In late July, not long after the General Synod had closed and
long before the next one was due to meet, the House of Bishops
issued a pastoral statement regarding Civil Partnerships (CPs).
The statement addresses four main issues:
- The Church’s response to this development and its
teaching about marriage.
- The practicalities of whether civil partnerships can take
place in Church or whether a service of prayer and dedication
should take place.
- Implications where a clergyman or woman enters into a CP.
- Implications where lay people enter into a CP and of ministering
to lay people in such relationships.
As is well known the House of Bishops is utterly divided on
moral issues (and most other things). Since some Bishops had
argued actively in favour of CPs in the House of Lords expectations
for this statement were already low.
teaching about marriage
The statement opens reasonably well with a reiteration of the
Church’s teaching on marriage, and, in particular that
Sexual relationships outside marriage, whether heterosexual
or between people of the same sex, are regarded as falling
short of God’s purposes for human beings (Section 4).
From this point on however the statement is both confused and
confusing, a point well highlighted in the media reports.
The report manifestly fails in not rebuking same-sex intercourse
and by not discouraging Christians from entering into CPs.
What everyone sees in
the statement is deep hypocrisy because the Church teaches one
thing but allows, even encourages, people to do another. The hypocrisy
is compounded when clergy are even permitted to teach that sin
is acceptable, so long as they don’t actually do it themselves
(Section 22). I am reminded of the rebuke of the Lord Jesus in
Matthew chapter 15 verse 8 These people draw near to Me with
their mouth, and honour Me with their lips, but their heart is
far from Me.
It is important to consider to what extent CPs are the same as
marriage or not. If the legislation had simply permitted same-sex
marriage then this would have required that such same-sex marriages
be conducted in the established Church. However, in strict legal
terms a CP is not a marriage. This means that legislation relating
to marriage does not relate to CPs unless specifically changed.
At present there is therefore, apparently, no requirement to permit
the registration of CPs in a Church service.
It should also be said that even if the law had provided for
same-sex marriages the Church would be bound to reject this since
marriage is a creation ordinance. In marriage a man and woman
become one flesh, no same sex relationship can ever be this.
The fact that a CP is
not a marriage forms a large part of the defence of CPs in the
Bishops statement. However, in part their argument rests on the
honesty and integrity of the government, for, “The Government
has stated that it has no intention of introducing ‘same
–sex marriage’.” In fact although CPs are not
a legal form of marriage there has been a deliberate attempt to
make them as similar to marriage as possible. The Bishops argue
that there are differences particularly in that non-consummation
and infidelity are not grounds for annulment of CPs. The alternative
way of understanding this difference is that no-one expects such
relationships to be embarked on before consummation and the government
sees nothing fundamentally wrong with infidelity whether in CPs
If there is no issue as yet regarding
marriage ceremonies there will be pressure for a service of “blessing”
(or rather prayer and dedication) after a CP registration. On
this point the Bishops quote a letter from the Anglican Primates
of 2003 and say that they believe C of E practice should reflect
…... there is no theological consensus about same sex
unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation
of such rites
This was an entirely inadequate statement because it would not
rule out the use of unauthorised rites and suggests the question
is still unresolved. The Bishops do go on to say that clergy should
not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil
partnership but then confuses the matter by allowing that prayer
for such a relationship can be offered dependent upon the circumstances
of each case. This will provide a loophole, which some clergy
will exploit ruthlessly. Furthermore, if a clergyman should make
a business out of conducting such services the statement will
provide no basis for taking action against him. The failure to
oppose CPs outright has created these problems.
The confusion on this point and what
follows has been well reported in the media. Part of the reason
for this confusion is that the Bishops are talking about two different
things, and they do not always distinguish between them.
- First are those CPs where the couple are actively homosexual.
- Secondly are those CPs where the couple do not intend to
engage in homosexual sex.
The Bishops wish to
allow the possibility of the latter but not the former. But, in
order to maintain this distinction the whole thing becomes absurd.
This is again a consequence of focussing far too much on the sinful
act and not enough on the heart and on false teaching. We must
call Christians not to enter into CPs because they are in themselves
wrong, intended to encourage immoral behaviour and clearly a mockery
of marriage. By failing to oppose CPs absolutely the Bishops get
into a complete mess.
The Bishops are prepared for clergy to enter into a CP provided
that “the person concerned is willing to give assurances
to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with
the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality”.
In other words they must give assurances that their relationship
is non-sexual. These assurances would have to be public, otherwise
they will not avert scandal. To date, however, many of the Bishops
have in fact hidden behind Issues and refused to pry
into the private lives of clergy. This provision would only be
meaningful if the clergyman or woman concerned was prepared to
sign a written statement, which was then made public. Those who
are scandalised by this are likely to be those with something
to hide. But what will the Bishops do if someone simply refuses
It would be far simpler to say that any clergy who enter into
a CP must resign their office and that anyone in a CP cannot
be ordained. Anything else will not work and will discredit the
Church and its witness to the world.
Again in considering the question of laity the Bishops fall back
on the Issues report insisting that whilst the Church should
hold out the ideal it should not take action against those
who do not match up to that.
This matter is so crucial that it
is worth quoting the whole section:
23.The House considers that lay people who have registered
civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about
the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism,
confirmation and communion. Issues in Human Sexuality
made it clear that, while the same standards apply to all, the
Church did not want to exclude from its fellowship those lay people
of gay or lesbian orientation who, in conscience, were unable
to accept that a life of sexual abstinence was required of them
and instead chose to enter into a faithful, committed relationship.
There are two parts to this which are bad enough taken separately
but put together in this way they are a hideous betrayal of Christian
The first sentence concerns the admission of people to baptism,
confirmation and communion. On its own the Bishops are arguing
that someone in a CP should not be asked to give any assurances
about the nature of their relationship. However, if someone is
in a CP it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that they are actively
homosexual. Anglican doctrine (for example the preface to the
Communion Service) would require that a minister consider excluding
someone from the Lord’s Table. Admittedly discipline has
virtually broken down in the Church, yet the Bishops are arguing
that the question should never be asked, thus they flatly contradict
the doctrine they have sworn to uphold.
Now consider the second
statement which reiterates the arguments of Issues. What
is meant by the phrase ‘exclude from its fellowship’.
Evangelicals are regularly accused of being unloving, exclusivist
and so on (though discipline is an act of love and the failure
of discipline is to be unloving). Yet I would never wish to deprive
people of the opportunity to hear Christian teaching, or to receive
pastoral care and help. As Anglicans we do not exclude people
from our public services. Knowing this the Bishops clearly mean
something more. Coming on the heals of the statement about baptism,
confirmation and communion it is reasonable to conclude that this
is what they are talking about – admitting someone into
full membership and fellowship at the Lord’s table. But
think about what this means.
The Bishops have already said that sexual intercourse belongs
within marriage alone. But someone who openly rejects this and
lives in open sin is to be admitted to baptism and confirmation.
Thus they are encouraged to perjure themselves when asked to ‘repent
of their sins’ or alternatively the Church is to collude
in the deception that their behaviour is not sinful. Either way
this is a scandalous proposal.
After a promising start the Bishops statement rapidly degenerates.
It is not simply a matter of it being a bad statement, it is iniquitous
and any Bishop who persists in upholding it as a standard of Christian
behaviour is clearly unfit to exercise the office. How can we
be seen to undermine marriage in this way and to encourage people
into open sin?
We are grateful to God that one Bishop at least was prepared
to go public in lambasting the statement, sadly it as not a member
of the English House of Bishops but Archbishop Peter Akinola
of Nigeria who appeared to call for the Church of England to
be suspended from the Anglican Communion.
Key Issues Arising from the Civil Partnerships Act - Critique of the House of Bishops' response. Churchman article, Spring 2006, by Charles Raven.