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The very human face of civil unions

By Paul Titus

New Zealand’s civil union legislation came into affect in April, 2005. A civil union gives same-sex and opposite-sex couples the option to enter into a legal relationship that carries the same rights and obligations as marriage.

In its first year less than 400 couples opted for civil union. While the numbers are not large, the choice of civil union is very important for some couples.

Rev Kathryn Walters knows civil unions from both sides of the altar. Kathryn has conducted two civil union ceremonies as a celebrant, and in May she and partner Viv Patterson were joined in their own civil union.

While all three civil unions Kathyrn has had a role in were for same-sex couples, about one sixth of civil unions join heterosexual couples. One of them is director of Wesley Community Action David Hanna and his partner Bronwen Olds.

Kathryn says the main reason she and Viv opted for a civil union was to celebrate their relationship.

“We were living together for several years so we were not looking for authentication of our relationship. And we had gone through the legal process to establish our rights over one another, so it wasn’t about legal protection.

“We wanted to give others a chance to affirm our relationship in a ceremony and that is exactly what happened. Our civil union affirmed for our family and friends that we are serious and that this is a relationship based on love, mutual respect, and laughter – all the things we hope marriage would have.

“Having a ceremony allowed those close to us to be part of that. Afterwards I had the feeling that they really got it. They understood that gay relationships are not dissimilar to heterosexual relationships. It totally blew away any sense that our relationship is wrong, corrupt, or somehow a pretend marriage.”

Viv and Kathryn’s civil union was conducted by Rev Susan Thompson at St Paul’s Methodist Church in Hamilton. Kathryn says as a Christian it was important that her ceremony was held in a church because it was a chance to express the sacredness of love.

“A number of people told us it was the most beautiful and sacred ceremony they have ever been to. It was relaxed and a mix of formal and informal elements with a high level of participation.”

Kathryn says her congregation, Durham Street Methodist Church in Christchurch, has shown overwhelming generosity and support to her and Viv. They have embraced Viv as one of their own and before the civil union they organised a surprise party to celebrate. It was also affirming to Kathryn that the Central South Island synod sent flowers and a card of congratulations.

Rather than mark the beginning of a relationship David and Bronwen’s civil union was a chance to restate their long-standing commitment to one another in a way that included their growing family. Although David and Bronwen never legally wed, their civil union took place on the anniversary of a covenant service they held to publicly declare their commitment to one another 20 years ago.

“Our civil union didn’t make our commitment to one another more real or authentic, we did that in our covenant celebration. When we were in our 20s we were strongly passionate about the need to create sustainable, just relationships. Our research into patriarchy and marriage found that it came out of property law and common law. The church only reluctantly picked marriage up over a long period of time,” David says.

“We wanted to avoid some unhelpful historical baggage so we designed our own covenant service and we created our own legal framework – called a cohabitation agreement. We were excited and passionate about it but we were also a bit na?ve because we were Methodist youth directors at the time. It caused a bit of a stir but ultimately the Conference decided our commitment met their definition of Christian marriage.” reflects Bronwen.

“Christians should be concerned with caring and just intimate relationships. This involves critical reflection on what’s important and not limiting our focus to popular social norms. A narrow fixation on our current definition of marriage could mean our ability to contribute to discussions about this is restricted.”

David and Bronwen opted for civil union for several reasons. One is that while their covenant relationship is well established, in the law it was a de facto relationship. The civil union clarifies their legal status.

It was also a chance to reaffirm their covenant in a public ritual – highlighting the on-going importance of many relationships, family and friends, to sustain their commitment. In their case it was a ritual about ‘being family’ in which their four children, aged six to 19 could also take part.