Giles Fraser: As long as it is not a blessing . . .

08 February 2012

MORE than 120 clergy in the diocese of London signed a letter last week calling on the Church of England to lift its ban on civil partnerships’ being celebrated in church (News, 3 February). The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, responded by saying that this “request to General Synod is based on very proper pastoral con­cern and it is right that this matter continues to be discussed openly”.

But what exactly is the legal posi­tion on all this? Back in December, the Government lifted its restriction on the use of religious buildings for civil partnerships, leaving it to individual denominations to decide for themselves whether they wanted to conduct them (News, 23 Decem­ber).

The C of E’s position is taken from the House of Bishops’ Pastoral State­ment on civil partner­ships of July 2005, in which the Bishops state very clearly that “Clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of bless­ing for those who register a civil partnership.”

That seems straightforward. But, as Nigel Seed QC, Chancellor of the diocese of London, has said in a legal opinion: “Nothing in the House of Bishops’ statement precludes any church service, simply one of blessing.” Indeed, the 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”.

Mr Seed refers to an interesting exchange in the General Synod of 2005. The Revd Michael Ainsworth asks the question: “Could the Bishop confirm that, in terms of services after civil marriage, the Church of England properly refers to ‘services of dedication and thanksgiving’ rather than ‘services of blessing’.” To which the Bishop of Norwich replied: “That is correct.” The material pro­vided by the House of Bishops in 1985 for those who have undertaken a civil marriage is called “An order for prayer and dedication after a civil marriage”.

The point here is that, as the Chancellor has pointed out, nothing in the present restriction precludes clergy from conducting a service of prayer and dedication for those who have undertaken a civil partnership. “The position is clear,” Mr Seed says “. . . clergy may use a form of service they consider suitable in respect of civil partnership, provided that service does not amount to a service of blessing.”

There are those of us who would like this restriction lifted. And we would like to use the church as a venue in which to conduct civil par­tnerships. But it seems that there are various ways in which the clergy can respond pastorally and litur­gically to those who come to them want­ing a service after a civil part­nership.

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