By Mark Michael

Church of England clergy may not bless civil partnerships of any kind, according to a ruling by the church’s House of Bishops in a pastoral statement issued January 23. The teaching document, which was released a month after new laws permitting opposite-sex civil partnerships took effect, emphasized that the church’s doctrine is unchanged, “that marriage between a man and a woman is the proper context for sexual intercourse.” The directives were nearly identical to those issued by the bishops in 2005, when same-sex civil partnerships were introduced.

Civil partnerships for same-sex couples became legal in England and Wales in 2004, as a way of providing access to tax, inheritance, and property benefits extended to married couples. The number of civil partnerships has fallen sharply since same-sex marriage was authorized by Parliament in 2013. However, there are 3.3 million cohabiting heterosexual couples in the UK, and the government estimates that as many as 84,000 of them will enter civil partnerships in 2020.

The bishops focused on the ambiguous meaning of civil partnerships, which “leave entirely open the nature of the commitment that members of a couple choose to make to each other.” Unlike marriage, civil partnerships are “not predicated on the intention to engage in a sexual relationship,” but neither do they exclude this.

Civil partnerships are also, the bishops pointed out, decidedly secular. In the 2018 UK Supreme Court case that led to the legislation, civil partnership advocates pled for them citing “the desire for a publicly authorized institution which explicitly rejected the perceived religious connotations of marriage.” Partnership registrations also cannot, by law, include religious ceremonies or take place in houses of worship.

“One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the civil partnerships legislation,” the statement continues, “is that people in a variety of relationships will be eligible to register as civil partners, some living consistently with the teaching of the Church, others not. In these circumstances, the House continues to believe that it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships. In addition, the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.”

The parish clergy should expect requests for such blessings, the bishops added. While ultimately obliged to decline these requests, they should respond graciously, especially since some civil partnerships may be abstinent friendships. “Clergy need to have regard to the teaching of the church on sexual morality, celibacy, and the positive value of committed friendships in the Christian tradition. Where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.”

The pastoral statement does not impose any church discipline on lay people who choose to enter civil partnerships. “Lay people who have registered civil partnerships,” it says, “ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and communion.” The provision also applies to the baptism of infants born to parents in civil partnerships.

The clergy are not barred from entering civil partnerships, as they are not “intrinsically incompatible with holy orders.” However, clergy who choose to enter them should be willing to provide assurances that they are celibate relationships. Clergy and candidates for holy orders who enter opposite-sex civil partnerships “should expect to be asked to explain their understanding of the theological and social meanings of their decision,” because the partnerships are purposefully differentiated from Christian marriage.

The statement envisages that legal permission may be given in the future for converting marriages to civil partnerships. It notes that clergy who would choose to take such an action would be subject to the same discipline as divorced clergy because such a conversion in the legal status of the relationship would involve repudiation of the marriage vows.

The statement recognizes that some clergy will object to its directives. It encourages them to engage in the process of discussion and discernment about human sexuality in the church associated with the major report, Living in Love and Faith, which is expected to be released before this summer’s Lambeth Conference.  “While clergy are fully entitled to argue, in the Living in Love and Faith process and elsewhere, for a change in that teaching,” the statement says, “they are not entitled to claim the liberty to set it aside.”

Living in Love and Faith, its drafters say, “is propelled by the Church’s desire to learn how relationships, marriage and sexuality fit within the bigger picture of a humanity that is liberated by Jesus Christ and infused by the Spirit to reflect the image of God in which we are created.” The major report will be based on insights from “the Bible, theology, history and the social and biological sciences.” The decision to take up such a large project arose in part from General Synod’s 2017 failure to receive a report from the House of Bishops reiterating the Church of England’s traditional stance on same-sex marriage.

In this time of discernment, the pastoral statement’s clear assertion of the Church’s traditional sexual ethic is significant. The bishops note, for example that when Parliament authorized same-sex marriage in 2013, “a substantive gap emerged between the Church’s understanding of marriage and that of the State.” The concluding section opens, “With opposite sex civil partnerships, and with those for same sex couples, the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged. For Christians, marriage – that is the lifelong union between a man and a woman, contracted with the making of vows – remains the proper context for sexual activity.”

Supporters of LGBT inclusion in the Church of England expressed strong opposition to the statement.  Jayne Ozanne, a member of General Synod who has publicly advocated for change, told The Daily Telegraph, “I am sadly unsurprised by the content of this statement but I am deeply saddened by its tone.” She added, “It will appear far from ‘pastoral’ to those it affects and shows little evidence to those wishing the Church will help them celebrate their loving committed relationships of the ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ that we have been promised.”

This Saturday, the Ven. Cherry Vann, a priest of the Church of England who is in a same-sex civil partnership, will be consecrated as Bishop of Monmouth in the Church in Wales.  The Church in Wales authorized prayers that can be used to mark the forming of a civil partnership in 2016, and does not require sexual abstinence of clergy in civil partnerships.  A 2015 vote that would have authorized same-sex marriage fell short of the 2/3 majority needed for passage, but the Church’s governing body said in 2018 that it was “pastorally unsustainable for the Church to make no formal provision for those in same-gender relationships”

The conservative evangelical Church Society, by contrast, was clearly pleased with the pastoral statement, commenting on its blog, “Given the confusion in our culture, and even in many of our churches, we believe the House of Bishops should be thanked for making such a courageous and counter-cultural statement.”

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