Readers of this blog will have noticed a request for information (now tracked down) about the content of what is known as a ‘Civil Partnership Schedule’.
This is the actual document the signing of which formally establishes a civil partnership, and the content is therefore important in expressing the nature of the relationship, just as marriage vows express the nature of marriage.
I point this out because the recently-issued legal guidance regarding the Equality Act and its impact on the appointment of bishops makes at least one highly questionable statement about civil partnerships, when it describes them as “forming an exclusive, lifelong bond with someone of the same sex”.
Apart from the personal details of the partners themselves, however, the Civil Partnership Schedule contains only the following statement:
I declare that I know of no legal reason why we may not register as each other’s civil partner. I understand that on signing this document we will be forming a civil partnership with each other.
Indeed, a footnote even points out that “Civil partners may choose to speak these words to each other, but doing so is not a necessary part of their civil partnership.” All that is necessary is to sign the document in front of witnesses. Certainly there is no statement such as ‘til death us do part’, which would express a lifelong commitment. Similarly, there is no requirement of ‘exclusivity’, other than the exclusion of entering another civil partnership or a marriage.
Now there are, of course, many actions and words that have been added on to enhance civil partnership ceremonies as they are conducted by Registrars. One county council, for example, includes vows of lifelong commitment, an exchange of rings, etc. But the point is that none of these are a legal requirement (though that is not clear on the website). Nor do they necessarily follow from the legal nature of a civil partnership. Rather, civil partnership is, in some important regards, what the partners choose to make of it.
This is why the legal guidance given to the General Synod is able to state that a civil partnership may conform to the Church of England’s requirement of celibacy. No such requirement could be made of a married couple because sexual intercourse is intrinsic to marriage. But a civil partnership is basically what it says on the tin — or rather in the Schedule — and therefore a sexually celibate civil partnership is neither more nor less such than a sexually active civil partnership. You can have partnerships with sex or without.
Similarly, you can have partnerships that are ‘exclusive’ and partnerships that are not, since civil partners are not required to declare that they will “keep only unto” each other. They may choose to do so, or they may choose not to do so, but it is no less a civil partnership for all that.
Now this is not to imply that civil partners are typically less sincere or less committed to one another than married couples. Nevertheless, such personal sincerity or commitment is neither required nor suggested in the underlying contract. All that is expressed in actual words is (a) there is no impediment to the partnership and (b) that each party intends to enter into a civil partnership with the other.
What the legal advice given to the Synod has done, unfortunately, is to conflate the public perception with the legal position. Hence the above statement in context continues,
... a civil partnership, even if celibate, ... involves forming an exclusive, lifelong bond with someone of the same sex, creates family ties and is generally viewed in wider society as akin to same-sex marriage.
The ‘general view’, however, is not the same as the legal reality. This may seem mere pedantry. Some might argue that ‘civil partnership’ is what society perceives it to be and treats it as. Nevertheless, lawyers cannot afford to be so casual, and the lawyer’s reaction to some of what is said above about what is formed by a civil partnership has to be ‘Oh no it does not’.
It was, after all, precisely this ‘pedantry’ which enabled the bishops to allow clergy to enter into civil partnerships in the first place, since such partnerships are formally not “akin to same-sex marriage” and a requirement for celibacy could therefore be imposed. That being the case, however, the same clarity ought to be retained in the discussions now being undertaken about the significance of such partnerships for church appointments.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.