The advent of Civil Partnerships later this year presents a challenge to the Church of England as it seeks to bear faithful witness to the gospel in our society and to guide Christians in their Christian discipleship. Fulcrum believes that the House of Bishops and the wider Church have been placed in a difficult situation by the government's decision to initiate this legislation. It establishes the ambiguous category of 'civil partner' in the law of the land and grants those who become civil partners legal rights that churches and other bodies must recognise. We are grateful to the House of Bishops for their carefully crafted Pastoral Letter in response to this new situation but remain concerned that there are some serious flaws and that important issues still need to be addressed by the Church as it prepares for civil partnerships to become a reality in the church and wider society.
- Its restatement of Christian teaching on marriage
- Its reaffirmation of Anglican teaching on sexual relationships that "sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively"
- Its upholding of the 1987 General Synod motion, Issues in Human Sexuality and 1998 Lambeth I.10
- Its clear statement that "it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships" and that "clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership".
- Its reminder that "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" and the need to "respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case".
- Its clear qualification of the statement that it "does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders" with the proviso 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".
- Its cautionary note that "because of the ambiguities surrounding the character and public nature of civil partnerships, the House of Bishops would advise clergy to weigh carefully the perceptions and assumptions which would inevitably accompany a decision to register such a relationship".
We are, however, concerned that:
- It fails to offer a stronger prophetic critique of the government's clearly stated intention to construct civil partnerships so that they are quasi-marriages and to enable same-sex couples to receive most of the benefits of marriage. This intention and the popular perception of civil partnerships as 'gay marriage' clearly threatens to undermine the status of marriage in British society.
- It has not taken this opportunity to offer a Christian framework in which to understand civil partnerships as an acceptable form of life for Christians but instead simply focuses on whether or not civil partners engage in sexual activity.
- It is unrealistic in believing there are a large number of celibate friendships that will seek to be recognised as civil partnerships. The reality is that most such friendships will not seek to become civil partnerships and almost all relationships that register as civil partnerships will be sexual relationships that seek recognition as a form of same-sex marriage.
- It implies that being in a sexually active relationship other than marriage is not to be considered an issue on which lay people can be questioned when presenting for baptism, confirmation or communion.
- It has accepted the Government can amend church legislation without wider consultation in the Church and that church law is currently being amended so as explicitly to treat civil partners as equivalent to spouses. This granting of civil partnerships a status in church law threatens to undermine the Church's teaching on marriage.
- It is unclear how assurances are to be given to bishops by those clergy entering civil partnerships or what should be done if such assurances are not given.
- Leaders of other Anglican provinces appear not to have been fully informed of the complexities and ambiguities in the legislation to which the Church of England has been forced to respond. As a result they have issued statements that misrepresent the Church of England as following the path of ECUSA and New Westminster when in fact it has restated its commitment to Communion teaching.
- One member of the House has already publicly broken with collegiality and distanced himself from the pastoral letter. Unless there remains a common commitment to church teaching and discipline within the House, there is a real risk that the levels of tension and disintegration witnessed in other provinces in relation to these issues could become a reality in the Church of England.
We continue to pray for wisdom, justice and compassion as the Civil Partnership Act becomes effective on 5 December 2005.
Andrew Goddard has been on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum since its launch in 2003. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics based in Cambridge (where he was previously Associate Director). He has taught Christian Ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Trinity College, Bristol and is also an Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a canon at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Minister at St James the Less, Pimlico where his wife, Lis, is Vicar. He is author of a number of books, most recently Rowan Williams: His Legacy (Lion, 2013) and co-editor with Andrew Atherstone of Good Disagreeement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church (Lion, 2015).