Bishops’ unexpected statement on marriage

24 January 2020

Paul Huxley comments on the Church of England Bishops’ statement on opposite sex civil partnerships.

Prompted by the change in law to allow opposite-sex civil partnership, Church of England Bishops released a pastoral statement this week, outlining the church’s understanding of marriage and civil partnerships.

Church teaching considered contentious

The statement lays out the position of the Church of England on marriage, applying it to new challenges, but not fundamentally changing its teaching.

In doing so, the document makes a number of points that have been taken by media – and by liberals within the Church of England – as contentious:

  • That sexual intercourse is exclusively reserved for marriage (para. 9)
  • That civil partnerships are not marriages and are not necessarily “predicated on the intention to engage in a sexual relationship” (para. 14)
  • That the church has no authorised liturgy relating to civil partnerships – and therefore clergy “should not provide services of blessing for those register a civil partnership” (para. 20)
  • That clergy who enter civil partnerships – whether same-sex or mixed-sex – are expected to live in line with the church’s teaching- e.g. remain celibate (para. 24)
  • That clergy are entitled to argue for a change of the church’s teaching on sexuality but not to ignore it (para. 25)

The statement is aptly summed up in the bishops’ conclusion:

“With opposite sex civil partnerships, and with those for same sex couples, the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged. For Christians, marriage – that is the lifelong union between a man and a woman, contracted with the making of vows – remains the proper context for sexual activity. In its approach to civil partnerships the Church seeks to uphold that standard, to affirm the value of committed, sexually abstinent friendships and to minister sensitively and pastorally to those Christians who conscientiously decide to order their lives differently.”

Faithful to Biblical sexual ethics

The bishops’ statement is to be applauded in that it remains faithful to Christian sexual ethics on a number of important points. The only right place for sexual activity is within a real marriage – even if only 4% of the population agrees.

Moreover, maintaining and restating the church’s understanding that – to the extent that they happen at all – same-sex relationships are to be sexually abstinent is an encouraging sign.

Unexpected statement

For years, the bishops have maintained this position on paper while rarely, if ever, explaining or promoting the church’s views. This statement feels like a bolt from the blue because the bishops have been so quiet for so long, just dropping soft signals suggesting that a change in teaching was around the corner.

I hope that we learn the right lessons from this – that staying silent only allows the cultural conversation to drift to a point where simply restating your position provokes criticism and ridicule.

The problem with civil partnerships

There are still problems with the church’s position. Civil partnerships, from the start, were designed to provide a substitute for marriage for same-sex, romantic relationships. They cannot be entered into by family members, and they are exclusive – if in a civil partnership, you cannot be married or enter a civil partnership with anyone else.

While the bishops are technically right that the nature of these relationships is unspecified, the cultural expectation and understanding is that this is an equivalent statement of romantic love to marriage.

But the purpose of romantic love is marriage and its fruits – to participate in romantic love with no intention, hope or possibility that it leads to marriage is to misuse it. So, the idea of the statement that civil partnerships, in and of themselves are essentially morally neutral is unconvincing.

The Church needs to uphold Biblical teaching on sexuality

Paragraph 25 highlights that clergy are entitled to argue for a change in the church’s teaching – through the church’s internal discussions (Living in Love and Faith) “and elsewhere”.

But clergy have vowed to uphold the church’s teaching. The church’s position is strong on the importance of marriage vows but does little to uphold ordination vows. It would have been helpful for the bishops to clarify that clergy should not use their pulpits – or, for example, media appearances – to flatly contradict the church’s teaching on marriage.

It is one thing to engage in internal discussions about changing the moral teachings that have been held universally throughout the church’s history – it is another thing to routinely undermine and disparage that teaching in public. It would have helped for the bishops to have been clearer on this point.

Nevertheless, we should be thankful to the bishops for this statement and for holding true to their words that the church’s position has not changed.

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