Churches in Northern Ireland received a letter from the General Register Office, warning them they face ‘deregistration’ unless they complete a form saying whether or not they will perform same-sex weddings.
Deregistration would strip churches of the right to conduct weddings. The letter has since been recalled following pressure from The Christian Institute.
Officials have apologised, saying the letter was sent out in error. But churches are concerned it reveals the true mindset of those who regulate the registration of marriages in the Province.
The General Register Office is part of the Department of Finance (DoF) headed by Sinn Féin figure Conor Murphy.
The GRO letter insisted that following the legalisation of gay marriage, all churches had to declare whether they will offer same-sex marriages, opposite-sex marriages, or both.
Responses had to be in by Monday, 17 August. If churches didn’t reply in time, the letter said, ‘it will be assumed that you and other members of the church no longer wish to be registered as officiants for any type of marriage.
‘We will cancel the registrations on the officiant database accordingly, and you will not be able to carry out any marriage ceremonies.’
The Christian Institute described it as ‘an ultimatum’ which was both ‘threatening’ and ‘intimidating’. The GRO responded with a statement calling its letter ‘an error’.
The statement said, ‘We apologise for this. We will be issuing an updated letter to all religious bodies to clarify that all religious officiants on the Registrar General’s current register are regarded as opted out of performing same sex marriages.
‘No officiants will be removed from the register and any religious bodies wishing to perform same sex marriages must opt in by completing the form issued with the letter.’
The Christian Institute’s Simon Calvert said he was ‘grateful’ for the response. But he added, ‘Quite how this letter came to be issued in the first place is a question which has yet to be answered.
‘It was a crass way to handle an issue that is highly controversial amongst the churches, the vast majority of which believe as a matter of deep doctrinal conviction that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.’