Predictably Irrational?: The Church of England, Civil Partnerships and Same-sex marriage

Andrew reflects on often overlooked aspect of how decisions are shaped

Predictably Irrational?: The Church of England, Civil Partnerships and Same-sex marriage

by Andrew Goddard

One of the significant changes taking place in current Church of England debates is that there are now broadly three options whereas in the past there were only two options. The choice for some time has been between upholding the traditional view that the church should not commend any same-sex sexual relationship and the view that it should commend civil partnerships. Now, however, there is the real prospect of there being “marriage” for same-sex couples. What has not gained much attention is how this changing context is – often subconsciously - reshaping the discussion.

In his fascinating book, Predictably Irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions, Dan Ariely opens with a chapter on “The Truth about relativity”. He shows how in making decisions – about what to buy, about who is attractive – “most people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context”. As a result, how we frame choices can guide people to a particular answer. And the common answer can be – strictly and also predictably – irrational.

Two examples he gives are particularly relevant to current debates about Church of England responses in relation to same-sex relationships as we move from considering two to considering three different options.

Predictably irrational choices? Two examples

Ariely opens by describing different subscription offers for a journal. If you are offered a choice between an online subscription for £59 and a print and online subscription for £125 which would you choose? Probably the former – that is what most people do. Why pay an extra £66 to get a print version?

What if instead of that choice, the choice was between a print subscription at £125 and a print plus online subscription also at £125? Here clearly it is a no-brainer. You are getting more for the same price with the second option so you must go for that.

So, how, if you are offering subscriptions would you get someone to spend more money? Why not offer them all three options rather than two? Sounds silly? Well, what would you choose faced with the choice of three subscription options: £59 (online) or £125 (print) or £125 (print and online)?

Would you still go for the £59 online subscription?

Most people would actually now choose the £125 option with print and online subscription. But why should someone suddenly switch from preferring the £59 online option for a £125 print and online option? Simply because a second £125 option (print only) has been added into the mix and is clearly a worse option than the other £125 option. That other option should not switch the relative preferences between the original £59 and £125 options but it does. Suddenly – in what Ariely calls “predictably irrational” behaviour – people change their preferences. They opt to pay an extra £66 to add in a print subscription when faced with these three options rather than two.

An even more telling example he offers illustrates the similar reframing principles at work in relation to trying to sell televisions. Which televisions and how many televisions should the salesperson put on display together? It all depends which she wants to sell you. Choosing between different options isn’t easy for customers and so it all depends how the choice is framed. The clever salesperson “knows that given three choices, most people will take the middle choice (as in landing your plane between the runway lights)”. She therefore displays the one she wants to sell as the middle option and people are likely to opt for that. So if she wants to sell a stock of 42-inch Toshiba TVs she will put them on sale at £850 between a 36-inch Panasonic for £690 and a 50-inch Philips for £1480.

These unconscious, “predictably irrational” dynamics – changing preferences radically when given a choice between 3 rather than 2 options and tending to go for a middle choice - are, I believe, increasingly shaping the Church of England debate about same-sex relationships.

Predictably irrational choices about same-sex relationships?

We no longer have to choose between traditional teaching against same-sex relationships and supporting civil partnerships. Now we also have to consider supporting same-sex marriage. Suddenly the choices appear different as there are three options rather than two (as with the subscriptions). That means there is also now a new middle choice (as with the TVs).

Perhaps the clearest evidence of the possible outcome of this reframing was given recently by the Bishop of Liverpool in his final Diocesan Synod address. He rejected same-sex marriage, stressing that “there is a difference between heterosexual union and same gender intimacy and that it is appropriate to maintain that difference in the language we use”. But he then asked “if the Church now recognises Civil Partnerships to be a just response to the needs of gay people then surely the Church now has to ask the question whether or not it can deny the blessing of God to that which is just?”.

The changing framing of the question needs to be recognised. When civil partnerships were introduced, the House of Bishops had a choice between two options. They chose to be clear that they should uphold traditional teaching that sex was for heterosexual marriage (option A). They therefore expressed concerns that civil partnerships were modelled on marriage and were effectively same-sex marriage. They therefore rejected the alternative they had of embracing civil partnerships as a good to be commended and blessed (option B).

Now, however, with the possible introduction of a third option – gender-blind marriage (option C) – the discussion has been reframed. Suddenly, without having to think about it, civil partnerships appear to be more attractive. They seem the sensible middle choice (B) – the Toshiba TV the saleswoman wants to sell. They offer a via media between the traditional teaching (A) previously upheld and the new offer of same-sex marriage (C) which is now rejected.

The “hidden forces that shape our decisions” to make them “predictably irrational” follow the patterns Ariely’s work explores. There is a choice for option A (traditional teaching) when asked to choose between this and option B (moving to blessing of civil partnerships). However, once a new option C (affirming same-sex marriage) is introduced, that choice flips. There is now a preference for B rather than A. Why this change to prefer B rather than A? Often it is simply because a new option C (affirming same-sex marriage) is introduced. As a result the decision made changes (as with the subscription offers) especially as B presents itself as the middle option between A and C (as with the Toshiba TV).

Clearly that is not the only force at play. Some Anglicans fully supported civil partnerships from the start. Interestingly, many of them are now supporters of gender-blind marriage. Others have doubtless reflected on the experience of civil partnerships and changed their view of them and what the church should say about them. Many, however, are in danger of being “predictably irrational” and one sign of this is the lack of theological reasoning for shifting from A (the traditional position) to B (support for civil partnerships).

Theological reasoning required

There has been little or no new serious theological reasoning advanced as to why the original view of the bishops about civil partnerships was wrong. Without that being offered, there is the danger that the predictably irrational path is being followed without people realising this is what is happening.

In 2011, the House of Bishops set up the Sodor and Man group to review the 2005 statement on civil partnerships. They recognised that “there is a theological task to be done to clarify further our understanding of the nature and status of these partnerships”. Its findings have, however, never been published.

If that theological task has been done then it needs to be published urgently to counter the predictably irrational forces at play and assist in rational debate about how the church should respond to civil partnerships. The fact that the House of Bishops in December last year reaffirmed their 2005 statement suggests the Sodor and Man report did not give a convincing theological rationale for changing the church’s stance.

Most of the arguments advanced for civil partnerships now are no different from those advocated by civil partnership supporters at the time but rejected. They call for a revision of the traditional Christian sexual ethic, summed up by Archbishop Justin Welby in his recent Sunday Times interview as “whether it’s gay or straight, sex outside marriage is wrong”. If the church is to change its current stance on civil partnership it will need to rewrite, downplay or abandon that sexual ethic.

Two other factors at play

Another reason for the change in some people’s thinking is perhaps signalled by the Bishop of Liverpool’s statement that civil partnerships are “a just response to the needs of gay people”. It is indeed good, right and just that the growing number of committed same-sex partners in British society be given legal rights and protection through granting recognition in law to their relationships. But this does not mean that the recognition should take the quasi-marital form it does in civil partnerships and which the Church of England cautioned against and widely opposed. Nor does it follow that because something should be given legal recognition and regulation that it should therefore also be formally promoted and blessed by the church. Such an argument may not be predictably irrational but is certainly theological irrational.

There is, however, one rational element in the reframing we may be about to experience in British law. If same-sex couples are able to marry then the Christian criticism that civil partnerships are wrong because they are effectively same-sex marriages will have less force. It will remain the case that the legislation makes them marriage in all but name so the criticism will not be invalid. Nevertheless, anyone entering or remaining in a civil partnership will consciously have chosen not to classify their relationship as marriage. They thus will in some sense bear indirect witness to marriage as created by God. The difficulty is that this does not offer an argument for civil partnerships as sexual relationships and also that it may be a very minority witness.

The next challenge?

The current evidence is that the overwhelming majority of those in civil partnerships are likely to apply to be reclassified as married. It may well be that civil partnerships prove little more than a short-term stepping stone towards same-sex marriage, particularly for many Christians in same-sex unions. Among other challenges this new reality will also mean that the church could soon have clergy who are legally in a same-sex marriage. In other words, if the church moves to bless civil partnerships but continues to oppose same-sex marriage it will probably find itself doing so just as most gay and lesbian couples abandon that structure and ask instead for the church to marry them to their same-sex partner or bless their same-sex marriage. The period of choosing between three options may not last very long. In a short time the choice may be largely between upholding a traditional view of marriage and redefining marriage as the means of commending same-sex partnerships.


The Church of England cannot now run away from examination of its teaching in relation to same-sex relationships. It needs, however, to have a serious discussion involving theological reasoning. The danger is that it will instead simply embrace civil partnerships through playing catch-up with social changes and succumbing to forms of “predictably irrational” behaviour. Ironically, it may therefore act in a way that means it loses theological coherence and integrity, widens divisions within the Church of England and the Communion but still remains out of step with social change.

It would be much better were the Church of England to reaffirm traditional teaching and communicate that vision of human flourishing positively. It could then put its energies into commending those with same-sex attraction who embrace that teaching and pursue that vision and developing good forms of pastoral support for them while continuing to explore the appropriate pastoral responses to those who in conscience reject traditional and biblical teaching.

Leave a comment