Anthony Saville hopes that the General Synod did not confuse a desire to be fair with an implicit redefinition of one of the Church’s Sacraments
It is an entirely worthy thing (and hardly surprising) that last month the General Synod voted to backdate pension provision for the survivor of a civil partnership on the same basis as it currently does for the survivor of a marriage. If a clergyman dies, his widow receives a full widow’s pension, even if they had only married the day before. Exactly the same provision is now being made for civil partners.
It is a simple piece of equity that is uncontroversial. True, there was no such expectation when the legislation came in, but it accords with current expectations. If, as is likely, it proves more expensive than originally envisaged, all pensions will be reduced accordingly; and again this is uncontroversially equitable in contemporary society.
It also goes a little way, perhaps, to making amends for the most high profile example put forward for this change, that of the Dean of St Albans and his long-time partner. If it was wrong to appoint him as a bishop of the Church of England, it was far worse to have unappointed him, in favour of another man who accepted the exact same heterodox teaching on sexual morality.
But, and of course it is a big but, we must not confuse a simple piece of equity with a radical change to Christian teaching.
Money and fairness is one thing; the Sacrament of Marriage is another.
A marriage, between a man and a woman, is a life-long covenant performed by the formal words and deeds of the couple one to the other. No spoken word of promise, no marriage.
The only ‘form’ in a civil partnership is a signature in the register made in the presence of a registrar. All words are explicitly rejected in law [Civil Partnership Act 2004, Clause 2]. This was made unequivocally clear during the passage of the Bill, when an amendment seeking to require some form of spoken promise of mutual love and commitment, was vigorously opposed by the government and its supporters.
There is, therefore, no basis for equating marriage, which has the content of a promise, and a civil partnership, where such words have been deliberately omitted. This is not some historical anomaly: the Act is less than six years old, and it was carefully crafted in order to avoid this possible parallel with marriage. This is not some mistake: it is part of the definition of a civil partnership, that in this sense it has no content.
This is important to grasp, because one cannot simply add on bits and pieces one might feel form part of the de facto content, even if not actually de jure – what civil partnerships are ‘really’ about, even if this is not spelled out in law.
One could not, for example, say that it is about living together, or caring for each other, or even loving each other, because as has been pointed out many times by opponents, these facts and virtues could be just as true of two unmarried sisters (who are not permitted to form a civil partnership).
Absolutely nothing is required for a civil partnership except for the fact of being of the same sex, single and not closely related. The couple, in the privacy of their own lives, can add whatever they wish; but no institution (such as the Church) can presume what is not part of the legislation. There is nothing that suggests any theological equivalence with marriage.