Thursday, 23 June 2011

Is the Synod's 'legal advice' on Civil Partnerships strictly legal?

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.
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  1. You'd better take a look at civil weddings.

  2. When I noticed your request in the previous post I thought: ‘Oh no, what fresh mischief is the Ugley Vicar planning...’

    I am forever baffled why so many make it their business to concern themselves with the morality and integrity of so few. It is staggering to think of the, at best, self-confidence and, at worst, cold arrogance of so many who think they know better than the individual and his or her relationship and dependence on God.

    When you turn on the news and hear the catalogue of murder and mayhem; when you consider that hundreds, if not thousands of people who died today in the ‘global south’ because of the lives we lead in the west; when you think of the empty churches, where 93% of the population don’t go on a Sunday; or our society where celebrity, material success and consumer trappings are the vacuous driving force for much of the nation... and I could go on with a depressing list of so much that is wrong – it is curious that the actions and morality of a tiny minority seem a matter of over inflated interest, wouldn’t you say? These ‘big things’ are difficult things to fix, they are challenging, they call into question the very value of religion and its power within society and the world; and perhaps they even convict the purveyors of religion of impotence?

    So perhaps it is easy to understand the attraction of spending a showery afternoon scouring a legal document and pointing out its flaws and implications for the Anglican Church? Perhaps it is just easier to criticise and pick holes in something that is used by 0.5% of the population and a tiny proportion of the episcopate. But in the scheme of things, does it really matter? Will the mission of the church be sabotaged because a few bishops are on Dorothy’s Christmas card list? The churches have been emptying for decades – since well before the ordination of women, the legalisation of homosexuality, or 1960s liberalism. The rot started elsewhere and its reasons are complex and disparate. Yet so much of conservative Christian time and energy seems bound up with the activities, issues and personal lives of some 2-3% of the population; painting them to be the problem, a symptom, if not the cause of many of society’s ills.

    Is this really proportionate or just a case of ‘displacement’ – in the psychological sense of the word. The beleaguered believers can’t affect the ‘big stuff’; so go for the soft targets, in the hope it will give a semblance of moral voice and fibre, but also, as the ‘law of playground’ teaches us, if you’re feeling oppressed or bullied, it can be rather cathartic and gives a sense of power to hit out at someone else further down the line.

    Oh I am sure my words will be dismissed as the rantings of liberal; but I can live with that. Whatever, even the most charitable and generous soul would find it hard to say the response of many in the conservative fold of the Anglican Church concerning homosexuality is proportionate – and perhaps this very fact proves my point.



    P.S. the word verification on the first attempt at posting the above was 'ooters'... Quite...

  3. John is correct.

    However (there had to be one otherwise why post!) the Civil Partnership Act itself, and the raft of orders that followed accompanied by the unequivocal clarity among government Ministers speeches as these were all progressed through Parliament saying that CP's were to be seen in law as the equivalent of Civil Marriage all have some standing here. Gosh, the Bishop of London went loopy over it all.

    The Act quite clearly states that CPs are intended to be lifelong.

    While sex is almost completely absent it rears its head in an interesting place!
    In laying out the grounds for voiding a Civil Partnership in section 50 1. the Act says:

    (c)at the time of its formation, the respondent was pregnant by some person other than the applicant;

    Now just think about that a while ..... I think there might be some trouble if the applicant had been the cause of the pregnancy!

    Perhaps most significant was that part of the legislation which "created family" - so look carefully at the new regulations relating to adoption and the recognition of all the "in laws".

    In fact, any reading of the legislation and what came with it quite clearly lays out what a Civil Partnership is even if as you rightly say there are no vows and claims made at the signing of the schedule.

    As to what the people say it is. Well I think that this has great significance, in its search for truth the Church has often relied on what the faithful believe and I think that apart from a few pedants like you and me John, nearly everyone else believes its a marriage!