Ed Fordham: Why I can’t attend a civic event in a venue that rejects me, my marriage and my community

LDV contributor and Chesterfield Councillor Ed Fordham has written to the Mayor of Chesterfield, her predecessors and the Council Chief Executive to be open about the reasons he can’t attend the annual Mayor-making procession and service – because it is held in a Church of England church, an organisation which doesn’t support same sex marriage equality.

I am really impressed that Ed has spoken out about this. He has made the case very eloquently and he has given permission for us to reproduce it here.

Our civic events have to be inclusive and I hope that those who are responsible for organising them at any level think about this.

Here is Ed’s letter:

As you know I sent my apologies to the formal mayor making, procession and service at St Mary and All Saints Church. As you know I stand in the open market on a Thursday and a Saturday and this usually conflicts with the procession and service. Accordingly it has been easy for me to send my apologies and absent myself as a councillor.

However, as a friend and out of a desire to be honest I feel I should write explaining my true reason.

In 2013 the law of the land was finally changed to enable two people of the same sex who love each other to marry each other (this took effect on March 2014).. My life partner and I took advantage of that and duly married that year – indeed we had a religious wedding in a Unitarian Chapel.

I was closely involved in the passage of the bill and am more than a little aware of the resistance of the Church of England to the bill and indeed to the debate. This was not universal to the Church and there are many good friends of mine who fight for acceptance and reform of the Church of England from within. However, the position of the Church and indeed the Bishops remains that it is opposed to LGBT+ marriage equality. Indeed, several gay friends who are clergy within the Church who have married their same sex partner have had their license to lead worship withdrawn. This has only been enabled because the Church of England is, astonishingly, exempt from aspects of the nation’s employment law as it affects equality.

I’m afraid that whilst Chesterfield Borough Council holds its act of worship and blessing for the Mayor of the Borough in an institution who does not accept nor recognise my marriage then I cannot attend. It would be hypocritical of me, appear to be attendance for the sake of it and that would not sit easy with my conscience. I am not prepared to sideline the LGBT+ communities of the Borough, my own inclusive faith, nor my marriage in this way.

Accordingly I am writing this by way of explanation and as an apology to you. I am copying in former Mayor’s Cllr Gordon Simmons and Cllr Stuart Brittain so they too hear this apology and understand why I have on each occasion been absent.

I would suggest that the time has perhaps come for Chesterfield to consider alternative venues and indeed even other faiths – that each Mayor might choose. I even suggest that a secular venue might work, or that the ceremony be solely ceremonial. But whilst it remains a service, led, rooted and hosted by a Church that rejects me, my marriage and actively removes members of my community from within its communion I will not be able to attend.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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13 Comments

  • Paul Holmes 12th Oct '21 - 1:08pm

    Caron, you say “…our civic events have to be inclusive…”. In which case should they be held in a religious setting at all? Given that only around 10% of the UK population attend a weekly religious service (of any and all denominations/religions) and only around half tick the box for ‘being religious’ in surveys.

    As an atheist I have always found all religious ceremonies difficult and non inclusive for myriad reasons. I attend some, such as weddings and funerals, out of respect for the individuals/families concerned although I am personally pleased with the increasing ratio of civic and humanist services in both categories. I attend Mayor Makings and Rememberance Day services in Chesterfield out of respect for the relevant sections of the community that elects me and, as relevant, for the religious views of individual Mayors and those who died serving their country.

    However I find the Mayors Parade and the Remberance ceremony at the Cenotaph opposite Chesterfield’s magnificent Town Hall much more inclusive and meaningful (to me) than the separate High Church ceremony in Chesterfield’s famous Crooked Spire. Indeed the only one of those that has ever really grabbed my interest was when my good friend and fellow atheist, Cllr Asif Qazi, became Mayor. Some of his family flew in from Pakistan for the event and his brother read passages from the Koran – I’m sure I could hear the Spire straining to straighten up in shock!

    So I am interested in Ed’s comment near the end that ” I even suggest that a secular venue might work.” Even! Then of course we hit the fact that ever since Henry the Eighth we have had a State Church and a Monarch who is ‘Defender of THE Faith’. Not to mention Bishops in the House of Lords and so on.

  • …………Henry the Eighth we have had a State Church and a Monarch who is ‘Defender of THE Faith’………..

    I’m sure you know that THE faith Henry VIII ‘defended’ was Roman Catholic; a faith far less open to change that the wishy washy C. of E.,,

  • Paul Holmes 12th Oct '21 - 4:06pm

    @expats. I’m sure you know that Henry did not have the last word on that.

  • This is a tough one. On the one hand, as someone with roughly Christian, beliefs, I profoundly disagree with the CofE’s views. I think it’s amazing that marriage is now available to any loving couple who wish it, irrespective of gender – and that it’s particularly amazing that these reforms and the accompanying complete cultural shift in society happened so quickly, compared to the situation in the UK just – say – 20 years ago. And I believe the Church of England has got it wrong on this issue.

    But I also believe that liberalism requires tolerance of and respect for other peoples’ deeply held beliefs, even when you disagree with them, and even if you feel those beliefs are hurtful to yourself. The issue of gay marriage is actually a pretty small part of CofE teachings, which mostly focus on spiritual beliefs, and on loving, caring for, and helping others, etc. To my mind, refusing to attend a mayoral ceremony purely because you disagree with one of the things the organisation hosting it happens to believe seems to border on illiberal intolerance. (It would be different if the Church was planning to use the ceremony to actually promote its viewpoint on homosexuality – as that would be totally inappropriate in the context of a mayoral ceremony – but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case here).

    I think this is a case where the ethical (and liberal) approach should be to recognise that you have profound disagreements with the CofE on some issues, and attend anyway – because the nature of a democracy is that people have different beliefs.

    Having said that, one question: Is the ceremony in Chesterfield ALWAYS held in a CofE church? If so, then in the interests of inclusivity, I’d be lobbying to change that so that in different years it is held in a variety of places that represent different faiths and no faith. I don’t know what the demographics in Chesterfield are in terms of how much different groups are represented and therefore what venues are available, but in principle, if the ceremony is in a CoE church one year, I’d probably want to see it held in a Mosque or a Buddhist centre or a humanist centre the following year, and so on. (Hopefully that would address @Paul Holmes’ concerns about inclusivity)

  • Brad Barrows 12th Oct '21 - 7:03pm

    Each country decides which marriages it recognises and who is entitled to be ‘joined in matrimony’. I can’t speak for England but, in Scotland, those who opt for a religious or humanist wedding can do so but then followed by the formal part required for civil marriage so that the marriage is recognised. The state can not (and should not) order a faith group to perform religious marriage ceremonies that go against their beliefs and, similarly, the state would not recognise religious marriages that did not meet the legal requirements for a civil marriage.
    But on to the bigger issue – why is a Council holding an “act of worship and blessing for the Mayor..”? If the Mayor happens to be a member of a faith group, there may be a valid reason for that group to wish to organise an act of worship and blessing, but Councils should not be organising such events.

  • Laurence Cox 12th Oct '21 - 7:54pm

    The difficulty that the Church of England has, is that even if its General Synod were to decide to allow same-sex marriages it cannot change the Law. See :

    https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/30/part/1/enacted

    specifically paragraphs (3), (4) and (5) of section 1 of Part 1.

    As you can see, this was passed when we were in the Coalition Government and our Party did not take the opportunity to allow the CofE to opt in to same-sex marriages. That would have placed the responsibility on General Synod to decide, which in my view as a member of the CofE, is the right place for the decision to be made. Establishment is a shackle on the CofE’s freedom to change with the times.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 12th Oct '21 - 10:55pm

    Ed is a fine person and is a man of principle.

    I think he and others here are correct with the suggestion these sorts of events ought to be in secular and non denominational locations.

    At a point when covid is yet rife the internet is the best area to gather and support each other, as our party has now done with conferences and more ought to also.

  • Toby Keynes 13th Oct '21 - 9:49am

    @Lawrence Cox: “As you can see, this was passed when we were in the Coalition Government and our Party did not take the opportunity to allow the CofE to opt in to same-sex marriages. That would have placed the responsibility on General Synod to decide, which in my view as a member of the CofE, is the right place for the decision to be made.”
    Well, yes, but the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act included the provisions that do not allow the Church of England to conduct same-sex marriages were inserted at the demand of…the Church of England.

    You can hardly blame our coalition ministers for agreeing to allow the Church of England to put shackles on its own activities, as a price worth paying for getting this hugely important legislation through.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 13th Oct '21 - 11:30am

    Ed’s posting makes me very sad. I say this as a practicing paid up member of the C of E. It isn’t up to us members of congregations to set the rules.
    there are lots of things in the C of E that I have and have had great disagreements with ( as with the Lib Dems!), such as remarriage of divorcees for instance, but at the end of the day, as @SimonR says “I also believe that liberalism requires tolerance of and respect for other peoples’ deeply held beliefs, even when you disagree with them, and even if you feel those beliefs are hurtful to yourself”.
    When I was Mayor of Stockton, I had to take on all sorts of traditions that I certainly hadn’t invented, but it was part of the job, and changing them was not possible, although adapting them was sometimes.
    At my Mayor’s Service as well as the traditional Mayor making I made a point of inviting all the different faith leaders to both, and they had a part in the service or welcome. I made alterations to the words in the service to make it more inclusive for those of no or other faiths. So some compromise is possible, on all sides, even within the C of E.
    Some good news is the celebration being lauded by the Durham Diocese of Sunderland. https://durhamdiocese.org/sunderland-minister-officially-titled-an-inclusive-church/?fbclid=IwAR39nZHyF4ZUO4lY-p6CNsKxhF_TB3xO82Ltri3m5kmCLKn6ibT1iH9IIxA OK it doesn’t actually cover gay marriage, but is a big and a public step forward.
    I hope and pray that Ed and all those in a similar position will one day feel included and comfortable in a C of E Church. God already does, I believe, just needs the establishment to catch up!

  • Steve Comer 14th Oct '21 - 7:50am

    I think Ed and Paul raise an important issue. Many Councils still base their civic clandar on the assumption that a majority of its residents are practising Christians.

    I served as a Liberal/Lib Dem Councillor in Bristol for a total of 12 years. There were a number of civic services held every year, As a Humanist I did not feel comfartable attending these, and went to just one – a URC service that was held in my ward. I went to that as most of the congregation were local, and one regularly deivered our Focus leaflets, so it was sort of recognition!

    I also used to do Remberance Sunday as a mark of respect to those who had lost loved ones in Wars. Bristol did broaden the range of speakers and Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim speakers were added to the usual C&E, RC, and Nonconformist list. However attempts to get a Humanist to take part in the celebrations were refused by the organisers..

  • I’m not sure if this is a badly expressed point or a badly thought through position.

    I could understand not attending on the basis that the service is a Church of England service (thst is a matter of discussion as to roles etc), but because of who owns the venue is a very odd choice.

    Would the councilor refuse to attend a charity event because they had rented the venue from a church he disagrees with? Would he refuse to attend the opening of a local business because the shopping centre it was in had owners he dislikes?

    There is a significant difference between not attending a religious ceremony and refusing to enter a building owned by a particular religious group. It is important to be clear about which you are doing. I’m assuming the actual issue is the ceremony was a particular religion.

  • By coincidence, Suzanne Fletcher and I were Mayors of our respective Boroughs at the same time, so we compared notes on a number of things.

    I too am a practicing Christian and a member of the Church of England, but during my year as Mayor I set up a group to look at Faith in Civic Life. Membership of the group included local leaders of all the main faiths. We decided to hold three civic services during my year – one in the mosque, one in the synagogue and one in my own church. Each service was held in the style of the “home” place of worship but all were warmly welcomed and plenty of explanation given about what was happening. Inspired by a practice in the synagogue, each visitor was assigned to a member of the congregation who welcomed them and answered any questions. People could take part or observe – whichever felt comfortable to them.

    For many years before (starting when my husband was in post) Mayors in Kingston have always appointed a team of chaplains to cover the range of faith and beliefs, including a Humanist.

    This does not directly address Ed’s conflict over the position of the CofE on equal marriage. Although it is not a total answer he should be aware that many ordinary members like me have been pushing for change for many years, and we are making some progress. The church is currently in the middle of a widespread consultation under the theme “Living in Love and Faith” which brings members together for a series of discussions on the issues. Many of us are hopeful that it will lead to change.

    Also, Laurence Cox makes a good point. We could have insisted on removing the exemption during Coalition which would have left the decision to Synod.

  • @Steve Comer. Just as, for example, Radio 4’s morning Thought for Today slot refuses to have Humanist contributions.

    Just as, even within the Lib Dems, a constant eye has to be kept on Conference motions that will sometimes default to talk of consulting and working with Faith Groups in the community as if secular community groups and viewpoints don’t exist.

    Just as the 1988 Education Act, amended in the Lords by State Bishops, still contains legal strictures about compulsory daily acts of worship and an hour a weeks ‘mainly’ christian religious education in schools.

    Just as I was unable as an MP to reserve a seat in the House of Commons (seating only available for about two thirds of MP’s but you can reserve a spot by going in early and putting a green name card in your chosen spot) unless I attended ‘Prayers’ immediately before the Day’s session began.

    I do realise of course that the latter problem is a bit of a minority concern amongst the population as a whole!

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