Church of England gives blessing to recognising civil partnerships
The Church of England yesterday gave a green light to wedding-style services for couples in civil partnerships despite its official opposition to same-sex marriage.
A report from the Church’s doctrine watchdog urged priests to devise “pastoral accommodations” for gay couples” and to be “flexible”.
It said the aim was to enable them to enjoy a “closer approximation” to marriage.
The senior bishop who drafted the missive to priests insisted that it did not amount to a policy u-turn and that an official ban on formal "blessings" for civil partnerships remained in place.
But he said it was clear there was a need for committed same-sex couples to be given recognition and “compassionate attention” from the Church, including special prayers.
Liberal priests, who already conduct unofficial dedication and thanksgiving for gay couples who are not allowed to marry, said it amounted to the first official endorsement for what they do.
The Church of England leadership has been strongly opposed to David Cameron’s plan’s to redefine marriage which it maintains must be between a man and a woman.
But the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, has spoken of having “no truck with homophobia” and described gay couples having a “stunning” level of commitment.
Church of England rules prevent priests conducting civil partnership ceremonies or performing formal “blessing” services afterwards, similar to those previously offered to divorcees when they could not remarry in church.
But scores of such services take place under the radar across the country every year, usually called services of thanksgiving or dedication to avoid falling foul of the rules.
They vary from small, informal prayers to full wedding-like services complete with a celebration of the eucharist.
High profile churches such as Southwark Cathedral and St Martin-in-the-Fields in London are among those in which some form of dedication for civil partnerships take place openly.
The report by the Church’s Faith and Order Commission, chaired by the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Rev Christopher Cocksworth, a leading traditionalist, insisted that marriage should remain between a man and a woman and said that gay relationships fell short of God’s “ideal”.
But it also condemned “censorious judgment” and urged priests not to treat the issue of recognising civil partnerships as “simply closed”, urging them to approach the question on a case-by-case basis.
“In pastoral responses a degree of flexibility may be called for in finding ways to express the Church’s teaching practically,” it said.
“In affirming its belief in marriage as the form the creator has given us for intimate and permanent relationship of a man and a woman, the Church does not treat questions of what is possible in hard circumstances or exceptional conditions as simply closed. They require pastoral wisdom.”
It draws a direct parallel between civil partnerships and questions the Church faced in the past over whether to marry divorcees or even the approach taken by clerics in Africa when deciding how to deal with people in polygamous marriages who then convert to Christianity.
“What [the Church] can do is devise accommodations for specific conditions, bearing witness in special ways to the abiding importance of the norm,” it adds.
“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.”
Bishop Cocksworth insisted that there was no change in policy and that the Church was not calling for “public, formal blessing services”.
He said that marriage was the “designated relationship” for heterosexual couples but that the law had now created a special class of relationship for gay couples – civil partnerships.
“People within them deserve respect and compassionate attention from the Church, care and prayer," he said.
“The form of the prayer will depend upon the particular case in hand.”
He said the Church needed to accommodate those for whom “the ideal of marriage isn’t possible for all sorts of reasons.”
Rev Dr Giles Fraser, a leading liberal cleric, said that it was clear from the document that the Church’s stance had shifted even if the official policy had not.
“What this is saying is that you can bless civil partnerships as long as you don’t say that is what you are doing," he said.
“They are winking at people like me saying ‘be creative’ – it is a classic Anglican fudge.
“In effect what it is saying is you can do it as long as you don’t say that is what you are doing – call it something different, be as imaginative as you can.
“But the truth is this is how change happens in the Church of England.”
It came as the Archbishop of Wales signalled that the Church in Wales should reconsider its teaching on homosexuality.
He told the Church’s governing body that it should also debate cutting its last links to the state in response to gay marriage.