OPINION: How will the Church of England respond to heterosexual civil partnerships?

by Jeremy Pemberton | Blogger
Tuesday, 7 May 2019 08:14 GMT

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby sits before addressing the United Nations Security Council on "mediation and its role in conflict", during an open debate on maintenance of international peace and security at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., August 29, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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It isn't clear if Church of England will agree to bless heterosexual civil partnerships officially, but not homosexual ones

Jeremy Pemberton is a former canon in the Church of England who, in 2014, became the first priest to marry his same-sex partner

The Church of England likes to portray itself as the friend of civil partnerships for LGBT+ people.

This is notwithstanding the fact that when the legislation was passing through the House of Lords in 2004 the majority of its 26 bishops in the British upper chamber of parliament voted for an amendment that was widely seen at the time as a way of wrecking the bill.  

The amendment failed, and the bishops published rather grudging pastoral guidance as the new arrangements came into force, including a refusal to offer any services of blessing for couples entering civil partnerships.

Since then same-sex marriage has been introduced, and bishops have discovered the joy of civil partnerships, which is that they can be assumed to be sexless relationships.

In the Church’s teaching, sex belongs, you will recall, only in a lifelong, exclusive marriage between one man and one woman. Just don’t ask about divorce and second marriages – somehow they don’t alter this fundamental position.

However, because there is always the possibility that people in a civil partnership might have discovered the delights of sex, the bishops still don’t want to ask God to bless anyone entering such a union. Just in case. Because sex is so yucky and awkward and worrying.

In a ruling in the British Supreme Court last year, the judges found unanimously that barring entry to civil partnerships for heterosexual couples (as had been the case) was, since the introduction of same-sex marriage, discriminatory and against the human rights of heterosexual couples who wished to make such a commitment.

The passage of a bill recently changing registration arrangements has now opened up the prospect of the Secretary of State being able to change the rules around civil partnerships to include heterosexual couples. And the timetable for this to take place is before the end of the year.

This is going to put the Church of England in a bit of a spot.

Any heterosexual couple in England has a right in law to be married in their parish church. If a heterosexual couple choose to have a civil partnership rather than a marriage, but also want this union blessed in the church and present themselves to their local vicar, what is s/he to say?

The Church of England doesn’t bless civil partnerships. But what is the essential difference between them and marriage?

If a civil partnership is between a man and a woman should it be a sexless thing like for same-sex couples? Or will the Church of England agree to bless heterosexual civil partnerships officially, but not homosexual ones?

The uproar that would cause doesn’t bear contemplating – even the most tin-eared Lambeth Palace apparatchik must know that would be PR suicide.

Up until now the bishops have not had to address this question. But the clock is ticking. The end of the year is the latest date the change in regulations could be introduced, not the soonest.

We deserve to be told what they will do.

There is no time for the Living in Love and Faith process, a major report into – as the Church describes it – “human identity, sexuality and marriage” due to be published next year, to debate this for years.

Will gay and straight people entering civil partnerships get equal treatment as regards a blessing? If not, why not?

If no blessing is offered, on what grounds is this denied to heterosexual couples? And if it were to be offered equally, then is the assumption about “sexlessness” being abandoned? In which case, why doesn’t the Church of England bless same-sex marriages as well?

It could be a very interesting few months.