The latest pastoral guidance by the Bishops of the Church of England is designed to address the change in the law in England and Wales that has now opened up Civil Partnerships to opposite sex couples as well as same sex ones.
In the guidance they have provided the bishops make one or two things clear:
- Sex is for heterosexual marriage and nowhere else
- That civil partnerships are a form of friendship
- That they should be sexually abstinent, whoever is in the CP
Let’s look at the good things first. First of all, this is clear guidance. No one can be in any doubt about where the bishops stand over the question of sexual relationships. Secondly, at least it does not discriminate further against LGBT people – it takes precisely the same stance over the sexual lives of heterosexuals as well. Thirdly, there is a certain bravery about offering guidance that is so massively at variance with the mores of the time. According to a recent survey, only 4% of British people now think that sex should wait until marriage in all cases.
That is all that I think can truly be said in its favour. The Guidance has been received with obloquy. Here are some of the reasons why.
Having a sexual ethic that says sex is only for marriage between a heterosexual couple made quite a lot of sense when there was no reliable contraception and no antibiotics. It did not stop people having all kinds of sex, but as an ideal it made a lot of sense and offered protection to the most vulnerable – the young women who would get left holding the babies. In the days before social security and child support, when single parents were almost unknown because a single woman with a child simply could not survive without independent means, only family and societal pressure could oblige young men who fathered children out of wedlock to do the decent thing; marry and support their children. It didn’t work with rich men who had no compunction in abandoning girls of a lower social status. So that ethic wasn’t just about an ideal of virginity, it connected with the real lives of almost everyone. There could be and often was real cruelty in society’s response to those who fell short of this norm, but there was also sometimes real compassion.
But if the bishops are going to adhere to this ethical norm, which has an uncertain basis in Scripture, which assumes for the most part that women and children are the property of men, they had better start by explaining why. Telling us it is what the Church’s doctrine teaches is not an answer – why does the doctrine teach it (if it does)? Why is there nothing else that can be said about sex, except no? Why have medical advances made no difference to what we have to say? If there was really good quality relationship teaching coming out of the House of Bishops about personal and sexual relations people might be more inclined to listen. But there isn’t. All we have is a Church under siege for the way it has handled sexual offending and continues to behave extremely defensively towards victims and survivors.
Again, some consistency would help them. When Prince William, as he then was, was going to marry Miss Kate Middleton, the Archbishop of York was asked about their decision to live together before marriage. His rather flippant and tasteless answer made no reference to the importance of virginity and abstinence, but rather suggested that he assumed they would be having sex – “Taste the milk before you buy the cow”. Why should we take any notice of pastoral guidance which says the opposite?
There is, in this guidance, which follows the lines or argument of the 2014 guidance about same-sex marriage, one novel twist. There is an attempt to distinguish between civil partnerships and marriage by focusing on vows. Vows are not obligatory at a CP, though many people entering one choose to have vows. One senses the bishops reaching for anything that might increase the distance they want to create between marriage and CP. But this is not a help to them.
For a start, I don’t know of any bishop who would say that a heterosexual civil marriage is not a marriage. Yet it is not a requirement that couples contracting a heterosexual civil marriage use any form of vows at all. They are often introduced – but they form no part of the legal requirement. Other religious communities also contract marriages without vows – the Orthodox, for example.
The bishops make a lot of sex – and nothing at all of love. Sex is mentioned forty-nine times in the Guidance, love not once. They correctly point out that civil partnerships do not presuppose sexual intimacy and can be simply a kind of covenanted friendship. They hold on this as being the reason they can permit clergy to be in same-sex civil partnerships – because they assume them all to be celibate. Daring bishops may have asked for assurances that this is so, but they are not really supposed to do that these days. Obedient clergy may be adhering to this discipline. There is no way of telling.
Marriages, they think, presuppose sexual relations. But this is, of course, mistaken. There are lots of sexless marriages contracted for all kinds of reasons. There always have been. They have all been marriages, just as much as the ones where the couples have an enthusiastic and energetic sex life. Sex, in and of itself, does not make a marriage. Marriages, in the old language, can be consummated. But they are marriages anyway. Non-consummation is a ground for a marriage to be annulled – at least in the case of opposite-sex marriages. This notion was not included in the legislation for same-sex marriages.
My own experience is that, under cross-examination, an Anglican bishop and a senior Church House official were quite unable to offer any convincing explanation of the essential difference between a opposite-sex marriage, a same-sex marriage and a civil partnership. The doctrine of the Church tells us that marriage is “in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.” This doctrine is trotted out cheerfully by the supporters of the bishops’ views. They never really explain satisfactorily why the indissolubility of marriage, which it seems to me the plain meaning of these words expresses, is now more observed in the breach. And if that feature of the doctrine can be flexed, as it is, to support and permit remarriage after divorce, then why can’t other aspects of it?
Lying behind this latest guidance is the bishops’ opposition to same-sex marriage. There has been no attempt to develop a sexual ethic that takes account of any of the changes of the last century. With those changes have come also huge social revolution in peoples’ personal and sexual lives. There has been determined resistance at a formal level to the changes that have brought some equality and dignity to the lives of LGBT people.
The sexual revolution has not been without its victims. Human beings hurt themselves and others just as they always have done. But, as even Justin Welby could recognise, same sex relationships can be “stellar” in their quality, as can opposite sex ones. So too can civil partnerships of both kinds. The bishops need to do a lot more work to explain to us how and why what happens in their different bedrooms is determinative of the goodness or otherwise of the relationship.
They also need to focus more on love and generosity, and on the contributions that good relationships make to our society. These contributions take all kinds of forms – as diverse as the homes they come out of. They all need encouraging.
The sad thing about this Guidance is that it reeks of an attempt to maintain some consistency with earlier offerings. But that is an internal conversation – it is simply arse-covering, and its audience are the conservatives in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion who are always quick to see heresy in any softening of tone or content in the church’s teaching. Just look at the criticisms that are currently being aimed at Steven Cottrell, the Archbishop of York designate.
This guidance offers nothing pastoral. It never deals with the deeper questions about why doctrines are as they are. And if the bishops believe their own rhetoric, and people are asking deep questions about how to live, then a dogmatic response like this is worse than useless when what is needed is an apologetic for the Christian life as a joyful calling.