Why is it not permitted to give a formal church blessing to a civil partnership? Nicholas Turner offers and answer as to why such a service would be not merely illegal or inappropriate but impossible

In 25 July the House of Bishops of the CofE issued a ‘Pastoral Statement’ (later strongly condemned by Archbishop Akinola) in response to the forthcoming implementation in December of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. In it they relied on the Pastoral Letter of the Primates of the Anglican Communion in 2003, when they said, ‘There is no theological consensus about same sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorization of such rites.’

A signature alone

This is a weak and ineffectual judgement by the bishops. It unwittingly colludes with the popular understanding that the Act is ‘really’ about gay marriage, we know what that is and therefore do not need to study what is a long and complex piece of legislation. The bishops have not properly grasped the implications of the deliberate, obligatory, enforceable silence that must surround a civil partnership (CP).

The detail matters. Section 2 of the Act is entitled ‘Formation of civil partnership by registration.’ There are legal requirements and preparations to be made, of course, but the formation is solely by registration. The registration, which must be performed ‘in the presence of a civil partnership registrar, and in the presence of each other and two witnesses’ consists solely of a signature on the civil partnership document.

There is to be no declaration of consent or commitment, no vows of any kind, no expression of any undertaking whatsoever. Above all, and this is the crucial point, the spoken word has no place in the formation of a CP. If you read the House of Lords debates, you will see that this was not a bizarre oversight: it was quite deliberate. There is to be no content to a CP, nothing about love or faithfulness or anything else whatsoever.

The word’s the thing

By contrast, the solemnization of marriage does involve words, and not merely incidentally. In a church wedding, the couple are the ministers of the sacrament. They ‘declare’ their marriage by their actions (the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of rings) but above all by their words. They are not merely sharing information, expressing their feelings, or offering a commentary upon what they are doing, they are doing it – by their words. That is why those words are so formal, solemn and hallowed by long usage.

This is what philosophers call ‘a performative utterance.’ Their sentences are not incidental, nor secondary to some other action; rather the action could not be performed in any other way. We are well aware that a wedding attracts a great deal of emotion, passion, love and tears, a sense of occasion and much else besides, but all this – the flowers, the hymns, the dress, the best man and bridesmaids, the music and the bells, the photos and video, the food and the dancing – is secondary, one could say irrelevant.

We are also sadly aware that for many people these secondary elements are the primary focus of the wedding. They are what make it important and ‘special’. The Church, however, has no difficulty in gently pointing out that those who believe this are quite simply wrong. The Christian understanding of marriage, formalized in the marriage service, is completely dependent upon the word. It is not accidental than in the Puritan ascendancy after the Civil War when the Prayer Book was banned, the only set words ever allowed to the laity in church (other than Amen) were the vows at marriage.

Where is the blessing?

The consent given, the vows made, the covenant sealed are nothing without the word. As for the blessing (and remember there are two in a wedding) it is not a thing in itself – it is dependent upon the words of the couple one to the other. It is not, as I understand it, tacked on as an agreeable extra (a kind of reward offered to those who come to church); it emerges from what has gone before. The Church pronounces God’s blessing upon those who by their publicly expressed covenant of love and faithfulness have called down that blessing from him.

No vow, no blessing? I rather think so. The formal pronouncement of God’s blessing upon the couple at a church wedding is rather more than a benign hope. It has content only because the solemnization of the marriage has content.

I realize this is only a brief sketch of the profound truths expressed in liturgy and there are still disagreements that can be legitimately held about the nature of a formal and public blessing (as in a ‘Service of Blessing after a Civil Marriage’), but in some form or other, we must agree that the blessing is dependent upon some content that precedes it. To put it crudely: no vow, no blessing.

Bishops’ confusion

I believe, therefore, that the following statement is sadly weak and misleading, ‘(17)…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.’ The implication seems to be, and this is reinforced by the accompanying discussion, that ‘You could but we won’t let you.’ This is both an invitation to activist clergy to push harder against the church’s rules, and an encouragement to wilful misunderstanding from the media and others.

It is not the case that clergy should not, but rather that they cannot provide services of blessing for those who register a CP. If the government has quite deliberately (but more than a little dishonestly) rejected the popular model of gay marriage, we must pay attention to exactly what they have done. The Act is perfectly clear.

No word, no content has been permitted in law at the formation of a CP. There is therefore nothing, no thing, to which a blessing may be attached. There is no foundation for a service of blessing, even a morally objectionable one. I have no doubt same-sex couples will dress up and plenty of people will be hovering around to sell them music, flowers, cakes, and so on, but decoration is not content.

If CPs are formed in total silence, they can only be blessed in total silence.