by the Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford, Canon Chancellor at Southwark Cathedral and author of “God, Gender, Sex and Marriage“
Readers of Via Media, I confess…I am a woman priest in a civil partnership and I love the Church of England!
This does not mean that I am not hurt and frustrated with the institution which I serve in the light of the House of Bishops Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships. Institutions can be abusive, and we have seen evidence of that in the Peter Ball case. But at their best, institutions can provide a measure of stability and tell stories that last longer than individual lifetimes.
I suppose that all I can say is that I am not yet convinced that the Church of England, as an institution, is a lost cause.
There was a time when the institutional character of the Church of England meant that it shared and shaped the moral and ethical life of the nation. The Church was there to bless, to celebrate and to mourn at key events in the lives of individuals and the nation. Liturgies, ceremonies, prayers and ritual provide space for people to ponder the mysteries of life and love at such important times.
Parish clergy know this and welcome couples of all manner and conditions of life who want to get married in church. Something in the symbolism of the liturgy speaks to them; the joining of hands, the giving of rings, the language of feasts, sacrifice, hospitality, generosity…And like every symbolic event, all its parts combine to make up a whole which is greater than the parts.
Our liturgy tells us that marriage has a threefold purpose for the couple who share in God’s generous gift of life-creation; are shaped in holiness by the joys and challenges of sharing their spouse’s daily life; and enter a relationship of mutual sacrifice that offers care and protection in times of vulnerability. This is love in all its aspects; charity, agape and eros.
The Church understands marriage as both a social and spiritual event. It is a legal and social contract, a covenant, a sacrament. It is a contract made between the couple that the State and the Church recognise (and give equal status to, whether that contract is enacted in a church or a registry office).
Trying to unpick the strands might seem like a sensible theological exercise, but only serves to pull the whole thing apart. Reductionism is not serving the institution well, nor does it reflect the rich diversity of human identity and experience. The Living in Love and Faith process properly engages with the complexity of the issues within a rapidly changing context, in a way which, regrettably, the recent Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships does not.
More has been revealed in the past couple of days about the poor process that resulted in the publication of the Statement, which were handled by the wrong people and agreed, under the usual pressure of time, by the House of Bishops. A statement of this kind was never going to address the real issues facing the Church, and the bishops in their teaching and pastoral roles.
The problem, which many of us might argue is of their own making, has its roots is the House of Bishops decision to approve the legislation that introduced Civil Partnerships instead of equal marriage back in 2004. The pace of change was such that compromise was inevitable and so bishops offered limited support to civil partnerships for same sex couples because civil partnership looked different from marriage, on the spurious argument that since penetrative sexual intercourse was not a condition of fulfilment of the contract of civil partnership, a civil partnership could be a celibate relationship.
The Church has chosen to imagine that the defining difference between a Civil Partnership and Marriage is the place of sexual activity within them. There was a bit of bluster over the weekend about the place of vows, but this simply doesn’t hold in the case of civil marriage. But this is not the way the world beyond the Church understands what is going on here, and as a result we are losing the opportunity to offer purpose and meaning to both marriage and civil partnerships.
If the purpose of marriage is reduced to that of sexual intercourse which is open to the procreation of children, we loose the beauty of marriage in later life, as well as the marriage that embraces people with disabilities or infertility as the result of illness, never mind the possibility of marriage between people whose sexual activity is not procreative because of their gender or gender realignment.
If the House of Bishops persists in the illusion that civil partnerships are a legal mechanism for protecting inheritance rights in celibate friendships, they are losing the opportunity to support a step that could provide much needed stability and protection for the millions of children living in households with parents who are not married.
Those who campaigned for equal access to civil partnership were generally thoughtful middle class people with a healthy scepticism of the historic legacy of patriarchal marriage. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan who campaigned for equal access to civil partnership spoke about their desire to “formalise their relationship in a more modern way, focused on equality and respect.” The tragedy is that the church could have expanded its framing of marriage in this way decades ago, emphasising the importance of marriage as a soul-making, hospitable institution which serves the whole community and enables the flourishing of all who participate.
The greatest benefit of the new legislation may well be to co-habiting couples who cannot afford the cost of a “traditional” wedding, or who do not see their relationship as having a religious dimension. How sad that the House of Bishops could not have used the opportunity to welcome this new way of being married – blessing and encouraging all that is good, protecting the weak and vulnerable.
We may yet come to the point where we can do this (and I for one heartily pray for that day) but in the meantime, I do wonder if the House of Bishops might have recognised that they have plenty of listening, discerning and learning yet to do, and have taken the advice from Wittengenstein, “that whereof we cannot speak we should keep silent”?