Nicholas Turner returns to the problem of how to bless a civil partnership and the questions that will face when the Coalition considers the introduction of so-called gay marriage

I wrote last month about one of my favourite philosophers, J.L. Austin, who taught a great deal about the power of words. Many of the sentences we speak are not statements but actions.

Nowhere is this more vividly exemplified than in a marriage service, when the couple form the union themselves by the solemn vows they make one to the other. What Austin taught, better than any other, was the need to recognize those occasions when we use words to do something, and not merely say something.

This distinction between action and commentary – or rather most people’s inability properly to distinguish between the two – was immediately brought to prominence when Dr Williams spoke to MPs recently, and restated the Church of England’s refusal to allow the blessing of civil partnerships in church. I have written on this before, when the Civil Partnership Act was being introduced six years ago. Allow me to repeat the point, for it will become still more important when Parliament considers, as it has promised to do, the introduction of gay marriage some time this month.

No spoken words

Section 2 of the Act tells us that a civil partnership is formed solely by registration. The registration, ‘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 civil partnership. That is the law.

If you read the parliamentary debates in 2004, you will see that this was not a bizarre oversight: it was quite deliberate. The Minister of State charged with introducing the legislation stated unequivocally that ‘spoken words are not part of that registration process’.

Importance of words

By contrast, as we all should know and as Austin so clearly described, words are central to the solemnization of marriage. In a church wedding, the couple are the ministers of the sacrament, and in their words they are not sharing information, expressing their feelings, or offering a commentary upon what they are doing, they are doing it. That is why those words are so formal, solemn and hallowed by long usage. No words, no marriage.

As for the blessing (and remember there are two in a wedding) it is dependent upon the words of the couple one to the other. It is not tacked on as a form of reward for 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 word, no blessing. The formal pronouncement of God’s blessing upon the couple at a church wedding is not a benign hope. It has content only because the solemnization of the marriage has content.

Nothing to bless

As the Minister stated, ‘a civil partnership is formed when the second civil partner signs the civil partnership document, a civil marriage is formed when the couple exchange spoken words.’ A civil marriage can be blessed (though some clergy may refuse to do so) because it has spoken content; a civil partnership cannot. No content has been permitted in law at its formation: there is nothing, no thing, to which a blessing may be attached. There is, therefore, no foundation for a service of blessing, even a morally objectionable one. This is the situation now, and it is quite clear. It is not a matter of justice, nor our own feelings, but of content.

What, however, will the government propose by way of ‘gay marriage’? All good liberals are in favour of it. Yes, but what exactly will it be?

Marriage and partnership

Lord Falconer, architect of the 2004 Act, argued that civil marriage should be brought into line with civil partnerships. This was the reason for the immensely complicated legislation, and the inclusion of several clauses that could only seriously refer to heterosexual couples.

It is not clear, at present, exactly what is being proposed. It will make a difference which is equated to which, marriage to partnership, or partnership to marriage. I am well aware that most MPs and most of their constituents will not care less one way or the other. But we, as traditional Christians, remain guardians of this sacrament, one of God’s great gifts to mankind. ND