Church bells ringing out for same-sex marriage … at last

Some religious establishments have flung open their doors to same-sex couples hoping to get married under the eyes of god, but there's still a long way to go

Charlotte Harris and Catriona Knox's wedding at New Unity. Pic: Christa Kolka

Whilst gay marriage was legalised 10 years ago, the fight for complete equality continues. Religious activists are at the forefront of a struggle for the right to say “I do” in a religious establishment of their choice. Whilst it looks unlikely the Catholic Church will recognise same-sex weddings anytime soon, the Church of England is gradually moving towards marriage equality. In February this year, the Church agreed to allow same-sex couples to have their civil marriages blessed in churches, a move which for many of these activists fell far short of the mark.

Despite this, across the ELL boroughs there is a variety of religious venues that do allow same-sex weddings. The Unitarian church, New Unity in Newington Green was at the forefront of the fight for marriage equality. “We call ourselves radically inclusive,” says Reverend CJ McGregor, Minister at New Unity since September 2022 and a Unitarian minister for over a decade. “No matter who you are, no matter who you love, you are welcome here. It is a place where people can bring their full selves and full identity.”

In 2008, New Unity refused to marry any straight couples until marriage equality was achieved. “I think celebrating someone’s whole identity is part of who we are as Unitarians and that directly relates to marriage equality.” McGregor says, “We were the first religious organisation in the nation to say no to marrying anyone until marriage equality.”

“The congregation felt it was a stand we needed to take to show our support for marriage equality because we believe marriage is not just between a man and a woman.” New Unity’s protest had a wide-reaching impact. “It was an example for other organisations; I think it also helped the government understand what the issue was about. That was equal rights.” McGregor, who is originally from New York, believes that “our protest really helped shine a light on marriage equality. He says it “gave them a different perspective and way to think about it.”  

New Unity continues to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. “It is very possible for same-sex marriage to be challenged in the future and we are always ready to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community,” McGregor says.

Whilst larger Christian denominations have not yet endorsed same-sex weddings in their churches, some smaller denominations do allow same-sex weddings. The United Reformed Church endorsed marriage equality at a conference in 2016. “The whole denomination went through a process of discernment about whether the churches should conduct same-sex marriages,” Reverend Russell Furley-Smith, the Minister at Purley United Reformed Church, says. “It was decided that local congregations can conduct same-sex weddings if they so desire. The United Reformed Church emphasises local churches can decide what is best for them. “We’re a diverse denomination with different views,” Furley-Smith adds.

Interior of Purley United Reformed Church. Pic: Russell Furley-Smith

Purley United Reformed Church, following its own discussion and deliberation, agreed to allow same-sex marriages in 2017. “We established in principle that we wanted to conduct same-sex weddings. We did this before anybody approached us because we didn’t want someone to feel excluded,” says Furley-Smith. “If same-sex marriage is legal, then there’s no reason why we should not. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible and that means embracing everyone,” he says.

However, despite agreeing to allow gay weddings five years ago, Purley United Reformed Church is yet to marry a same-sex couple. “We’re not a particularly photogenic church,” Furley-Smith explained, “We’re on the main road between Purley and Croydon and we’re not a listed building. It’s been years since I married a heterosexual couple. That didn’t stop us from wanting to establish the principle.”

Furley-Smith, considers himself and the congregation to be allies of the LGBTQ+ community. “We’re in discussion with Open Table Network about setting up a group locally. They want to open a safe space for LGBTQ+ people. It’s not just about same-sex marriage, it’s about creating an ethos that’s welcoming,” he says.

The Jewish community, like the different Christian denominations, is home to a variety of different views. Which range from Orthodox Judaism, which is opposed to same-sex marriage, to Liberal Judaism which is very supportive of marriage equality. Kehillah North London is a Liberal Synagogue in Stoke Newington, which is welcoming to LGBTQ+ Jewish people. Since 2010, the Synagogue has allowed same-sex couples to have religious commitment ceremonies. According to Ashleigh Loeb, administrator at Kehillah North London, these ceremonies were “basically no different than Jewish marriage ceremonies other than in national law”.

Kehillah North London has allowed legal weddings since 2014. Before marriage equality, Liberal Judaism along with the Christian Quakers successfully lobbied the government together to include religious same-sex weddings in legislation.

“As a bisexual Jewish woman,” Loeb says, “it is important to me that, should I want to get married to another Jewish person, I can celebrate that wedding with my community and in the Jewish tradition regardless of that person’s gender.” She says, “It’s ultimately about Jewish people in LGBTQ+ relationships having their love celebrated, as well as being accepted.”

For all organisations and denominations that do allow same-sex weddings, many remain opposed. Some who were approached to take part in this article refused to comment. The ELL boroughs are a diverse area and same-sex couples of any faith looking to get married will find something to suit their needs. This does not mean the fight for complete marriage equality is over, rather a sense of inevitability prevails that full marriage equality is on the horizon. Talking about the Church of England, though the sentiment could apply to any religion, McGregor says: “If their intention is to grow and survive they will have to adapt and marriage equality will be a part of that.”

This article is part of our series, A decade since ‘I do’: celebrating same-sex marriage in London. For a full list of religious venues that perform same-sex weddings go to our Eastlondonlines Gay Wedding Directory. And, click here to read our other stories.

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