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Marriage is a gift, ‘but not if you’re gay’

12 April 2013


AN uncompromising document released this week reinforces the ban on public forms of blessing for those in same-sex relationships. It states that, although the introduction of same-sex marriage will not make heterosexual marriage "disappear", it may make "the path to fulfilment, in marriage and in other relationships, more difficult to find".

The report, Men and Women in Marriage, was published on Wednesday by the C of E's Faith and Order Commission, with the agreement of the House of Bishops. It includes a foreword from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York which commends it "for study". It was shown to journalists at Church House on Tuesday morning, where the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, who chairs the Commission and who wrote the report, answered questions about its contents.

The report seeks to set the disagreements between the Government and the Church of England over same-sex marriage, which it mentions only twice, "against a more positive background of how Christians have understood and valued marriage". It quotes the Common Worship marriage service: "Marriage is a gift from God in creation."

Dr Cocksworth admitted that the document was "saying nothing new", and described it as seeking to "celebrate all that is good about marriage in its ability to bring together biological difference and the generative power of marriage to bring forth life. It also recognises that there are forms of human relationships which fall short of marriage in the form the God has given us." He hoped that it would "help people to think and to explore . . . the refinement of this human instinct for marriage between people of the opposite sex.

"This document shows the deep and very beautiful Christian refinement of that gift, but [it is] saying that, if we move from refinement to redefinition . . . we might disrupt the environment for human life that we have been given, just as we can do with any other ecosystem."

The report does not affirm those in "human relationships which fall short of marriage relationships", in contrast to the response to the Government's consultation on same-sex marriage, published last year, which stated that "same-sex relationships often embody genuine mutuality and fidelity" (News, 15 June). Its language is more guarded, stating that "In pastoral responses, a degree of flexibility may be called for in finding ways to express the Church's teaching practically. . . The Church does not treat questions of what is possible in hard circumstances or exceptional circumstances as simply closed."

Listed as responses to "hard circumstances" are the provision for marriage after divorce, and an initiative by African Churches to "help baptismal candidates who were in polygamous family units to fulfil their responsibilities without compromising the norm of monogamy".

Civil partnerships, it says, "raise analogous issues". It highlights the pastoral statement issued by the House of Bishops in 2005, which suggests that clergy approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering a civil partnership "respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case, having regard to the teaching of the Church on sexual morality, celibacy, and the positive value of committed friendships in the Christian tradition". This 2005 statement also makes it clear that: "Clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership."

The Church, the new report suggests, can "devise accommodations for specific conditions, bearing witness in special ways to the abiding norm". On Tuesday, Dr Cocksworth said: "The Church is here for all people, and those who find themselves in same-sex relationships and have committed to those, the Church treats those people with respect, with compassionate attention, with care and with prayer. The exact form of that prayer will depend on the case itself, the situation that is before the pastor."

The document itself does not restate the ban on blessing same-sex relationships, but Dr Cocksworth said that the "well-designed accommodations" it mentions were "different from formal public blessings". The press release accompanying the report states: "The document is clear that public forms of blessing belong to marriage alone."

Last year, more than 100 clerics in the diocese of London wrote to their representatives on General Synod to ask for the right to choose whether or not to officiate at civil-partnership ceremonies in church (News, 3 February 2012).

Men and Women in Marriage: extracts from the report

Human relations depend on the encounter of men and women, equally and differently human, offering each other social fulfilment and placing their endowments of emotion and perception at each other's service.

Biological differences do not simply cease to matter at the level of personal relationship; persons are not asexual, but are either male or female. Their sex attains a personal meaning, as relationships are built constructively on the endowments and strengths it offers. The relationship of marriage is more personal, not less, as the partners come to it in receptiveness of what only the opposite sex can bring to their own.

Neither the state nor the Church can claim a prior right over marriage, nor does either of them "make" marriages, which is done by God's providence working through the public promises of the couples themselves.

In affirming its belief in marriage as the form the Creator has given us for intimate and permanent relationship of a man and a woman, the Church does not treat questions of what is possible in hard circumstances or exceptional conditions as simply closed. They require pastoral wisdom.

Well-designed accommodations proclaim the form of life given by God's creative goodness and bring those in difficult positions into closer approximation to it. They mark the point where teaching and pastoral care coincide.

The reality of marriage between one man and one woman will not disappear as the result of any legislative change, for God has given this gift, and it will remain part of our created human endowment. But the disciplines of living in it may become more difficult to acquire, and the path to fulfilment, in marriage and in other relationships, more difficult to find.

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