I find much to enjoy in the life and legends of my patron saint. As a vigorous defender of the traditional faith against the liberalizing movement of his day, Bishop Nicholas was a fine role model. The rescuing of his saintly remains from the land of the infidel, requiring as it did diplomacy, political acumen, nerve and cunning, offers a powerful insight into some of the priorities of eleventh century Christian Europe. The story of his ransoming of three children about to be sold into slavery carries an important lesson of social justice, that should be better known and appreciated in our day.

On the other hand, his unfortunate mutation into Santa Claus is a sad legacy of twentieth century commercialism. And now, will he be linked with civil partnerships, for it is on his day that they first come into law in this country? Is he to become a so-called gay icon?

Known as a kind and generous man, with a great love of justice, may his prayers protect from abuse many of the same-sex couples, who will be contracting the new partnerships at the first opportunity possible, namely fifteen days later. If individuals, in good conscience, wish to take advantage of what the law permits, we must be cautious before we condemn them. And let us too pray that they are not abused in the name of Our Lord. If the government has introduced bad legislation, it is the government that should be vigorously challenged and censured, not those individuals who seek the rights and protection of the law.

It was unfortunate that the House of Bishops’ Response (the document we discussed in September’s issue) fell into the same trap: it should have condemned the legislation more thoroughly and unequivocally; this would have provided the proper context for its rather confusing judgements offered to individual couples. Much of the upset from the Evangelical wing has arisen because they simply do not understand the nature of the Act. Since so many of them live abroad, this is hardly surprising. Few decent people believe that legislation from the Mother of Parliaments could be quite so deliberately deceitful.
Because the registration of a civil partnership is by signature alone, and by law is required to be without any content whatsoever (there can be no words of love or faithfulness or commitment, nothing!) the government was able to ‘guarantee’ to churchmen, and anyone else who expressed concern, that a CP had nothing to do with marriage. The Bishop of Chelmsford swallowed this argument, promoted it enthusiastically and was warmly thanked by the Government Minister for doing so.

Because the legislation for CPs has been laid out with such complexity, mimicking the existing laws for marriage in detail after detail, the government can also persuade gay couples that they have got exactly what they want. On the whole, it is this response that has appealed most to the media. Most people do believe that CPs are the gay equivalent of marriage. If, let us suppose, two friends wished to take advantage of the new law for its tax advantages and for nothing else, they would be perfectly entitled to do so; my guess is that popular opinion/prejudice would be strongly, even viciously against them. It would be seen as being unfair to gays, an unjustifiable mockery of the ‘true’ purpose of a CP.

The Civil Partnership Act 2004 was so devised that those who do not wish it to have anything to do with marriage could be entirely satisfied. Those who do want it to be precisely that can (such are the skills of the masters of spin) also be entirely satisfied. Give credit where it is due: this strategy has been largely successful. Nevertheless, it is a deceit, no less underhand for being a deliberate political manoeuvre. The form was not inevitable: other European countries have come up with quite different forms of legislation, to solve the same perceived demands of human rights.

Who will pay the price for this deceit? Twenty years from now Tony Blair will be part of history, the Lord Chancellor will be completely forgotten, New Labour will be only a memory. It will not be the government that gets the blame or pays the price. It will be individuals and the institution of marriage itself. We have a good example of how this works. In 1992, one group was assured that the CofE would accept women priests, the other smaller group was assured that they were only provisional, and could in good conscience be rejected. It is not the bishops now drawing their pensions who have been hauled out of retirement to answer for their deceit (or ‘fudge’ to use the more polite term), but the present understanding of episcopacy which has been compromised, and individual women themselves who have suffered, caught between two conflicting convictions.

The price of deceit

In an Act of 264 clauses and 30 schedules, the devil is in the detail. Only one is necessary to illustrate the element of deceit, one that I have alluded to many times already – 50.1.c, which establishes as grounds on which a CP may be declared voidable, a person’s ignorance of the pregnancy of a partner ‘by some person other than the applicant’ at the time of its registration. It is a detail which has nothing to do with the nature of a CP, even as expressed by gay campaigners, and in which no gay lobby group has ever shown the slightest interest, but which carries a particular offence for Christians being as it is a parody of Matthew 1.18, as it has been traditionally applied to marriage discipline.

Its sole purpose, in brief, is to copy the legal structure of marriage; and the only reason for this is so that it can become the basis for the forthcoming Civil Marriage Bill. It has no meaning for the CP Act in which it is found; it sits as part of the blueprint for what has been promised. It is what spy novels would call a ‘sleeper’. It is the clue, for those who can find it, that one day marriage will be based on civil partnerships, and not as so many people suppose, the other way round.

Does December 6 matter? In one sense, it matters hardly at all. In a society, where doing one’s own thing is the highest good, the fact that gays may wish to contract partnerships according to their own designs is hardly revolutionary. In some ways, it is surprising it has taken so long. With government estimates that (even with the sharp decline in the popularity of marriage) CPs will run at only 1% of the rate of marriages, it is hardly threatening to existing marriages. Once the initial flurry has died down, there would be little to worry about, if it were simply about letting a few individuals do what they want (however much others may dislike, disagree or disapprove of what they do).

Ill-considered consequences

Sadly, it is never that simple. Government legislation is never just about a few individuals. If there is one great difference between the Christian approach and the modern secular attitude to law making, it is our own awareness that actions have consequences. The careful reflection upon sin and human fallibility has made the law of double effect an integral part of Christian planning. Whatever we may intend, it is inevitable that some other result will also arise. However much we may wish for only one, simple and direct consequence, it is inevitably the case that there are others (unintended), which invariably last longer.

Once again, we have discovered this for ourselves within the CofE. The vote in favour of women priests was only one, small act of provincial autonomy, executed for the best of motives and with every intention that it should not set a precedent. Which of course is exactly what it did. One small step for womankind, and what an unravelling of church order has come from it, and how much more is still to come. The fudge/deceit seemed a harmless bit of clever politics, an attempt at being ‘as wise as serpents,’ something that could be easily forgotten once the goal had been achieved. Instead, it has come back to bite the bishops, and everyone else as well.

So should we worry about what is inaugurated on December 6? However tempting it might be to ignore this grubby and dishonest piece of legislation, it would be a serious mistake. For nearly half a millennium, the CofE has shared with the government of this country the guardianship of the institution of marriage. There have been strains, and these have been getting greater; but the basic position has remained the same for centuries – the state has taken the model provided by the Church and modified it to its own purpose.

Now, for the first time, an entirely new foundation is being laid. An essentially private relationship has been thoroughly and comprehensively institutionalized by legislation, and all this without claiming any authority from any social framework or moral understanding whatever. When this process concludes in a new Civil Marriage Act, we shall find ourselves, as clergy of the established church, irretrievably at odds with the government: the desacralizing of the state and disestablishment of the church will have been pushed another and perhaps decisive stage further.