Marriage is a creation ordinance, a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace. Marriage, defined as a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman, is central to the stability and health of human society. It continues to provide the best context for the raising of children.
This is what you would hear if you attended any marriage service in the Church of England. And the statement last week does indeed have many virtues, as (slightly surprisingly) Jeremy Pemberton points out:
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.
All three of these things are important, not least the fact that the statement treats people of different sexuality in precisely the same way. It is worth noting that, if the bishops had decided to call the Government’s bluff at this point, and said ‘Look this is a duck!’, in other words, that the legal differences between CPs and marriage were in fact negligible, then they would have needed to withdraw the previous statement, and ruled that same-sex clergy couples could not now be in CPs. No-one appears to have noticed this, and I wonder what the response to that would have been, especially at this stage in the Living in Love and Faith process?
This leads us into the question of the responses and criticism. The first common one was about the timing; why make this statement now, given all that is going on? The simple answer is that the Government changed the law, and this created a gap in the previous statement. Better say something now, before a clergy couple entered a CP and something had to be done retrospectively. Some complained about the closeness to the reporting of the Peter Ball affair—but that is completely spurious, as there is no real connection between establishment protection of a someone who abused young men, and the idea that marriage is the right place for sex. If anything, the latter is an appropriate response to the former.
But, secondly, there were loud howls of protest that a statement was being made whilst the Living in Love and Faith process was underway—howls based on a bizarre misapprehension. LLF has never involved suspending the current doctrine of the Church on marriage and sexuality—after all, weddings are continuing, and the liturgy continues to express that doctrine! In fact, LLF is not even designed to be a process that revises the doctrine of the Church on marriage.
Read it all.