On Wednesday last week, the House of Bishops issued a ‘pastoral statement’ on the status of Civil Partnerships, and it caused something of a stir. What was it about? Why was it needed? And why did it cause a commotion?
The background to this discussion began in 2004. The Government passed the Civil Partnership Act, which created a form of relationship that looked very similar to marriage, but which the Labour Government of the time insisted was not marriage. It is worth asking why they did this; there is no really plausible answer other than that it was a way to introduce same-sex marriage without introducing something called same-sex marriage. This is confirmed by the inclusion of language of ‘prohibited relationships’ (consanguinity) based on marriage, so that (resisting specific campaigning on this question) the Government refused to allow siblings to enter CPs. At the time the Conservative party was split on the proposal, partly on the basis of personal convictions, and partly because, at the time, the notion of gay marriage was hardly a vote winner. How quickly times change!
The House of Bishops was now put in a difficult position. Would the Church’s teaching on marriage as the context for sexual relationships allow recognition of CPs? Since CPs were specifically designed, in two significant ways (lack of requirement of public vows, and no explicit reference to the relationship being conjugal) to not look like marriage, then there could be no identification of CPs with marriage, and this is highlighted in their 2005 statement on the matter. In particular, since CPs could, in theory, involve a platonic relationship, then there was no reason in principle that two people of the same sex should not form a CP, including clergy. The bishops were here making a call as to whether they believed what the Government said, against all the evidence, or called their bluff and highlighted the deception. Andrew Goddard, in his Grove booklet Friends, Partners or Spouses?, summed up the problem:
The government could have made UK marriage law ‘gender-blind’ so that two people of the same sex could marry. Not only did they not follow this course, they have created a very few—but not insignificant—differences between civil partnership and marriage. In particular, there is no requirement that civil partners be in a sexual relationship although the presumption that a sexual relationship would exist between civil partners is probably the basis for applying the principles of consanguinity. There can be little doubt that most civil partnerships will be sexual and that civil partners will be generally viewed as in such a relationship.
In short, the government claims that although it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is not really a duck. A few details in relation to the creature’s plumage give technical justification to those experts who make this distinction and deny it is a duck. This means that care must be taken in simply insisting that it is a duck. Nevertheless, to the untrained eye—which includes most of the media and popular opinion—it remains a duck.
But the duck was given a much louder quack with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act of 2013, since it retrospectively recognised CPs as same-sex marriages, and in fact couples were counted as having been married from the date of their CP. And the duck was given extra tail feathers when the Supreme Court ruled, in response to a case brought by a Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, that it was discriminatory not to allow opposite-sex couples to enter CPs. There is something very important to note here: the ruling was not on the basis of their sex, but on the basis of sexual orientation, that is, it was a ruling about being heterosexual, not about being a male and a female. In other words, the ruling assumed that most if not all CPs will involve a sexual conjugal relationship. But, as with same-sex marriage, there is no legal definition of a conjugal sex act for people of the same sex, so there is no legal reference to consummation or adultery. Legally, CPs have become desexualised, and marriage is soon to follow with the universal introduction of no-fault divorce, which will become the norm.
Now that opposite-sex couples can enter CPs, what should the position of the Church be? Legally, nothing has changed, and so the position of the House of Bishops should not change either. In fact, when you compare the pastoral statement from last week with the pastoral statement from 2005, they are almost identical, and a good number of paragraphs are copied over verbatim. I suspect that is one reason why no-one supposed that releasing this would cause much of a stir: there is nothing new here.
Marriage is a creation ordinance, a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace. Marriage, defined as a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman, is central to the stability and health of human society. It continues to provide the best context for the raising of children.
This is what you would hear if you attended any marriage service in the Church of England. And the statement last week does indeed have many virtues, as (slightly surprisingly) Jeremy Pemberton points out:
The latest pastoral guidance by the Bishops of the Church of England is designed to address the change in the law in England and Wales that has now opened up Civil Partnerships to opposite sex couples as well as same sex ones.
In the guidance they have provided, the bishops make one or two things clear:
- Sex is for heterosexual marriage and nowhere else
- That civil partnerships are a form of friendship
- That they should be sexually abstinent, whoever is in the CP
Let’s look at the good things first. First of all, this is clear guidance. No one can be in any doubt about where the bishops stand over the question of sexual relationships. Secondly, at least it does not discriminate further against LGBT people – it takes precisely the same stance over the sexual lives of heterosexuals as well. Thirdly, there is a certain bravery about offering guidance that is so massively at variance with the mores of the time. According to a recent survey, only 4% of British people now think that sex should wait until marriage in all cases.
All three of these things are important, not least the fact that the statement treats people of different sexuality in precisely the same way. It is worth noting that, if the bishops had decided to call the Government’s bluff at this point, and said ‘Look this is a duck!’, in other words, that the legal differences between CPs and marriage were in fact negligible, then they would have needed to withdraw the previous statement, and ruled that same-sex clergy couples could not now be in CPs. No-one appears to have noticed this, and I wonder what the response to that would have been, especially at this stage in the Living in Love and Faith process?
This leads us into the question of the responses and criticism. The first common one was about the timing; why make this statement now, given all that is going on? The simple answer is that the Government changed the law, and this created a gap in the previous statement. Better say something now, before a clergy couple entered a CP and something had to be done retrospectively. Some complained about the closeness to the reporting of the Peter Ball affair—but that is completely spurious, as there is no real connection between establishment protection of a someone who abused young men, and the idea that marriage is the right place for sex. If anything, the latter is an appropriate response to the former.
But, secondly, there were loud howls of protest that a statement was being made whilst the Living in Love and Faith process was underway—howls based on a bizarre misapprehension. LLF has never involved suspending the current doctrine of the Church on marriage and sexuality—after all, weddings are continuing, and the liturgy continues to express that doctrine! In fact, LLF is not even designed to be a process that revises the doctrine of the Church on marriage. It is a process of review and discussion, producing teaching materials, which in principle could open up the possibility of discussion about revision of the doctrine of marriage. In other words, if there were ever to be a change, it would come after the discussion that comes after the discussion of LLF. If that sounds like it might take a long time, that is correct. One useful thing this episode has done is expose how little understanding there is of the process, even amongst those involved—and raises the question of whether such misunderstanding is wilful.
That is just one elements of the level of ignorance that is evidence not just amongst those outside the C of E, but those within it, including clergy and bishops. One retired bishop commented to me on Facebook:
I went to Harvard’s fascinating seminars on homosexuality/marriage etc by RC professors in 1998 when studying in USA. They were clear that the context in which Jesus was speaking was so at odds with how we understand marriage today that it throws little light on the institution (in UK the church’s understanding and practice is altogether different from how it was even just 300 years ago).
He then goes on to explain that the ‘scandal of the incarnation’ is that it is so particular, and thus Jesus offers us a model of how he wrestled with difficult issues in his day, as we wrestle with difficult issues in ours—but his solutions do not provide us with any answers to ours. I find it quite remarkable that a bishop in the Church of England believes that Jesus’ teaching on marriage and sexual ethics has little or nothing to teach us about the form of relationships. It seems to represent the hubris of the modern age—that we are unique, and history (including the historical Jesus) has little to teach us.
And Gavin Drake, Director of Communications at the Anglican Communion, comments:
What surprised me about all this is discovering the sheer number of C of E clergy who don’t know what core C of E doctrine is. What do they teach at theological colleges if clergy are so uninformed about a position the Church has taken for 2,000 years and for which they are called to expound on at every single wedding they preside at?
One member of the LLF team, an academic historian, expressed surprise on Twitter that the statement made reference to the BCP, when Common Worship appeared to alter the doctrine of marriage by changing the order of the ‘goods’ of marriage mentioned in the introduction—apparently oblivious of the status of the BCP in defining the doctrine of the Church, and that all subsequent liturgy is strictly alternative to it and should not be read as changing its teaching.
The third criticism is about the mode of communication and the associated process. Rachel Treweek, bishop of Gloucester, issued and tweeted an apology for the way the statement was communicated:
I cannot deny seeing the content of the statement at the meeting of the House of Bishops in December and in terms of factual content the statement is reiterating that in the light of the recent change in law allowing civil partnerships to be extended to opposite-sex couples, nothing has changed regarding the legal and doctrinal position of the Church of England. There should have been no surprises for anyone in that. However, I am complicit in making wrong assumptions in December and not asking questions about how this statement was to be used. For me, the publication of the statement in cold isolation from anything else, on a seemingly random day and lacking any pastoral ‘surround’ or mention of the Living in Love and Faith’ process, has been perplexing and upsetting. This is even more so as it has been released just days before the College of Bishops convene once more to focus on ‘Living in Love and Faith’ as we stand in the present looking to both the past and the future.
Three things are worth noting here. First, she is mistaken about the lack of mention of LLF; it comes in paras 10 and 25 of the statement, and explicitly notes that there are different views in the Church. Secondly, she does not dissent from the content, noting there is nothing new here. But thirdly, she refers to process.
This sort of statement would normally arise in the following way. Someone in the legal department will have noted that, with a change in law, a new situation has been created. Then someone in the Mission and Public Affairs team will likely have drafted a statement for consideration by the House of Bishops. Since there is nothing new here, and it looks close to being an administrative detail, this will have come to the HoB Delegation Committee (who, by the way, are not in any way dominated by ‘conservatives’, so the ‘conservative plot’ theory can be ditched). Once the statement has been agreed by them, it will be passed to the House of Bishops as ‘deemed business’, that is, included in paperwork, and only discussed by the full House if someone asks for it to be. I understand that this did in fact happen: Chris Cocksworth, bishop of Coventry, asked for a minor change, which was included. So every diocesan bishop read this, knew about it, and in fact heard it discussed. Given the factors above, I am not sure anyone can be blamed for failing to anticipate the furious reaction—but if there was an omission in thinking about the way it was communicated, that omission sits with the bishops.
And fury there was. I was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live by a fairly hostile Nicky Campbell on Friday, and you can listen here at 2:55. I was also in discussion with Alan Wilson on BBC Radio 4 Sunday, and you can listen here (first item). What I aimed to do was communicate some key messages, and these included:
The Church’s view on sex is far from the strangest thing it believes. We think that a Jewish man 2,000 years ago was raised from the dead and is the saviour of the world! That is a lot stranger!
The Church is not out of touch—but it is out of step. It always has been when a minority in culture.
There is nothing new here; this is the position you will hear at any church wedding.
The problem here was not created by the bishops. They are responding to a problem created by a failure of the Government to distinguish marriage and CPs.
The Church’s teaching is good news by telling people that you don’t have to have sex to life a fulfilled life. It is a much better vision than that of Love Island.
Our bodies matter, and sex is about giving yourself in vulnerability to another. The right place for this is in the strong and secure container of a good, loving marriage.
The Church is not calling people in CPs to celibacy; it is calling them to marriage.
I think I managed to communicate some, but not all of these. A crucial element to note here is that the statement comes in a vacuum of positive comment about the biblical view of sex. I don’t think it is that hard to articulate in our present culture, when the promiscuous and abusive use of sex is so widespread, and I have done so on this blog—but anxiety about response has mostly silenced both national and local church leaders. The fury here is, in part, a reflection of that.
Much of the hostility in the wider media came from resentment at the idea that the Church of England should tell anyone anything about their sex lives. After all, everyone is having sex with everyone else, and if you are not, then you are just not normal. That appears to be the tenor of reactions captured in this piece in the Huffington Post. This was a timely reminder that many in the media and in wider culture are fiercely resentful of anyone appearing to suggest how they should live their lives, and particular in relation to sex.
But the other main area of hostility was from pro-gay campaigners within the Church. It was fascinating to hear Jayne Ozanne begin her earlier interview on Radio 5 Live with the appeal, ‘I, like many of your listeners, will be appalled…’ In other words, the main ally for those arguing for change are people who do not share faith. This article in the Independent was warmly welcomed by people on the ‘Christians for LGBT+ Equality’ FaceBook page—an article asserting (against any evidence) that the Church ‘was obsessed with sex’ written by an atheist who appears delighted at the demise of the Church and Christian belief, who thinks the main reason young people are not going to church is that ‘God does not exist’.
What is remarkable here is the extent to which those claiming to represent (a position in) the Church collude with the lies, misrepresentation, and ignorance. On Radio 4 on Sunday, Alan Wilson, bishop of Buckingham, repeated the tweet claim of Andrew Graystone that ‘the statement mentions sex 49 times and never mentions love once’. That is either a lie, or at best a gross misrepresentation; the reason the statement uses the word ‘sex’ is in reference to ‘same sex’ and ‘opposite sex’ couples. Yet this claim has been circulated widely by people who have not even read it. What have we come to when a bishop in the Church repeats such shallow deceits?
And the alternative accounts of sex and marriage, such as those by Jeremy Pemberton and Simon Butler, appear to have no connection at all with Christian thinking about sex, the body, desire, sin and salvation, or anything to do with biblical anthropology, but instead offer a humanist (and expressive individualist) account of sex where the role of the Church is simply to marshal existing practices and assumptions as a kind of paternal social guardian. This highlights quite clearly that those arguing for a change on the question of same-sex marriage are not merely asking for existing understandings to be slightly tweaked and extended, but are really concerned for a wholesale revision of Christian sexual ethics. The first casuality of this is celibacy, for which there is simply no space in these approaches. That is quite extraordinary, not merely given the long tradition of celibacy as a respected spiritual tradition in the Christian community, but in the light that Jesus and Paul were both single and celibate! How far we have come from our roots!
So what do we learn from all this? The most obvious thing is that, when it comes to meetings, papers and statements, the devil is in the detail. Any statement that relates to sexuality, however innocuous appearing, needs some very careful presentation. There is no doubt that this should either have been issued as an Ad Clerum rather than a public statement, or had a covering letter exploring the right kinds of pastoral responses to different situations, or both. If our faith communities are going to have porous boundaries, then we are going to need to ensure that families where the parents are cohabiting or in civil partnerships are made welcome, whilst also being encouraged to strengthen their relationship as marriage, for their sake and the sake of their children. But something like 40% of the population is not in a stable relationship, and many of those are celibate, by choice or otherwise. Singleness must be cherished and celebrated, and the idea of salvation by marriage repudiated.
Secondly, it is clear that the Church of England is as deeply divided on these issues as ever, and no amount of consultation or discussion is ever going to resolve that. We have been involved in the formal process including the Shared Conversations for many years now, and the net result is that campaigners for change are even more hostile to the current position of the Church than they ever were—and appear to be willing to do almost anything, including seeing the Church trashed in the media, and broken if necessary, to push this change through.
Thirdly, there are elements in our culture and media which feel a thinly-disguised visceral loathing for the Church. Some people claim that this is because of the Church’s position on sexuality. But that is just the main point at which, in this cultural moment, the counter-cultural challenge of Christian faith is felt most keenly. The same was true in the first century. People don’t hate the Church because they disagree on sex; they disagree on sex because they hate the Church.
I think the response to this statement is actually quite a good wake-up call for the bishops. The kind of hostility that I experienced on Radio 5 is the kind of hostility that ordinary Christian and local church leaders encounter quite often—whenever they dare to speak up. Our debates on sexuality are bringing to a head a widening gap between Christian faith and a post-Christian society. In a strange way, the LLF process is a test of who we see as Lord of the Church: Jesus and his teachings in the gospels; or ‘contemporary social mores’. This is a test which might, after all, lead to some form of disestablishment for the C of E. However it is communicated, the outcome of LLF will generate this same kind of hostility if it does anything like offer a rationale for the Church’s current doctrine.
For that reason, my prayer for the College of Bishops this week is that, whilst they undergo some serious heart-searching about communication, they will see these issues clearly, and hear it as a call to live faithfully and courageously in the often hostile culture in which we find ourselves.
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