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Church News

Church of England bishops say sex is for marriage not civil partnerships

by Cara Bentley

The House of Bishops says church teaching on marriage means sex should only be for a man and a woman within a marriage and not a civil partnership.  

In 2019, the law changed to allow people of the opposite sex to also obtain a civil partnership, having previously only been available to gay couples.

The Church of England's House of Bishops, which makes up one of the three Houses of the General Synod, has now released its response to whether these partnerships, and indeed homosexual ones, should receive blessings in the Church of England. 

The group is made up of 42 diocesan bishops and nine elected suffragan bishops as well as the Bishop of Dover and Bishop to the Armed Forces. 

These clergy have clarified that they do not think civil partnerships, even between heterosexual partners, reflect the Bible's vision of marriage because it does not require sexual commitment or have to be a sexual relationship, nor does it have solemn vows which could be broken. 

For example, fidelity and consummating the relationship is part of a Christian marriage but not necessarily required by a civil partnership. They add that people may enter a civil partnership with no intention of sexual intimacy, again, making it different to marriage. 

The church leaders therefore conclude that civil partnerships are fundamentally different and that only marriage is a proper reflection of God's vision of marriage and sex, meaning they can only bless marriages. 

The bishops write: "Because of the ambiguity about the place of sexual activity within civil partnerships of both sorts, and the church's teaching that marriage between a man and a woman is the proper context for sexual intercourse, we do not believe that it is possible for the church unconditionally to accept civil partnerships as unequivocally reflecting the teaching of the church."

It continues: "One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the civil partnerships 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. In these circumstances, the House continues to believe that 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."

They add that there is a document being written, called the Living in Love and Faith project, expected in 2020, which will likely argue for a change in the Church's teaching on marriage. 

The statement also explains that the bishops are not against civil partnerships in general as a reflection of friendship, saying: "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."

It adds that civil partnerships are not incompatible with being ordained, providing the ordinand is willing to give assurances to their bishop that the relationship is in keeping with the Church's teaching on celibacy outside of marriage. 

It also guides clergy that those wishing to be ordained and enter an opposite sex civil partnership should be willing to explain why they have rejected the religious connotations of marriage. 

The Church of England bishops conclude that their teaching has not changed but that for Christians, marriage is "the lifelong union between a man and a woman, contracted with the making of vows" and "remains the proper context for sexual activity."

You can read the full statement here. 

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