No blessing for straight civil partnerships, say Bishops

23 January 2020

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“WILL we be allowed to hold . . . heterosexual civil-partnership ceremonies in church, or at least be allowed to bless them?” the Team Rector of the Fellside Team, the Revd Stephen Cooper, asked last year (Letters, 22 March 2019).

“And, if we are to be allowed either to hold or bless them, what theological hoops will I need to jump through, and which ecclesiological cartwheels will I have to turn, to explain in pastoral situations the Church of England’s institutional prejudice against LGBTQI+ people when I turn down, as I am required to do, their requests to be similarly supported in their human flourishing, made in the image of God and seeking to live that out in faithful, loving, and committed covenant relationships?”

The answer, set out in a pastoral statement from the House of Bishops on Thursday, is that no such acrobatics will be required: neither opposite-sex nor same-sex civil partnerships can be blessed.

The statement — written in response to the Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) Regulations 2019, which came into force last month, allowing opposite-sex couples to register civil partnerships — is largely a restatement of the Bishops’ 2005 response to the Civil Partnership Act.

Both emphasise that the Church’s teaching on marriage has not changed. Marriage between a man and a woman “remains the proper context for sexual activity”; sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are “regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings”. The “ambiguity” about the nature of civil partnerships precludes the Church from being able to bless them.

“Because of the ambiguity about the place of sexual activity within civil partnerships of both sorts, and the Church’s teaching that marriage between a man and a woman is the proper context for sexual intercourse, we do not believe that it is possible for the Church unconditionally to accept civil partnerships as unequivocally reflecting the teaching of the Church,” this week’s statement says.

“One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the civil partnerships legislation is that people in a variety of relationships will be eligible to register as civil partners, some living consistently with the teaching of the Church, others not.

“In these circumstances, the House continues to believe that it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships. In addition, the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.”

It advises, however, that clergy “respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case”. The Church will continue to “affirm the value of committed, sexually abstinent friendships”.

The guidance reiterates that entering a civil partnership is not “intrinsically incompatible with holy orders”, but states that such candidates must be willing to give assurances that their relationship is celibate.

It notes that the arguments for opposite-sex civil partnerships advanced in the Supreme Court included “the desire for a publicly authorised institution which explicitly rejected the perceived religious connotations of marriage”. And it warns that, “given this ambiguity, clergy and candidates for ordination wishing to enter an opposite-sex civil partnership should expect to be asked to explain their understanding of the theological and social meanings of their decision”.

It also states that, although civil partnerships do not entail vows, married candidates for ordination who have previously ended a civil partnership should expect to be asked about the causes of the breakdown of this relationship.

The statement notes that the Church’s teaching on marriage and same-sex relationships is currently the subject of a “major study” — Living in Love and Faith — and that, while clergy are “fully entitled to argue” for a change in teaching, “they are not entitled to claim the liberty to set it aside.”

The commissioning of Living in Love and Faith — due to report shortly before this summer’s Lambeth Conference — was a response by the Archbishops to the General Synod’s voting not to take note of a House of Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships, which proposed no change to ecclesiastical law or doctrine and no provision for the blessing of same-sex partnerships (News, 24 February 2017).

At the time, the Bishop who chaired the Bishops’ Reflection Group, the Rt Revd Graham James, suggested that, while some members of the House would support the authorisation of such a liturgy — which would require agreement across the three House of General Synod — “few doubt it would be so contested as to fail, and deepen division”.

While a pastoral advisory group was established, its chair, the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, has stressed that “we work within the current boundaries of our current teaching and doctrine as the Church of England has received it” (News, 13 July 2018).

It has been acknowledged that there are “significant differences of opinion within the House [of Bishops] about same-sex relationships” (News, 24 February 2017). In 2017, the diocese of Hereford asked the House of Bishops to commend an “order of prayer and dedication” to be used for same-sex couples after a civil partnership or marriage, in a motion backed by the then Bishop, the Rt Revd Richard Frith (News, 20 October 2017).

The Archbishop of York-designate, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, at present Bishop of Chelmsford, has warned that the Church’s stance on same-sex relationships means that it is “seen as immoral by the culture in which it is set”. He has suggested that prayers of thanksgiving for these relationships — “perhaps a eucharist” — should be offered (News, 17 March 2017).

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, has called for “the opportunity within the Church for same-sex unions to be recognised and affirmed” (Features, 1 February 2019).

On Saturday, the Ven. Cherry Vann, who is in a civil partnership, will be consecrated as the Bishop of Monmouth. The Governing Body of the Church in Wales has agreed that it is “pastorally unsustainable for the Church to make no formal provision for those in same-gender relationships” (News, 21 September 2018).

Last year, the Methodist Conference endorsed a report that proposed allowing same-sex couples to marry in Methodist churches, and providing resources and liturgies to celebrate civil partnerships (News, 4 July 2019).

The number of civil partnerships formed in England and Wales peaked in 2006, after the introduction of the Act, at just under 15,000. In 2018, there were 956.

In 2018, when the Government’s Equalities Office suggested that the future of civil partnerships was uncertain, the Church’s director of mission and public affairs, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, argued that they should not be abolished.

He wrote: “We believe that civil partnerships still have a place, including for some Christian LGBTI couples, who see them as a way of gaining legal recognition of their relationship” (News, 18 May 2018).

This week’s statement by the Bishops differs from their 2005 guidance in its acknowledgement that “as with marriage, civil partnerships embody the concept of committed fidelity between two persons, mutually consenting to their relationship.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury has previously spoken of “gay relationships that are just stunning in the quality of the relationship”.

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