Transcript of BBC Radio 5 Sunday Programme, 26 January 2020
Discussion on the Bishop’s Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships
The original Sunday Programme discussion is available on the BBC Sounds website (discussion begins 01:07 to 09:30).
Interviewer: William Crawley
Interviewees: Rt Rev Dr Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, and Rev Dr Ian Paul, member of General Synod and the Archbishop's Council
Crawley The Church of England’s bishops made headlines this week with the publication of their pastoral statement on civil partnerships, not least for their claim that marriage and only marriage remains the proper context for sexual activity, which many took to mean that couples choosing to enter into civil partnerships – whether same sex or heterosexual – were being called to a life of celibacy. Now some leading members of the Church of England have signed an excoriating open letter to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in response to that new guidance. Far from being pastoral, they say, the bishops’ statement is cold, defensive, and uncaring. The Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Revd Dr Alan Wilson, is a signatory to that open letter, and the Revd Dr Ian Paul, also with us, a member of the General Synod and the Archbishop’s Council. Welcome to both of you. Good morning. Bishop Alan, let me begin with you, this open letter says the Church of England has this week become a ‘laughing-stock’ to the nation that believes it is ‘obsessed with sex’. A ‘laughing-stock’. Why do you believe that?
Wilson Well, because it’s happened. Our inboxes have been full, I’ve had a lot of messaging, an enormous number of people who are either distressed or very angry about this statement. Not only because of what’s in it but because of the timing of its release.
Crawley Why is the timing significant?
Wilson Well, we’re in the middle in the Church of England of a thing called Living in Love and Faith, which is an attempt to sort out the mess we have seemed to have been in for the last thirty or forty years, and many of us who have been persuading our LGBT friends to say, ‘Look, come on, give this thing a chance, I know that track record isn’t great but we’ve been trying to get it right’, and many of those people were sort of hanging on in there, waiting for this thing to come up. Also people have been told that really they shouldn’t be making great statements on this subject until Living in Love and Faith is out, and I think this thing lands very badly at this particular time in the year that Living in Love and Faith is coming together.
Crawley Ian Paul, do you think there is anything particularly new in this statement?
Paul No there isn’t anything new at all, and in fact if people were thinking that the discussion in LLFwas going to suspend the doctrine of the Church they’re very much mistaken. I think that was clear from the start. This statement says nothing new, it says the position of the Church, which actually you will hear every time you go to a Church of England wedding service, so I don’t know whether Alan imagined that somehow we would suspend what the Church’s understanding of marriage was in this process. That’s certainly not what LLF is about.
Crawley If there’s nothing new in it, why publish it?
Paul The new thing is simply a response to changes in the law. The Supreme Court ruling last year meant that other sex, opposite sex, couples, were allowed to enter civil partnerships, and it raised the question of whether or not civil partnerships are equivalent to marriage. If there is some confusion or some difficulty with this, the confusion has been created by the government because the government doesn’t seem to know whether or not civil partnerships are equivalent to marriage. In some regards they look very similar as exclusive covenantal relationships. In other regards they are quite distinct from marriage and I think the bishops played a very difficult ball in saying, ‘What is the difference?’, and they’ve had to do some of the work which the government hasn’t done.
Crawley Alan, you clearly do believe there’s something new here.
Wilson Well, there’s a rather weird bit of theology going on here, and that’s the idea that you’re only married if you’ve had vows said between you. I mean that is part of the medieval, Western understanding of marriage, but most marriages in Britain don’t have to have vows in them at all, because they’re contracted in a registry office by registrars. They can have vows if they want. And of course the Orthodox Church doesn’t have vows in marriage, they don’t understand it in that way, they never have. So the idea that vows are the things that you are turning your back on if you down-trade your marriage for a civil partnership (which by the way you can’t do anyway, it’s an impossibility, but we’ve still got a rule for you even if you are doing this impossible thing), is a little bit theologically bizarre.
Crawley So Ian Paul, not only new but weird and bizarre in the language of the Bishop there. Civil partnerships involve a commitment as well as marriage. What’s the difference in theological terms?
Paul The two differences are 1) that the vows which are received in our tradition of the Church of England, signal that this isn’t just something private, that the conjugal relationship involved in marriage isn’t something which is a personal contract, it is something which is part of community, is part of building community. Just yesterday somebody told me that a friend of theirs did not want to get married but wanted to have a civil partnership because they didn’t like doing things in public, they wanted to do it privately. And in Christian theology, our understanding of marriage is that it’s part of a building block for community, it’s where children are raised, and that’s really significant. The other significant thing, which Alan hasn’t mentioned, is the fact that there are in civil partnerships no grounds in sexual relating for the relationship to come to an end. It’s a no-fault termination and again that’s a significant departure in the historic position, both in law, as well as in the Church’s understanding.
Crawley Ian, can I just break in. Can I ask, given that this has been an issue this week, does this statement mean that any sexual intimacy, any sexual activity, that takes place within a civil partnership, is illicit in Christian terms?
Paul Well, the position of the Church of England and many Christian Churches has been that the right place for sexual relating is within a marriage relationship. And the reason for that-
Crawley So does that mean that sex within a civil partnership is a sin?
Paul It means that, along with all sort of other forms of sexual relationship outside of commitment-
Crawley So it does mean that? It means that sex within a civil partnership is a sin?
Paul Well it means that it’s not within the place that God has designed for sex, which is in a-
Crawley And that would be your definition of sexual morality. So that means the heterosexual couple entering into a civil partnership who have sex as part of their relationship, according to the Church of England, are committing a sin.
Paul Yes, that’s right, and the Church’s position on that is completely out of step – it’s not out of touch – with what’s going on in the world around. But it is out of step. And it always has been. Christian sexual ethics has always been out of step with the world around when the Church has been a minority position. That’s been persistently the case. Mind you, it’s not the most implausible thing for the wider culture. I mean, after all, Christians believe that a Jewish man two thousand years ago, raised from the dead, is the Saviour of the world!
Crawley Presumably that also means that if someone has a civil partnership and then afterwards they have a Church blessing, would that change the theological character of their relationship?
Paul Well, you opened up by saying that the Church calls people in civil partnerships to celibacy. That’s not the case. What the Church is doing is calling people to marriage because that’s the best place for the giving of one another in vulnerability-
Crawley I understand, but let me just bring Alan Wilson in, because we need to speak clearly about this. It’s one thing to say that we’re not saying you’re called to celibacy, but if you say that sex within a civil partnership is sinful or illicit, it amounts to the same thing, Bishop, doesn’t it?
Wilson Well it does and it’s part of this unhealthy obsession with sex and one of the things about this document is that it mentions sex 49 times and the word ‘love’ doesn’t occur in it at all. This doesn’t seem very ‘Jesus-like’. And also in our schools, for example, we are very careful. We have a policy called Valuing All God’s Childrenthat says we do not discriminate between children in our schools in terms of their family backgrounds, anything like that. We offer God’s love to everybody equally and this is rather undermining of that whole concept, dragging up a lot of 1930s theology, projecting it into a state of affairs which was never envisaged-
Crawley Well, Ian Paul wouldn’t call it 1930s theology, and regard it as 1stCentury theology from the New Testament, wouldn’t you?
Paul No, absolutely not. The position of the Church is exactly the same as it’s always been. All are welcome, all are created in the image of God, and we treat people without discrimination in that sense. The reason why the document mentions sex, though, as Alan says, is not because it is obsessed with sex but because it has to talk about same sexcouples and other sexcouples. That is why the word occurs so many times. And the document talks about fidelity and commitment and the context for raising children. I’m afraid that the language that Alan uses is just a parody, it’s not what the focus of the document is at all.
Crawley Okay we’ll have to leave it there. Dr Ian Paul, Dr Alan Wilson, thanks to both of you.