because when I would say, “I love you, Our Geoff!” he’d generally reply, “I know,” or “Uh huh.”

We also discussed rows and how to behave when quarrelling. The church organists and flower arrangers came in to consult about music and decorations. The last exercise of the day was to write a love letter to one’s betrothed. We provided paper and pens of every colour of the rainbow. 

The squire kindly let us use the ground-floor rooms of the manor for this, which added a lot to the day. Couples would look out at the lawns and the nibbling sheep and the distant nature reserve, and we would all feel that the married state was somehow endowed with a bit of extra grandeur. 

My husband never came to these events, in case you were going to ask. He was separated from his first wife when we met, and—seven years later, when we married in the registry office—the Church of England didn’t yet marry couples in which one or both partners had a previous spouse still living. Neither of us was ever able to remember what vows, if any, we made.

A close reading of all that I’ve said will suggest to you that I see no theological reason why gay couples shouldn’t be able to marry in our parish churches as they can in the United Reformed Church down the road. I see no reason why gay couples who have a civil marriage at the registry office shouldn’t have that marriage blessed here, as is already possible in the Church in Wales. I see no reason why gay clergy shouldn’t be able to marry their partners, and every reason why they should. The marriages of my gay friends, colleagues and former students don’t appear to me to be different in kind or quality to my own marriage or to the marriages I’ve witnessed and blessed in church over the years. 

The Church of England has just agreed on what is coyly referred to as a “suite” of prayers to allow for the blessing of a civil-partnered or married same-sex couple in church. It’s not as much as I would have wanted, and, as my traditionalist brothers and sisters fear, I’m one of many clergy who think of this development as only the beginning. 

Every married person is meant to be both lover and beloved. What we say about marriage, what we bless in it, we can say and bless whether the couple are bride and groom, bride and bride, or bridegroom and bridegroom. Our three churches in this parish are looking forward to the day when we can make use of these prayers of blessing, and to the day—soon, I hope—when there will be gay and lesbian couples at our Marriage Preparation Day (we hope to restart next year). 

In the meantime, a church warden will be climbing the tower of St Vigor’s. He’ll hoist up a big red wooden heart. It’ll be visible from half a mile away. I’d wanted to climb up too, but have been advised—he has a pawky sense of humour—that I’m needed on the ground to make sure it’s hung straight.