Church Services after a Civil Partnership Registration:
What is and is not permitted?
By Gavin Foster
What is a member of the clergy permitted to do when asked by a same-sex couple to provide a church service in recognition of their Civil Partnership? On the face of it the answer would seem to be clear. In 2005 The House of Bishops issued a “Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships;” a House of Bishops statement is not, directly at least, Canon law, but it is a document of high authority, indicative of the doctrine of the church, and not to be readily dismissed. It stated:
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. (para.17)
Yet for some time now there have been those who have argued that this statement is not as clear as it first appears. They have encouraged clergy to respond pastorally to same-sex couples by providing church services which, they claim, do not contravene the Bishops’ guidance. Inclusive Church has even published a sample order of service for just such occasions.
This discussion has come to prominence again in the last few months. In July 2011 the House of Bishops announced that it intended to review the Pastoral Statement. The working group will have much to consider: the law has continued to develop, with the removal of the prohibition on Civil Partnership registrations taking place on religious premises, and the Government’s announcement that it intends to move towards “equal civil marriage” for same-sex couples.1 A number of senior figures in the Church of England have spoken out in favour of committed same-sex relationships, and the new Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Rev’d David Ison, has called on the Church to embrace gay marriage, revealing that he has previously held services of blessing for same sex couples at Bradford Cathedral and would consider doing the same at St Paul’s (The Times, 8 March 2012). Such services rely on an argument recently repeated by Giles Fraser in the Church Times (Comment, 10 February 2012) that clergy are entitled to offer church service to couples who have already entered into a Civil Partnership at the registry office:
[T]he clergy are perfectly entitled to conduct a service along the lines of that provided for those who have entered into a civil marriage; for this is not a service of blessing, but one of “dedication and thanksgiving.”
But is this argument right? I would argue that it is plainly not right – and indeed that this is a conclusion which can only be reached by quoting one or two sentences from the House of Bishops’ statement out of context. Indeed, a service for a same-sex couple along the lines of that provided for those who have entered into a civil marriage would be a very clear breach of the House of Bishops’ guidance and it is simply incorrect to suggest otherwise.
The Permissive Argument
The Rev’d Brian Lewis’ article, “What services are Clergy permitted to offer couple in same sex relationships in the Church of England?” (published on the Inclusive Church website, alongside a sample order of service) sets out the argument in favour of offering church services to same-sex couples. The case is elegantly and simply made: The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement is clear that clergy are not authorised to offer “Services of Blessing.” But the service offered to opposite-sex couples after a civil wedding is not a “Service of Blessing,” it is a “Service of Prayer and Dedication.” Even though the Common Worship Order for Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Wedding includes prayers for God’s blessing and words of blessing spoken over the couple, Brian Lewis argues, the service is “explicitly declared not to be a Service of Blessing.” There is therefore nothing to prevent a similar service being offered to a same-sex couple after a Civil Partnership registration; it would not contravene the House of Bishops’ guidance because it is not a “Service of Blessing”.
The argument is taken on further by others. In a letter to the Church Times (2 March 2012) referring back to legal advice which he gave to clergy in 2008, the Chancellor of London, Nigel Seed QC, highlighted the fact that the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement actually encourages clergy to engage positively with same-sex couples who request a blessing:
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. (para. 18)
The statement is noticeably ambiguous about whether such pastorally sensitive prayer should be offered privately with the couple, or in public - perhaps even in the form of a service. But how would such a service be framed, given that the Bishops themselves have declined to produce “an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships” (para.17)? The answer, Nigel Seed suggests, is that Canon B5 permits clergy “on occasions for which no provision is made... to use forms of service considered suitable by him for those occasions,” provided that “all variations in forms of service and all forms of service used under this Canon shall be reverent and seemly and shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.” Thus, Mr Seed concludes, “Unless and until the House of Bishops expressly forbids any form of prayers or church service at all after a civil-partnership ceremony, anything conforming to the above [Canon B5] is allowed.”
So the permissive argument is made. Not only is it possible to offer a church service to same-sex couples after a Civil Partnership registration, it is to be encouraged – and pretty much anything (as long as it avoids calling itself a “Service of Blessing”) is permissible.
Why the Permissive Argument is Simply Wrong
The permissive argument may be elegant and simply made, but it is also simply wrong, relying on selective quotations and sentences taken out of context. It is wrong both in the details and in the broad sweep.
Wrong in the details
The permissive argument begins to break down with Brian Lewis’ remarkable claim that the service of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage has been “explicitly declared not to be a Service of Blessing.” He is rather vague about who exactly made this explicit declaration, and when. In the end it is an assertion which seems to rest entirely on the fact that the service is entitled “An Order for Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage.” He bolsters this flimsy argument by consistently referring to “Services of Blessing” with capital letters in his article as if this, too, were a title for a service – yet the House of Bishops’ statement always has the phrase in lower case. This is plainly because it is not the title of a service, but simply a description of the sort of service the Bishops are talking about: one which involves blessing being sought and given. There are many ways to describe the service for Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage – it is a public service, it is a pastoral service, and it is certainly a service of blessing, as the couple kneel before the priest and words of blessing are spoken over them. None of these descriptions are inaccurate simply because of the title of the service.
Put it another way: if the Bishops did not intend to advise against services of blessing in the broad, descriptive sense of any service including a blessing, what did they intend to advise against? There is no service entitled “a service of blessing” (with or without capital letters) in the published liturgies.
What, then, of the exhortation to clergy to pray with the couple “pastorally and sensitively”? What this prayer should look like – whether private or public – is certainly ambiguous. It would seem that the Pastoral Statement does not, at the very least, rule out a public service of prayer. But the sentence quoted by Mr Seed comes at the end of a paragraph of careful context-setting, which Mr Seed seems (surprisingly) to have overlooked:
18. It will be important, however, to bear in mind that registered partnerships do allow for a range of different situations- including those where the relationship is simply one of friendship. Hence, 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.
Placed back into its original context, the exhortation to clergy looks very different. It is not (as Mr Seed would have us believe) an invitation to use Canon B5 to side-step the Bishops’ guidance and produce liturgies which the Bishops have inexplicably failed to produce and authorise themselves. It is a recognition of the possibility that a Civil Partnerships may not be sexual and that – perhaps rarely, but perfectly properly - there may be occasions on which it is right for the Church to recognise and pray for such a friendship.
We must take our argument a little further, however. If “a service of blessing” is clearly a description rather than a title for a service, it is nonetheless (as Nigel Seed highlights) an undefined phrase. If it is read to mean “a service which includes words of blessing spoken over the couple,” is it nonetheless possible to devise an affirming service in connection with a Civil Partnership registration which carefully avoids using words of blessing? Would such a service be compatible with the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement?
As all good lawyers know (and many lay people, too, for it is a matter of common sense) if a phrase is undefined we must look first to the context to understand it. To answer these questions, therefore, we must look at the broad sweep of the House of Bishops’ statement.
Wrong in the broad sweep
The House of Bishops’ guidance is not a parliamentary statute, nor a set of codified regulations to be pored over and deconstructed by lawyers. It is a pastoral statement, intended to be read and understood by everyone. It carefully builds an argument, setting itself in a specific context and reaching a clear conclusion. If it is to be understood properly it should be read as a whole, not sentence by sentence. It is clearly written and easy to read, and I would encourage everyone reading this article to read it for themselves here.
The Bishops’ statement sets itself very clearly in a context. The following quotations give a flavour of that context:
2. It has always been the position of the Church of England that marriage is a creation ordinance, a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace. Marriage, defined as a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman, is central to the stability and health of human society. It continues to provide the best context for the raising of children…
4. In the light of this understanding the Church of England teaches that “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively" (Marriage: a teaching document of the House of Bishops, 1999). 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...
6. The key Church statements, each with their own distinctive status, are rehearsed at more length in paragraphs 1.3.16-33 of Some Issues in Human Sexuality. In summary they are:
- The General Synod motion of November 1987 which affirms that ‘homosexual genital acts’ fall short of the Christian ideal and are to be met ‘with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion’;
- The House of Bishops’ statement of December 1991 – Issues in Human Sexuality – which states that ‘heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of Creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry’, that the conscientious decision of those who enter into homophile relationships must be respected and that the Church must not ‘reject those who sincerely believe it is God’s call to them’. Nevertheless, because of ‘the distinctive nature of their calling, status and consecration’ the clergy ‘cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships’;
- The 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10, which drew a clear distinction between homosexual orientation and practice, rejecting the latter as ‘incompatible with Scripture’ while calling on ‘all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all’. It also recorded that the Conference ‘cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions’. This resolution, like Issues in Human Sexuality, called for continued listening to the experiences of gay and lesbian people...
16. The House believes that the practice of the Church of England needs to reflect the pastoral letter from the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Pentecost 2003 which said:
‘The question of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites’.
17. One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the new legislation 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 it would not be right to produce an authorised 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 carefully set out context and the final conclusion of the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement may, I suggest, be summarised as follows:
1. These matters are sensitive and “still a cause of potentially divisive controversy” (para.16); they need to be handled carefully.
2. Nonetheless, the Church’s teaching (drawn from the Book of Common Prayer, the House of Bishops, General Synod, the Lambeth Conference and the Primates) is clear: “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively” (para.4).
3. “The Church’s teaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged” by this Pastoral Statement (para.27). Consistent with that wider teaching – that the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions cannot be advised (para.6) – 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 (para.17).
4. This Pastoral Statement nonetheless confirms the importance of ministering to all people pastorally and sensitively; of listening to the experiences of gay and lesbian people, and avoiding rejecting those who sincerely believe it is God’s call to them (para.6).
So, in the light of the Bishops’ statement read as a whole, is it possible to offer an affirmative service in connection with a Civil Partnership registration which carefully avoids using words of blessing? I would argue that (apart from the very specific situation of a non-sexual relationship of friendship, addressed in paragraph 18) it is not. It is not an oversight which caused the Bishops to fail to produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with Civil Partnerships (para.17). The advice that clergy “should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership” comes very clearly in the context of the Church’s teaching that sexual same-sex relationships fall short of God’s purposes for humanity. The phrase “services of blessing” should therefore be understood in a way which is consistent with that context – namely, that clergy should not provide any service which suggests that the Church, acting on Christ’s authority, blesses (in the broad sense of affirming, commending or legitimising) that relationship.
Finally, then, let us summarise what is and is not permitted by the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement.
What is not permitted
- It is quite plain, then, that Giles Fraser’s suggestion that “clergy are perfectly entitled to conduct a service along the lines of that provided for those who have entered into a civil marriage” is simply incorrect. A service along the lines of the “Order for Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Wedding” would include words of blessing spoken over the couple, and would undoubtedly be a “service of blessing,” contrary to the House of Bishops’ statement.
- Likewise, the sample Order of Service published by Inclusive Church on its website is clearly a service of blessing. The introductory sentences invoke “God’s blessing on their lives” while the Questions of Intent invite the couple to “offer [their] lives together for God’s blessing.” Furthermore, it is clearly contrary to the general sweep of the House of Bishops’ advice, inviting the congregation to “celebrate and affirm the commitment of N & M to each other.”
- In short, any service which seeks to bless a same-sex relationship - in the broad sense of affirming, commending or legitimising it, contrary to the teachings of the Church – fails to comply with the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement.
What is permitted
- Paragraph 18 of the Pastoral Statement considers situations “where the relationship is simply one of friendship.” Such relationships are not contrary to the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics; indeed, they may be affirmed as demonstrating “the positive value of committed friendships in the Christian tradition.” Where such people approach the clergy asking for prayer in relation to their Civil Partnership – whether privately, or in a public rite – clergy should respond pastorally and sensitively, perhaps using Canon B5 to devise a suitable service.
- Is it possible to envisage a public service relating to a sexually active Civil Partnership which avoids affirming, commending, legitimising or blessing that relationship? Perhaps – although it is hard to imagine what such a service would contain, or why anyone would want it.
As we have seen, those who have encouraged services for Civil Partners have built a strong claim on some very weak foundations. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they have wilfully taken one or two sentences from the Pastoral Statement out of context in order to manipulate its meaning and to promote their own cause.
There is a real debate to be had about whether the Church ought to modify the position which it has repeatedly and consistently stated. It is a debate worth having, and I agree with the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Salisbury that such a debate needs to take place openly and honestly. I, for my part, remain open minded about where that debate might take us. But the position of the Church has been plainly stated numerous times through a whole range of instruments of the Church – including the Lambeth Conference, the Primates, the House of Bishops and General Synod - and it is not right to manipulate and misrepresent the Church’s existing position in order to short-circuit that debate.
1 Government Equalities Office, “Summary of Responses. Civil Partnerships on Religious Premises: A Consulation.”, November 2011, para. 1.17
Rev'd Gavin Foster is the Curate of St Mary's Church, Weymouth in the Radipole & Melcombe Regis team. He is a former barrister and a student of Canon Law at the University of Cardiff.
These posts are by guest authors for Fulcrum