When I compared this headline [in the Telegraph] to the actual document, my first comment (to someone else) was that it was "hard to stomach". Frankly, I think it was mischievous and misleading, as were the comments by Giles Fraser, which seemed almost designed to muddy the waters further.
Things are not helped by the apallingly opaque language of the statement itself. However, it has to be read in conjunction with the existing 'pastoral statement' on civil partnerships issued by the House of Bishops in 2005.
That statement was itself problematic, but in the relevant section, "The Blessing of Civil Partnerships", it makes clear that the position of the Primates of the Communion, adopted in 2003, is to be upheld, that when it came to the blessing of same-sex unions, ‘we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites". However, the 2005 statement goes on to say, "One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the new legislation is that people in a variety of relationships will be eligible to register as civil partners, some living consistently with the teaching of the Church, others not" (17). Hence it rejected the idea of formal liturgy connected with registering civil partnerships and added, "the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership." (my emphasis).
However, it did allow for a variety of responses, given the potential variety of partnerships: "It will be important, however, to bear in mind that registered partnerships do allow for a range of different situations- including those where the relationship is simply one of friendship." (18). "Hence ..." paragraph 18 continues,
"... clergy need to have regard to the teaching of the church on sexual morality, celibacy, and the positive value of committed friendships in the Christian tradition. Where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case."Now we may feel that this is unnecessarily convoluted or pastorally unhelpful overall, but that is the position the House of Bishops has adopted and I don't think the new statement changes that. Having touched on the issues of remarriage after divorce and African responses to polygamy, it says this:
48. [...] With regard to civil partnerships, which are not marriages but raise some analogous issues, the Bishops addressed what might be an appropriate form of pastoral response in 2005. (15) The wider questions surrounding these continue to be a matter of study.
49. The meaning of such pastoral accommodations [ie to divorce, to polygamy and to civil partnerships] can be misunderstood, as though the Church were solving pastoral difficulties by redefining marriage from the ground up, which it cannot do. What it can do is devise accommodations for specific conditions, bearing witness in special ways to the abiding importance of the norm. Well-designed accommodations proclaim the form of life given by God’s creative goodness and bring those
in difficult positions into closer approximation to it. They mark the point where teaching and pastoral care coincide.
The footnote to 15 above then refers directly to what I have quoted from the 2005 statement: "15. Civil Partnerships: A Pastoral Statement from the House of Bishops, para. 18: ‘Where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership, they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.’"
In other words, nothing is necessarily envisaged by the new statement that is not already permitted under the existing provisions. In summary,
- no approved public liturgy connected with civil partnerships
- no blessing of civil partnerships
- but prayer in relation to a civil partnership where it takes proper account of the teaching of the church on sexual morality, celibacy and the positive value of committed friendships in the Christian tradition.
I hope this clarifies things.
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