A review of material from Southwark Cathedral to mark Civil Partnerships

Following the recent announcement on social media that two members of the clergy in the Diocese of Southwark celebrated entering into a Civil Partnership with ‘Eucharist, dinner and dancing’ at Southwark Cathedral the question was raised as to what rules the diocese had for the marking of Civil Partnerships in its churches.

Further enquiry revealed that there is a sheet which the Dean of Southwark Cathedral sends out to those enquiring about the possibility of marking their Civil Partnership in the Cathedral. This leaflet gives the following outline for the marking of a Civil Partnership in the context of a celebration of the Eucharist (the bold type and the italics are in the original text).

Readings

One partner is invited to read.

At the Intercessions

One partner is invited to lead these

Communion

The couple receive communion together before the rest of the congregation

After Communion

Following the prayer after communion the couple kneel at the altar rail and say together

Heavenly Father,

we offer you our souls and bodies,

our thoughts and words and deeds,

our love for one another.

Unite our wills in your will,

that we may grow together

in love and peace

all the days of our life;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Priest then says

Almighty God give you grace to persevere,

that he may complete in you

the work he has already begun,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Then follows the seasonal blessing of the whole congregation for which the couple remain kneeling at the altar rail. They then get up and go back to their seats and the Dismissal follows.

The issue that has subsequently been raised is whether this material is compatible with the guidelines contained in the House of Bishops’ ‘Pastoral Statement’ on Civil Partnerships published on 25 July 2005.[1]

Paragraph 27 summarises the approach taken in the Pastoral Statement as a whole. It declares:

‘…the Church’s reaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged. For Christians, marriage – that is the lifelong union between a man and a woman – remains the proper context for sexual activity. In its approach to civil partnerships the Church will continue to uphold this standard, to affirm the value of committed sexually abstinent friendships between people of the same sex and to minister sensitively and pastorally to those Christians who conscientiously decide to order their lives differently.’

On the basis of this overall approach paragraphs 16-18 give a set of guidelines relating to ‘The blessing of civil partnerships.’ These guidelines state:

‘16. It is likely that some who register civil partnerships will seek some recognition of their new situation and pastoral support by asking members of the clergy to provide a blessing for them in the context of an act of worship. The House believes that the practice of the Church of England needs to reflect the pastoral letter from the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Pentecost 2003 which said:

‘The question of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same-sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites.’

17. One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the new legislation is that people in a variety of relationships will be eligible to register a civil partners, some living consistently with the teaching of the Church, others not. In these circumstances it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships. In addition, 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.

18. It will be important, however, to bear in mind that registered partnerships do allow for a range of different situations – including those where the relationships is simply one of friendship. Hence, clergy need to have regard to the teaching of the church on sexual morality, celibacy, and the positive value of committed friendships within 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.’

What these paragraphs tell us is:

  • It would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in relation to the registration of a Civil Partnership;
  • Clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who register a Civil Partnership;
  • Clergy need to bear in mind the teaching of the Church on sexual morality, celibacy and the value of committed friendships;
  • Requests for prayer should be responded to pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.

The last point clearly needs to be understood in the light of what precedes it. Requests for prayer should not be met by the use of an authorised public liturgy (since such a liturgy should not exist). They should not be met by the provision of a service of blessing (since such services are not allowed). Finally, any form of prayer needs to be in line with the Church’s teaching (hence it cannot suggest either explicitly or implicitly that the Church approves of any form of sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage).

In the light of all this, how should we view the material that is being sent out by Southwark Cathedral?

First, while it is not a form of public liturgy that has been authorised by the Church of England it obviously is a form of public liturgy that has been authorised by the relevant authorities at Southwark Cathedral. As such it violates the House of Bishops guidelines.

Secondly, while the material does not contain the actual word ‘blessing,’ to bless someone means to ask in prayer that someone will experience the favour of God in a particular way and that is what is asked for in the prayers after communion which it contains. Furthermore, although the material does not constitute a separate ‘service of blessing’ it is an adaption of the normal Eucharistic liturgy for the specific purpose of blessing a Civil Partnership. The material therefore violates the spirit if not the letter of the House of Bishops guidelines.

Thirdly, were the material to be used in the case of a couple who were known to be in a gay or lesbian relationship it would suggest that the Church approves of same-sex sexual relationships, since the Church does not bless forms of relationship which it does not approve of as being in accordance with God’s will (which is why, for instance, it would not bless a polygamous relationship). It would therefore violate the requirement that forms of prayer should be in line with the Church’s teaching.

For these three reasons this material currently being used by Southwark Cathedral contravenes the 2005 House of Bishops guidelines and should be withdrawn.

If the response were to be made that such a withdrawal would violate the call by the Archbishops for a new spirit of ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ in the Church of England [2] the answer would be that the Archbishops’ statement does not amount to the wholesale cancellation of the existing teaching and practice of the Church of England. The 2005 Pastoral Statement remains in force and what it says should be observed unless and until it is withdrawn, amended or superseded.

M B Davie 24.7.17

[1] Civil Partnerships – A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England. Text at: https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2005/07/pr5605.aspx.

[2] Letter from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York following General Synod, 16 February 2017.

Text at: https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2017/02/letter-from-the-archbishops-  of-canterbury-and-york-following-general-synod.aspx

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