Reverend Jane Barraclough, minister of Cross Street Chapel, talks to Mancunian Matters about homophobia, the diminishing power of the Church and the changing nature of marriage.
The Unitarian Church in Manchester is celebrating 350 years of history when its first minister set up a non-creedal church. Timely with the anniversary, Manchester Cross Street Unitarian Chapel became the first religious place in Britain to hold civil and religious ceremonies for same-sex couples.
Your chapel is the first in Britain to be granted a licence to hold civil partnerships. How would such a ceremony look like?
We will have a religious ceremony. At the end of it, the registrar will come from the Town Hall and the couple will sign the documents in front of their witnesses and guests. It looks like a religious wedding.
At the moment, we can talk about having a civil partnership but we cannot use the word marriage, certainly not in the civil part of it. A lot of gay couples want to be able to use the word marriage because it carries the idea of commitment. Gay couples want people to understand that their commitment is the same as a straight couple.
Catholic leaders have criticised civil partnerships. The Church of England refused to hold civil partnership ceremonies in its churches. Why are the Catholics opposing this so fiercely?
The Catholics are socially conservative. Contraception is still considered wrong, divorce, women priests – the list goes on and on. The Catholic Church does not like the secular state. It has a long memory and remembers the days when it ruled Western Europe.
What you have now is a secular state in most Western European countries. The Church’s power is diminishing all the time. What they are trying to hold on to is power over the individual through things like sexuality and family. They no longer have the power of institution that they once had.
The freedom of the Unitarians to practice has historically depended on the existence of a secular state. I believe that peace in our society amongst religious groups depends on a secular society, which can hold all of us and keep us in a way apart.
We cannot go back to Christendom or theocracies. Nevertheless, the Catholics still dream of the old days when they ruled the world.
So it is about power and not about religion and beliefs?
It is about power. It is also about control, control of individuals, control of conscience.
We, the Unitarians, believe in freedom. We believe it is possible to be religious and be to a free-thinking, rational human being. Those two things are not incompatible. That is why we are non-creedal.
Is the Church’s stance on civil partnerships and gay marriage homophobic?
Some of this is institutionalised homophobia that has been veiled in religious or political language. Human beings can be quite frightening in their continued practice of finding a minority group and bullying them. That can be on the grounds of sexual orientation, it can be on the grounds of gender or race.
We do seem to have the habit of creating an ‘other’, of pushing people out. Based on that we seem to find some false sense of unity. That is a very dangerous way to derive your sense of personal identity, but it happens. It is common throughout human history. It is a tendency in ourselves that we need to actively struggle against.
The Coalition is looking at revising the legal definition of marriage to help prevent discrimination against same-sex couples. This has caused stir among Catholic leaders. What do you think?
I do not see this as a big change. Modern marriage between men and women has already changed. It is not primarily about having children.
It is about standing up in front of your friends and family and possibly before God and making a promise of commitment. That is what the LGBT community want. It is not a big change to the definition of marriage.
I think much of the difficulty around this is anxiety about change. Change in our society has now become very rapid and there may be some social anxiety about the nature of change. Everything changes, that is the hardest thing for humans to deal with.
Can homophobia ever be eradicated?
The process has already started, and I think it should be relatively easy in the secular world. When you go into the religious world, it becomes more difficult. We are religious liberals and we have a very diverse congregation. There is no homophobia here. We have a lot of LGBT people in our congregation.
But amongst religious conservatives, it is going to be very difficult. I do not think the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church are going to change their position any time soon.
You can try and challenge their position from the scripture. The trouble is that there is some homophobic text in scripture. The Unitarians, like most people, chose what we find interesting from the Bible and we ignore the rest. That is easy for us because we believe that the Bible is made by human beings, it is not sent from God.
If you have this idea lodged in your brain that the Bible is made by God, then you have a problem. You then have to set texts that were written for people thousands of years ago. Many of these books are now only of historical interest. They have no application to a modern society. In this respect, conservatives can sometimes be guilty of adulatory.
Unitarians do not have creeds and have a very diverse congregation including Christians, spiritual humanists, earth spirit people and atheists. The Unitarian theology emphasises the oneness of God and humanity of Jesus.
For more information visit http://cross-street-chapel.org.uk/