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keep it civil

Here's how the Catholic Church in Britain has responded to same-sex marriage

The first same-sex marriages in England, Wales and Scotland took place last year. So how has the Church stance changed on civil marriages?

COMMENTS BY THE Primate of the Catholic Church in Ireland sparked much debate at the beginning of the week – after Archbishop Eamon Martin said the hierarchy still hadn’t decided if it would continue to perform the civil element of marriage, if this month’s referendum is passed.

In a Morning Ireland interview, Archbishop Eamon Martin said that if the definition of marriage was redefined the Church would have to consider the implications. If the referendum is passed, the matter will be debated at the Bishops’ Conference, he said.

“We haven’t made up our mind… clearly it is an issue for us,” he said.

A message from the Archbishop last weekend also urged churchgoers to “speak up courageously for the union of a man and a woman in marriage,” in the 22 May vote.


Any decision by the Church to stop performing civil marriages for opposite sex couples would require some response from government – as it would mean there would be about 4,000 fewer people available to perform as solemnisers.

In fact, just more than 1,100 people would be available for the task, according to figures for April 2015 analysed by

Martin’s stance wasn’t a departure, it should be added – simply a re-iteration of the Church’s stance.

Politicans campaigning for a Yes vote stressed afterwards that the referendum was solely about civil marriage, and that religious congregations could continue to observe their own rules.

As the debate continues in Ireland – it’s worth taking a look at how the Church responded to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK last year, after they took a similar stance to that of the Irish bishops in the run-up to that change.

Same sex marriage Islington couple Peter McGraith and David Cabreza (right) after their wedding service at Islington Town Hall, March 2014. PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images


A letter read in some 2,500 parishes from two of the Church’s most senior Archbishops warned that changing the nature of marriage would be a “profoundly radical step” that would reduce its effectiveness and significance.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, and Archbishop Peter Smith – the Archbishop of Southwark - warned that changing the law would ”gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage”.

There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children.

The letter ended by telling Catholics they had a “duty to do all we can to ensure that the true meaning of marriage is not lost for future generations”.

bishops BBC News BBC News

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, then-leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, warned around the same time that the “grotesque” plans would ”shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world”.


As the debate over the introduction of same sex marriage continued, a legal advisor to Archbishop Nichols told politicians that, unless urgent changes were made to planned legislation, Catholic bishops may have to withdraw from performing the civil aspect of weddings.

The entire legal basis for Catholic weddings, operating since the late 19th century, could be “unpicked,” Prof Christopher McCrudden said.

The barrister said he had advised senior bishops, according to according to the Telegraph, ”that proposed protections for churches against legal challenges under human rights or equalities laws for refusing to marry gay couples completely overlook the position of Catholics and other denominations”.

Santa Marta Group Conference on human trafficking The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols PA Wire / Press Association Images PA Wire / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

“Immediately the Bill is passed, the Catholic Church will have to consider how exposed to legal risk it is and whether it can continue to work the existing legal system based on that assessment,” McCrudden said.

marriage Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales


The legislation to allow same-sex marriage was given royal assent in July 2013, after being backed in parliament by the leaders of all the major parties (opposition from many Conservatives led to some tensions, it should be noted). The first marriages in England and Wales took place in March 2014.

Scotland passed a similar law in February of 2014 – and First Minister Nichola Sturgeon acted as witness for one of the first couples to wed, when they tied the knot at a humanist ceremony on 31 December last.

Scotland 2014 Jerry Slater (left), 58, with his partner Larry Lamont, 81, celebrate the announcement of date of the first same-sex ceremonies (13/10/14) PA Wire / Press Association Images PA Wire / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

There was no move by the Catholic Church to stop performing civil marriages in either jurisdiction.

The latest updated advice on, which provides information on the law in everyday language, is that “same sex couples can only marry in a religious ceremony, if the religious organisation has agreed to carry out same sex weddings, and the premises have been registered for the marriage of same sex couples. Religious organisations or individual ministers do not have to marry same sex couples”.


There has been no decision by either the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, or the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland to stop performing the civil aspects of marriage.

“No, not at all,” a spokesperson for the Catholic Church in England and Wales told, when we asked if there had been any moves to change policy in the area.

“No,” a spokesperson at the Scottish Catholic Media Office said.

Read: The No vote campaign poster couple “are appalled” at their image being used, says comedian 

Read: Water protesters mistaken for No campaigners and called ‘homophobe b***ards’

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