Britain legalized gay marriage today after Queen Elizabeth II symbolically gave her stamp of approval, clearing the way for the first same-sex weddings next summer. The queen’s assent, which she offered the day after Parliament cleared the bill, is a formality, and the last step necessary for a bill to become law.
The law, first introduced in Parliament in January, enables gay couples to get married in both civil and religious ceremonies in England and Wales, but only if the religious institution consents. The Church of England, the country’s official church, says it will not perform such ceremonies, at least for now.
The Church of England actively opposed the bill as the House of Commons and House of Lords debated it. When Members of Parliament (MPs) continued to advance the measure, the Church issued a brief reiterating that it does not condone homosexual marriage, although it supported the existing civil unions for homosexual couples: “The Church of England is committed to the traditional understanding of the institution of marriage as being between one man and one woman.”
The law also allows couples who had previously entered into civil partnerships—which were introduced in 2005 and carry similar rights and responsibilities as marriage—to convert their relationships to marriages.
Prime Minister David Cameron backed the legislation, even though it divided his Conservative Party and sparked vocal debates in the House of Commons and House of Lords. Supporters of traditional marriage argued the bill would undermine the sanctity of marriage, but their numerous attempts to derail the legislation failed as it wound its way through Parliament.
On Tuesday, Conservative lawmaker Gerald Howarth accused the government of having “bulldozed” the legislation through Parliament, “offending large swatches” of his party.
Although it has stepped away from the government’s stance on marriage, the Church has partnered with the state to manage some of the country’s state schools under an agreement finalized with the Department of Education earlier this month. According to RNS, England had 3,049 such community schools as of July. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair established the academies, which are quazi-independent institutions privately funded by businessmen, sports teams, and a variety of church denominations including the Church of England.
The agreement will allow the Church to appoint unpaid school governors, individuals who voluntarily oversee school operations. The Church also will oversee management of the institutions, although it must preserve the character and policies of secular schools.
Already the largest provider of education in Britain, the Church of England will take responsibility for thousands more schools. The arrangement has led some parents to claim the Church will inevitably influence secular schools with its beliefs.
Nigel Genders, head of school policy for the Church of England, said the merely structural agreement, called a Multi Academy Trust (MAT), won’t influence school teaching: “For good and outstanding schools joining the MAT the expectation will be that the local governing body continues to manage the day-to-day running of the school. However, this new model also enables the MAT to provide extra support should the school need it."
The Church requires its own schools outside the arrangement to instruct children in the teachings of Christ, offer communion, and present a collective worship service—although that service may include scripture from other faiths as well.
Although the Church of England’s new role might seem like an expansion of Christian influence in the country, its liberal stance on social issues has not succeeded in attracting worshipers: Weekly church attendance has continued to fall and fewer Britons identified themselves as Christians during the national census.