Yesterday the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church (URC) voted in favour of allowing its local churches to conduct and register marriages for same-sex couples.
This means that the URC is now the largest UK denomination to freely permit the celebration and registration of marriages of same-sex couple in its churches.
A two-thirds majority was needed to allow the proposal to be confirmed as the denomination’s final decision – Assembly voted in favour of the resolution by 240 votes to 21 votes. United Reformed churches in England and Wales wishing to register their buildings for the marriage of same-sex couples are now able to start that process immediately. (In Scotland the legal framework is rather different, but the effects of the Church’s decision will be broadly similar.)
The process which culminated in today’s vote has been a lengthy one. The General Assembly has considered the proposal twice before – in 2014, and again in a special, single issue Assembly, which met in June 2015. It has long been clear that the denomination cannot express a single view on the issue of same-sex marriage and, at the 2015 Assembly it was ruled that that the decision on whether an individual United Reformed Church congregation can host marriages of same-sex couples lies wholly with each local church. This is the policy that was confirmed today as the Church’s decision.
Speaking of the process and today’s vote, the Revd John Proctor, General Secretary of the URC said: ‘Today the URC has made an important decision – at which some will rejoice and with which others will be uncomfortable. Those of our churches who now wish to offer full marriage services to same-sex couples are free to do just that – and those churches who do not wish to are not compelled to. All are part of this denomination. This has been a sensitive issue for many in our churches. It has been important to take our time over the decision process, and to listen as carefully as we can to one another along the way.’
My take on it is slightly different from the communications team – my version is that the Assembly has not ‘permitted’ local churches to take this decision, but has ruled that the decision belongs with them anyway. The effect is much the same, but perhaps that makes it not quite such a precedent for denominations with more centralised authority. I don’t imagine a huge number of local churches will act on the freedom they are now declared to have; but some have been waiting impatiently for the go-ahead to extend their ministry in this direction, and will now be very glad to do so. It is those churches’ example, rather than that of the URC as a whole, which I should like to see other denominations follow.