What is it?
A good introduction to the issues around The Civil Partnerships Act is the Bishop of Rochester’s Ad Clerum on the matter. Bishop Michael Nazir Ali wrote in January 2006:
It is widely recognised, on all sides, that people living together, for one reason or another, can face significant hardship and discrimination. For those in heterosexual relationships, one way to resolve these difficulties is to get married but this is not possible where the co-habitees are of the same-sex or closely related to one another. While some rights may belong to the married state in virtue of its nature, there are others, such as security of tenancy or rights of visitation, which need not be so restricted. The government’s proposals to remedy injustice and to remove unjust discrimination were, therefore, welcomed by many.
It was, however, the nature of the Civil Partnerships Bill, which was to become the Act, which has caused concern in several quarters. The Bill replicated for same-sex couples nearly all the provisions for marriage which are to be found in existing law. In particular, the prohibition on consanguinity reads very like the provision for marriage. Attempts in Parliament to widen the scope of the legislation so that siblings and other relatives living together might also benefit were fiercely resisted and were unacceptable to the government.
On the one hand, then, the Bill was portrayed as being about the removal of injustices and, on the other, as something as near to ‘marriage’ for same-sex couples as we could get. It has been noted that it is in its careful mimicking of marriage that the Bill can be said to undermine the distinctiveness and fundamental importance to society of the relationship of marriage. There is, then, at the very least, a studied ambiguity both in the text of the legislation and in the way it has been presented and promoted.
In such circumstances, what should have been the Church’s response? It was, I believe, open to the Church, in terms of the Human Rights Act, to derogate from the legislation on the grounds that its ambiguity was not consistent with fundamental Christian teaching on marriage. Also, it could have derogated on the grounds that the ‘marriage-like’ character of the Act would be unacceptable to a substantial number of its members.
In fact, the Church chose not to take either of these courses of action. Instead, first of all, it allowed the government to change church legislation by order so that the term ‘civil partner’ was added wherever the term the ’spouse’ of a cleric occurred. Secondly, the House of Bishops was asked to agree to a statement prepared on its behalf by a group of bishops and others.
There is much in this statement that is good and entirely acceptable to a biblically-minded Christian. It reiterates basic Christian teaching on marriage and it sets out the Church’s position on issues of human sexuality by referring to authoritative resolutions or texts. It shows a proper pastoral concern for those facing difficult moral and spiritual dilemmas; so far so good. What then is the problem?
I have been somewhat uneasy about some of these actions and some aspects of this statement from the very beginning and have said so in the appropriate bodies and to appropriate people. I fear that the change in church law will have the effect of undermining that very teaching on marriage which the bishops are wishing to uphold and that it introduces another category of ‘partner’ covertly without any public or synodical discussion.
Secondly, inspite of the ambiguity in the legislation and the declared intention of the government, the House has been unable to say that civil partnerships entered into under this legislation would be inconsistent with Christian teaching. This is, and will continue to be, a recipe for confusion.
Thirdly, the Statement has given bishops the task of ensuring that clergy who enter into these partnerships adhere to church teaching in the area of sexuality without giving the bishops the clear means to do so. In the days to come, this step will both severely test the Church’s discipline and stretch pastoral relationships to breaking point.
Finally, by declaring that lay people who enter such partnerships should not be asked about the nature of their relationship, in the context of preparation for baptism and confirmation, as well as for the purposes of receiving Holy Communion, it has compromised pastoral discipline at the local level and pre-empted the relevant canons. In doing this, the House believes that it is adhering to the teaching in Issues in Human Sexuality. It interprets ‘not wanting to exclude from the fellowship of the Church’ as equivalent to there being no discipline in terms of access to the sacraments. Such an interpretation, however, flies in the face of clear biblical teaching and the unanimous practice of the Church down the ages. All are welcome, of course, but this does not mean there is no guidance and discipline for the sake of the fellowship.
The statement leans towards a ‘folk’ understanding of the sacraments as rites of passage rather than as an entry into states of holiness and of discipleship. Bishops have a particular responsibility for holiness and I cannot see how this aspect of the statement will promote it. It should be perfectly possible, without undue intrusion, to set out the Church’s faith clearly and to guide those for whom we have pastoral care with compassion and understanding as to the future course of their discipleship.
A Private Members Motion reflecting these concerns has been signed by over 100 members of the General Synod.
â€œFriends, Partners or Spouses? â€“ the Civil Partnerships Act and Christian Witness”. By Andrew Goddard. Grove Books. www.grovebooks.co.uk Â£2.95.
Andrew writes: â€œThe legislation represents a potentially very serious threat to the orthodox Christian understanding of marriage and family which the Church is called to uphold and commend not only among Christians but also to wider society. Although civil partnerships are not strictly â€œgay marriageâ€, civil partners are to be treated the same as spouses. As a result, almost all the consequences of gay marriage that would raise serious practical challenges to Christians are also raised by civil partnerships and yet the Church of England has apparently not yet recognized the seriousness and implications of this fact.â€ [To order click here->http://www.grovebooks.co.uk/cart.php?target=product&product_id=17106&category_id=265]
[Civil Partnerships Press Release and Pastoral Statement. From the House of Bishops July 25 2005->http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/civil/bishopspr.html]
[Statement by Anglican Mainstream September 2005->http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/civilletter.html]
[Leaflet by John Richardson The Church of England, Civil Partnerships, and the House of Bishops->http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/downloads/CPleaflet.PDF]
[Statement by the Bishop of Durham->http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/Dec05/15dec05.html]
[Statement by the Bishop of Winchester->http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/Dec05/16dec05.html]
[Statement by the Bishop of Bristol->http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=252]
[Statement by the Bishop of London->bishop-of-london-writes-on-civil-partnerships]