Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali comments on the Church of England’s recent pastoral statement concerning marriage and civil partnerships
The clear stating of the Church’s biblical and historic teaching on the nature of marriage – that marriage between one man and one woman is the proper context for sexual expression and that sexual relationships outside such an understanding of marriage fall short of God’s purposes (this is one biblical meaning of sin) – is very much to be welcomed by all Bible believing and orthodox Christians. The reference to the Book of Common Prayer regarding the purposes of marriage for mutual support, as a remedy against sin and for the birth and nurture of children is also to be welcomed. If we had been given this clarity before, may be the Church would not have been as confused about these matters as it is today.
The Civil Partnerships Act of 2005 was designed to imitate marriage: the Bishops point this out in paragraph 12 of their statement. At first, Government ministers were claiming that the then Bill was to remove hardships on such matters as visiting rights in hospitals, inheritance and security of tenancy for people living together. When an attempt was made, however, in Parliament to broaden the categories of people who might benefit from such legislation by removing prohibitions on consanguinity for certain classes of people such as mother and daughter or two sisters living together, ministers then claimed that the legislation was to provide a ‘marriage-like’ relationship for same-sex couples and that any attempt to broaden the categories of those who might benefit would be hostile to such an intent. It is, therefore, disingenuous to claim that a sexual relationship is not a presumption for those entering into these partnerships. The lack of provision for annulment and of dissolution on grounds of infidelity relate to the nature of sexual expression and to the ‘open’ kind of relationships which many have rather than to any intention to provide for those not in a sexual relationship. It may be that some within them are not sexually active, but as the Bishops recognise in para 25, the widespread assumption in society is that civil partnerships provide a context for sexual activity. This needs to be taken into account if clergy, in accordance with their ordination vows, are faithfully to reflect Christ’s and the Church’s teaching on marriage, even if their civil partnership does not include sexual expression.
Such an understanding of civil partnerships should determine the Church’s attitude to the blessing of those who enter such partnerships. The Bishops are right, therefore, to say that the Church should not provide an authorised public liturgy for the blessing of civil partnerships and that clergy should not bless such unions. Publicly authorised liturgies are not, however, necessary for clergy to conduct services of blessing. This is being done to a significant extent and the Bishops need to say what action they are going to take in such situations. Widespread practice can become the norm, even if the fundamental documents of an organisation remain unchanged.
When people come for baptism, confirmation or holy communion, my assumption is that they have repented of their sin and intend to lead a life which is consistent with the teaching of Christ and of the Church. I am surprised, however, given the clarity of the Bishops’ understanding of the nature of marriage and of what falls short of God’s purposes (what is, therefore, of the nature of sin), that they instruct the clergy not to ask those who present themselves for reception of the sacraments about the nature of their relationship.Clergy are certainly called to be exemplars to their flock and it is right to ask them about their relationships but they are examples precisely so the people may follow their example. There can be no double standards here; one for clergy and another for lay people. Sensitive pastoring is required for all, but the teaching of Christ and of the Church must also regularly be placed before all so they can be comforted and challenged by it and seek to order their lives in accordance with it.
Where the baptism of infants is concerned, the Bishops are correct to point out that, while baptism can be delayed for purposes of instruction and preparation, under the Canons, it cannot be refused. They are right to say that such instruction should include teaching about marriage and family. There should be an expectation, however, that those receiving this teaching will seek to order their lives in accordance with it. The requirement for godparents in the Canons are relevant and, in any case, the covenant community should be committed to those children being baptised into the body so that they are brought up in accordance with Christian faith and values. This will mean, on the part of those bringing them to baptism, that they will commit themselves to making sure the infant is kept in regular contact with the community where the baptism takes place.
The Bishops’ Statement is clear about the Church’s understanding of marriage and the relationship of sexual expression to it. It is less clear about the consequences of such an understanding for clergy and their ordination vows and what should be required of lay people so that they too may order theirs and their families’ lives in ways that are consistent with the teaching of the Bible and of the Church. For the Church’s chief pastors, it is urgent that they guide people to walk in the way of Christ and to help them to grow in holiness and godly love. It is my prayer that the Bishops will go on to provide such clear guidance which cannot be misunderstood in matters having to do with our salvation.