Same-sex couples in the United Kingdom are now allowed to enter a legal relationship after a law passed last year went into affect Monday.
The new law, "The Civil Partnership Act," came into affect today after being approved by the British Parliament on Nov. 18, 2004 and gives a legal status to the partnership formed between two people of the same sex.
Under the new law, homosexual couples are granted the same property and inheritance rights as married heterosexual couples, without the label of marriage. Moreover, they also enjoy the same pension, immigration and tax benefits.
According to reports, hundreds of homosexual couples started registering their intentions to form the partnership with local councils on Monday. The first civil ceremonies for gay couples in Britain are expected to take place on Dec. 21, after the15-day waiting period, while the first ceremonies in Scotland will be held the day before.
Meg Munn, Minister for Equality, told BBC that the government expected 4,500 couples to get "partnered" in the first year. Meanwhile, at least 1,200 ceremonies were confirmed and scheduled, with strong interest having been observed in Brighton, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Edinburgh, according to BBC.
Britain is now the fifth country in the world giving legal recognition to gay unions. Although the move to liberalize the traditional form of marriage in the U.K. is unlike Belgium, Canada, Spain and the Netherlands, which have legalized same-sex "marriages," it has been very alarming to Christians in the U.K.
The Christian Institute, a British evangelical non-denominational charity has responded vigorously to the new law in a statement released on its website.
"Our position is that we oppose the Governments proposals for civil partnerships. Civil partnership as an institution will be virtually identical to marriage," the statement read. This devalues and undermines the institution of marriage.
Based on the teaching of the Bible, marriage is traditionally defined as "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others," the statement declared. Moreover, it said, "Since in Christian understanding sex is exclusively for marriage, civil partnership equates holy matrimony with something which is morally wrong."
Therefore, it concluded, "Civil partnership takes the privileges of marriage and gives them to couples who do not and cannot meet the requirements of marriage."
The Church of England, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.K., has long been troubled by the debate over homosexual clergy and same-sex blessings within the Anglican Communion worldwide. Even so, the conservative group in the House of Bishops led by the Bishop of Norwich, the Right Rev Graham James, rejected resolutely equal status for same-sex union and heterosexual marriage.
According to a statement released in July, the bishops defended traditional marriage as "a creation of ordinance, a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace."
"Marriage, defined as a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman, is central to the stability and health of human society," the statement read.
In addition to the controversy over the recognition of same-sex unions, for the British churches, there is also the question of whether to give blessings to the homosexual couples. Since the practice of same-sex blessings in the Anglican Church of Canada, Anglicans in the U.K. appear divided over the issue, although they affirm the teaching of the Bible.
The Methodist Church of Great Britain has held a discussion on how to respond to requests to conduct prayers or services of blessing for same-sex couples during the annual Methodist Conference in late June. A Working Party was designated to produce guidelines concerning whether or not the blessing civil partnerships was appropriate. The Working Party is due to report to the 2006 Conference.
The Methodist Churchs authorized worship book already includes a liturgy for blessing the civil marriage of a heterosexual couple. If the Conference decides to approve same-sex blessings, ministers could adapt it to bless the civil partnerships of gay couples.