Coming from a number of venues now, we're seeing stories like this one from The Telegraph's political editor, Patrick Hennessy, reporting that civil partnerships could be recognized in English churches:
Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat equalities minister, is expected shortly to outline firm plans to lift the current ban on civil partnerships being conducted in places of worship.
In a political "win" for Nick Clegg and his party, the Coalition will also say that such ceremonies should for the first time be allowed to have a religious element, such as hymn-singing and readings from the Bible.
They could, it is understood, also be carried out in the future out by priests or other religious figures.
The landmark move will please equality campaigners but is likely to prompt a fierce backlash from mainstream Christian leaders, as well as some Right-leaning Tories.
There are no plans to compel religious organisations to hold ceremonies and the Church of England has said it would not allow its churches to be used.
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said the change was "long overdue".
Civil partnership ceremonies are currently entirely secular.
From The Guardian:
The Home Office said: "The government is currently considering what the next stage should be for civil partnerships, including how some religious organisations can allow same-sex couples to register their relationship in a religious setting if they wish to do so."
The move, likely to come as early as next year, would mean historic reforms of marriage laws, according to newspaper reports over the weekend. However, it will cause ructions among churches strongly opposed to formal gay unions.
However, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, gave the news a guarded welcome. He told the BBC1's Andrew Marr Show that he "believes in a liberal democracy, and actually wants equality with everybody", but he did not want churches to be told what to do.
Another Telegraph item runs under the headline "Sentamu: don't force churches to conduct gay weddings" and includes the following:
Some critics fear the reforms could pave the way for legal challenges that would force vicars to conduct homosexual “wedding” ceremonies against their will.
Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, told BBC One’s Andrew Marr show: “I live in a liberal democracy and I want equality for everybody. I cannot say the Quakers shouldn’t do it.
“Nor do I want somebody to tell me the Church of England must do it or the Roman Catholic Church must do it because actually that is not what equality is about.”
Also widely reported are the comments of a Church of England spokesperson:
We have yet to see the proposals, so cannot comment in detail. Given the Church's view on the nature of marriage, the House of Bishops has consistently been clear that the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register civil partnerships.
The proposal as reported could lead to inconsistencies with civil marriage, have unexplored impacts, and lead to confusion.
Any change could therefore only be brought after proper and careful consideration of all the issues involved.
UPDATE: A February 2010 letter to The Times was signed by a number of key church leaders including Oxford's Diarmaid MacCulloch, Jeffrey John and the late Colin Slee. They wrote:
Sir, The Civil Partnership Act 2004 prohibits civil partnerships from being registered in any religious premises in Great Britain. Three faith communities — Liberal Judaism, the Quakers, and the Unitarians — have considered this restriction prayerfully and decided in conscience that they wish to register civil partnerships on their premises. An amendment to the Equality Bill, to allow this, was debated in the House of Lords on January 25. It was opposed by the Bishops of Winchester and Chichester on the grounds that, if passed, it would put unacceptable pressure on the Church of England. The former said that “churches of all sorts really should not reduce or fudge, let alone deny, the distinction” between marriage and civil partnership.
In the same debate, the bishops were crucial in defeating government proposals to limit the space within which religious bodies are exempt from anti-discrimination law. They see that as a fundamental matter of conscience. But it is inconsistent to affirm the spiritual independence of the Church of England and simultaneously to deny the spiritual independence of the three small communities who seek this change for themselves (and not for anybody else).
The bishops’ “slippery slope” argument is invalid. Straight couples have the choice between civil marriage and religious marriage. Gay couples are denied a similar choice. To deny people of faith the opportunity of registering the most important promise of their lives in their willing church or synagogue, according to its liturgy, is plainly discriminatory. In the US it would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise . . . of religion.