Church services after Civil Partnerships - advice for clergy

blessing of gay coupleServices after Civil Partnerships

To help clergy and churches respond appropriately to requests for services of blessing after Civil Partnerships we reproduce here a copy of the advice prepared in 2008 for the Clergy of the London Diocese by Chancellor Nigel Seed

CHURCH SERVICES AFTER A CIVIL PARTNERSHIP

(This is intended to be a general exposition of the relevant law and is not to be read as referring to any specific case. In particular this is not directed at or written in the light of recent events at the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great in the Diocese of London. In fact this paper, which has been produced in response to queries from various clergy, was substantially completed before that particular service took place.)

The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships of July 2005 specifically precludes the clergy of the Church of England from conducting "services of blessing" for those who have entered into a civil partnership. It states unequivocally:

“Clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.”

 However, it also accepts that members of the Church of England, including the clergy, are entitled to enter into such a partnership. It does not suggest, nor indeed could it, that being a party to a civil partnership is contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England. Indeed it enjoins appropriate pastoral provision if requested:

 “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.” (Paragraph 18)

Nothing in the House of Bishops' statement precludes any church service, simply one of blessing. The service provided by the House of Bishops in 1985 for those who have undergone a civil marriage is not a "service of blessing" as was confirmed in the General Synod in 2005 by the Chairman of the House of Bishops:

Revd Michael Ainsworth (Manchester):Could the Bishop confirm that in fact in terms of services after civil marriage the Church of England properly refers to ‘services of dedication and thanksgiving (sic)’ rather than ‘services of blessing’.

The Bishop of Norwich:That is correct.

            (Transcript of Proceedings of General Synod Wed 16th November 2005)

In fact the services provided by the House of Bishops in 1985 for use after a civil marriage are described as:  “Services of Prayer and Dedication after Civil Marriage”.

The relevant canon law for church services is Canon B5 which provides:

"Of the discretion of ministers in conduct of public prayer

1. The minister who is to conduct the service may in his discretion make and use variations which are not of substantial importance in any form of service authorized by Canon B 1 according to particular circumstances.

2. The minister having the cure of souls may on occasions for which no provision is made in The Book of Common Prayer or by the General Synod under Canon B 2 or by the Convocations, archbishops, or Ordinary under Canon B 4use forms of service considered suitable by him for those occasions and may permit another minister to use the said forms of service.

3. All variations in forms of service and all forms of service used under

this Canon shall be reverent and seemly and shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.

4. If any question is raised concerning the observance of the provisions of this Canon it may be referred to the bishop in order that he may give such pastoral guidance, advice or directions as he may think fit, but such reference shall be without prejudice to the matter in question being made the subject matter of proceedings under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963.

5. In this Canon the expression ‘form of service’ has the same meaning as in Canon B 1.

Now, no provision for a service after a civil marriage has been made by the General Synod, the Convocations, archbishops or, so far as I am aware, any diocesan bishop. Equally there has been no prohibition by any of the above of such services, other than the prohibition of “services of blessing” by the House of Bishops referred to above. The House of Bishops of itself cannot make canon law, but its guidelines, until overruled, might be regarded as indicative of the doctrine of the Church of England and a code of conduct for the clergy. But whether or not that is the case, there is in any event no prohibition on a service in such circumstances which is not a service of blessing, providing that “it is reverent and seemly and is neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”.

Statutory civil partnerships are not “marriages”; that was made clear in parliament by ministers at the time the legislation was debated. This law merely provides financial benefits and entitlements to the parties who undergo a civil partnership registration. It is silent on the subject of physical/sexual activity, unlike the law of marriage, which provides for annulment for a failure to consummate, thus providing an underlying assumption that there will be sexual activity within marriage. Marriage services provided by the Church of England also refer to, or presume, procreation. Whilst engagement in sexual activity may be in the mind of those entering into a civil partnership, and is certainly in the mind of their detractors and the media, it is not in the law. So the entering into a civil partnership of itself cannot represent a departure from the doctrine of the Church England – in so far as engagement in homosexual activity can be said to be contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England; but that is not relevant to the strict issue in hand.

So far as a service which is not a service of blessing is concerned, useful guidance might be found in the Services of Prayer and Dedication provided by the House of Bishops in 1985, when the blessing of a second marriage with the other spouse still alive would have been a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England. Not all of that material would of course be appropriate, but, interestingly for a service that is not “a Service of Blessing”, it does include a blessing of the two individuals, but not of their union.

Thus the position is clear. Unless and until one of the relevant authorities listed in canon B5.2 provides a form service under canon B2, beneficed clergy (or other clergy authorised by them) may use a form of service they consider suitable in respect of a civil partnership providing that service does not amount to a “service of blessing” and is reverent and seemly and is not contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.

The Worshipful Nigel Seed Q.C.

Chancellor and Vicar-General of the Diocese of London.

What services are Clergy permitted to offer couple in same sex relationships in the Church of England?

Revd Brian Lewis. 20th June 2008

The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships of July 2005 is clear that clergy are not authorised to offer “Services of Blessing”. But this leaves us with as many questions unanswered as it answers.

While Clergy do indeed owe Canonical obedience to their bishops, the House of Bishops’ pastoral statements do not have the force of Canon Law and it is not at all clear that there is a canonical prohibition of such services. Indeed Canon B5 (discussed below) may well give clergy the “local option” of providing such services. But while there is a strong argument to be made that Canon B5 is sufficiently permissive to allow for the blessing of same sex relationships the argument becomes even stronger if we first consider the significance of the phrase “a Service of Blessing”.

In the Church of England if a heterosexual couple contract a Civil Marriage they may then seek a “Church Blessing”. They will seek a “Church Blessing” but in fact they will receive a “Service of Prayer and Dedication”. Recently the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall contracted a Civil Marriage, they then went to St George’s Chapel Windsor where the Archbishop of Canterbury presided at what was described in the media and popularly understood as a “Service of Blessing”. It was a “Service of Prayer and Dedication” using the rite provided at the direction of the House of Bishops (1985) for such occasions.

This is relevant to the vexed question of what services in the Church of England are legitimate in relation to same sex relationships and Civil partnerships as can be seen when we consider the following question and its supplementary at the General Synod of November 2005:

Question 12. Revd Andrew Watson (London) asked the Chairman of the House of Bishops:

In view of its potential for serious theological/ethical confusion, does the House of Bishops intend to forbid the clergy of the Church of England from conducting rites of blessing for civil partnerships?

The Bishop of Norwich (Rt Revd Graham James): In the pastoral statement of 25 July this year, the House of Bishops stated that ‘clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership’. I think that is pretty unambiguous language for a document in the Church of England.

Revd Michael Ainsworth (Manchester): Could the Bishop confirm that in fact in terms of services after civil marriage the Church of England properly refers to ‘services of dedication and thanksgiving’ rather than ‘services of blessing’.

The Bishop of Norwich: That is correct.

(Transcript of Proceedings of General Synod Wed 16th November 2005)

Though the Reverend Michael Ainsworth and the Chair of the House of Bishops were slightly in error in their question and answer in that the forms of service authorised by the House of Bishops are titled “Services of Prayer and Dedication after Civil Marriage” not “Services of Dedication and Thanksgiving” the point remains that the services we all normally think of as “Blessing Services” are otherwise titled in the official language of the Church of England. Since the “Services of Prayer and Dedication after Civil Marriage” are explicitly declared not to be “Services of Blessing” they may be a guide to what would be deemed not to be a Service of Blessing in another context.

The Services of Prayer and Dedication commended by the House of Bishops in 1985 includes the following material:

N and N , you have committed yourselves to each other in marriage,

and your marriage is recognized by law. The Church of Christ understands marriage to be,

in the will of God, the union of a man and a woman, for better, for worse,

for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,

till parted by death. Is this your understanding of the covenant and promise that you have made?

Husband and wife: It is.

The minister says to the husband: N, have you resolved to be faithful to your wife, forsaking all others, so long as you both shall live?

Husband: That is my resolve, with the help of God.

The minister says to the wife: N, have you resolved to be faithful to your husband, forsaking all others, so long as you both shall live?

Wife: That is my resolve, with the help of God.

Heavenly Father, by your blessing let these rings be to N and N a symbol of unending love and faithfulness and of the promises they have made to each other; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The husband and wife kneel and say together

Heavenly Father, we offer you our souls and bodies, our thoughts and words and deeds,four 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 minister 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.

The Lord bless and watch over you, the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you,

the Lord look kindly on you and give you peace all the days of your life. Amen.

and among the concluding prayers

Almighty God, you send your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of all your people. Open the hearts of these your servants to the riches of his grace, that they may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The House of Bishops is quite clear the inclusion of this material including the couples’ declaration of commitment to their new state followed by the pronouncing of a blessing upon them does not make this a Service of Blessing, it remains a Service of Prayer and Dedication. Including this or other similar liturgical material does not turn a service of Prayer into a Service of Blessing according to the House of Bishops (this may seem strange but the Bishops position is clear).

The question then becomes does the Church of England permit clergy to conduct a similar service for same sex couples since a couples’ declaration of commitment to their new state followed by the pronouncing of a blessing upon them, does not make a service of prayer a “A Service of Blessing”?

Now it is true that a form of service of Prayer and Dedication for use after the registering of a Civil Partnership has not been authorised by the House of Bishops, but in the Church of England that is not the same thing as saying such a service is not permitted.

Under the provisions of Canon B5 the clergy of the Church of England are granted a wide ranging discretion in the conduct of “Public Prayer”

Canon B5 is as follows

B 5 Of the discretion of ministers in conduct of public prayer

1. The minister who is to conduct the service may in his discretion make and use variations which are not of substantial importance in any form of service authorized by Canon B 1 according to particular circumstances.

2. The minister having the cure of souls may on occasions for which no provision is made in The Book of Common Prayer or by the General Synod under Canon B 2 or by the Convocations, archbishops, or Ordinary under Canon B 4 use forms of service considered suitable by him for those occasions and may permit another minister to use the said forms of service.

3. All variations in forms of service and all forms of service used under this Canon shall be reverent and seemly and shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.

4. If any question is raised concerning the observance of the provisions of this Canon it may be referred to the bishop in order that he may give such pastoral guidance, advice or directions as he may think fit, but such reference shall be without prejudice to the matter in question being made the subject matter of proceedings under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963.

5. In this Canon the expression ‘form of service’ has the same meaning as in Canon B 1.

The minister is constrained principally by the proviso that the service must not contravene the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter, and that if the service is referred to the Bishop he may give direction.

The final decision on whether or not any particular service contravened the essential doctrine of the Church of England could only be determined by bringing a case against him/her under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963, or the more recent Clergy Discipline Measure. As far as we are aware no such case has been brought (nor do we believe it likely).

Statements by the House of Bishop do not suggest that differing opinions on this issue contradict the essential doctrine of the Church of England and we could reasonably expect a bishop to give direction accordingly if a particular case was referred to him.

The 1991 Statement of the House of Bishops Issues in Human Sexuality recognises a diversity of view and the place of conscience within the Church of England.

Paragraph 5.6 states:

5.6 At the same time there are others who are conscientiously convinced that this way of abstinence is not the best for them, and that they have more hope of growing in love for God and neighbour with the help of a loving and faithful homophile partnership, in intention lifelong, where mutual self-giving includes the physical expression of their attachment. In responding to this conviction it is important to bear in mind the historic tension in Christian ethical thinking between the God-given moral order and the freedom of the moral agent. While insisting that conscience needs to be informed in the light of that order, Christian tradition also contains an emphasis on respect for free conscientious judgement where the individual has seriously weighed the issues involved. The homophile is only one in a range of such cases. While unable, therefore, to commend the way of life just described as in itself as faithful a reflection of God's purposes in creation as the heterophile, we do not reject those who sincerely believe it is God's call to them. We stand alongside them in the fellowship of the Church, all alike dependent upon the undeserved grace of God. All those who seek to live their lives in Christ owe one another friendship and understanding. It is therefore important that in every congregation such homophiles should find fellow-Christians who will sensitively and naturally provide this for them. Indeed, if this is not done, any professions on the part of the Church that it is committed to openness and learning about the homophile situation can be no more than empty words.

Further the July 2005 Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships of the House of Bishops while explicitly rejecting “services of blessing” for those entering civil partnerships clearly envisages some form of service is within the range of permitted action;

“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.” (paragraph 18)

The recent debates at General Synod acknowledged the diversity of opinion about human sexuality within the Church of England and there was no suggestion that differing from the view of the House of Bishops Pastoral Statement is “contrary to nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”.

It therefore seems extremely unlikely that a public service of Prayer and Dedication would lie outside the provision of Canon B5.

Brian Lewis

Postscript on the relevance to The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.

It is entirely possible that if we were to consider the content of a service used as “A Service of Blessing for a Same Sex Relationship” under a “local option” provision in TEC or ACC we could find that the very same service was permitted as a “pastoral response” within the liberty provided to the clergy in the conduct of Public Prayer by Canon B5 within the Church of England (provided of course it was not titled a “Service of Blessing”)