Nicholas Turner outlines some of the implications of the new Marriage Act
The year 2014 sees the implementation of the Marriage (Same-sex couples) Act 2013, and the biggest change to civil marriage since the mid-nineteenth century. By one of those unfortunate mis-timings, that we sometimes fear is symptomatic of the present Church of England, the end of 2013 saw the publication of The Pilling Report, a complex and serious study of sexual ethics and the Church’s response to changing expectations. I have only read parts of it, but it would appear to be balanced, helpful, detailed and largely uncontroversial.
It is, if I have got it right, a moral and theological study, specifically devised to help the Church of England’s ‘continuing discussion’ on these matters. As such it is both important and valuable, but also problematic and potentially damaging. Mature consideration of deeply-held differences in ethics does not sit well with written policies on institutional practice.
Pastoral decisions about the pastoral guidance and practice for believing Christians in our own parishes. What challenges does the new Marriage Act pose our clergy and people? Let me say straightaway that I do not think this is an appropriate context for ‘every man doing what is right in his own eyes’. It is a shared commitment.
We will affirm and support those same-sex couples, especially those who come to the Lord and his Church, and we will not seek to prevent them taking up their new rights under law, clergy-couples included. As one who came late to the constituency, I acknowledge the generous witness of many Anglo-Catholic clergy and parishes over many decades.
We will continue to teach the Christian understanding of marriage, based upon the words and traditions of the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony, BCP and CW. With that proviso, we will welcome all those couples (man and woman) who have entered a civil contract, but who understand their union in Christian terms.
This will not, however, be sufficient for ordinands. Adult members of the laity are not sacraments need to be clear and if possible simple, in a way that discussion of moral theology may be neither. The one derives from a principle or conclusion, the other is an aid on the journey towards a possible conclusion. There is a real danger that disputes over this report will hinder guidance from the House of Bishops over the implications of the new Act.
The central principle is straightforward: namely that the newly-defined institution of Equal Civil Marriage is not the same thing as – and should not be confused with – marriage as understood and practised by the Church of England. In case (in a fit of liberal wooliness) you are uncertain about this, let me refer you to the parliamentary act itself: Clause 1, sub-section (3), see below, says exactly this: there is a clear difference, and the one must not be confused with the other.
I would say that the new institution is effectively a civil partnership (vows, for example, are not essential) for both heterosexual and homosexual couples, which is to be called ‘marriage’. But however you wish to dress it up, you cannot say (because the law in effect does not allow you to) that it is a marriage as understood by the Church of England.
Therefore, as of next May, all those couples (man and woman) who are ‘married’ in a registry office or hotel (all those who, in the technical jargon, have entered an Equal Civil Marriage) will not be married in the eyes of the Church of England. What therefore are we going to do? Don’t wait for the House of Bishops. As already noted, their attention is elsewhere. It is the bishops of The Society we should be asking, the College of Catholic Bishops.
What are we/they going to do? This is not about making statements to the secular world; this is about immediate quizzed as to the precise details of their baptism and confirmation: their words are taken on trust, and certificates are seldom requested. Not so with candidates for holy order. Baptism and confirmation and all accompanying paperwork must be fully in order; otherwise those two sacraments are repeated in a conditional form. This will, therefore, now have to be the case with a civil marriage contracted by any ordinand post-May 2014.
The wording of the Act and the current practice of the House of Bishops and Ministry Division will require some kind of (proper) marriage in church. In what form, therefore, should this be celebrated? Presumably with some understanding of regularizing an existing relationship. It would be cruel, and a travesty of Christian theology, to suggest in the ceremony that the existing equal-marriage was no better than co-habiting, even if from another perspective it is.
Would it be a conditional marriage? Probably, with some such words as, ‘If the vow and covenant which you have made one to the other were not in accordance with the will of God, and for the full assurance of his blessing…’ (As you can see, this is beyond my expertise. I would appreciate something better from one who knows.)
Now consider the registers. Would these ‘conditional’ marriages be included, in which case what would be written in the ‘Condition’ column? And would we issue Marriage Certificates? It does not seem likely. So therefore we would need another register, and some other form of certificate. To show we were serious about marriage, these new registers and certificates would have to look serious. It is not a task that could be left to individual parishes. Scraps of paper do not carry conviction: we need proper registers and certificates.
What can we offer?
6. If Christian matrimony is being offered to those already married (note the important distinction between the two words), then surely it must be offered more widely. Are ordinands the only ones to be offered the sacrament? What of other young couples, who come to faith after a civil marriage? At the time they acted with the best of motives and intentions, but now in the light of the Gospel they want the sacramental blessing. Surely we could not refuse them? In which case, what sort of ceremony should we suggest as the norm, and what fees would we charge? And would there be flowers, wedding dress, confetti, Rolls Royce? I hope not, but at the same time I would not want to downplay their celebration.
7. What if either the man or woman in (5) had previously been married to a partner still living? And what if they do not fully fit the terms for an ‘annulment’ under the Marriage Statement 2002? Under the old dispensation, we could offer a Blessing of a Civil Marriage. I have done this many times, though with a far more generous provision than that provided by CW. This option would be no longer available: if it is not a marriage in the first place, it can hardly be blessed as such.
Can we really offer such couples nothing? How can we say on the one hand that the new equal civil marriage is not really marriage, and then ‘penalize’ couples who have failed at this non-marriage? It would be as though we were saying that the marriage is not real but the divorce is. The Church of Southern Africa, in its prayer book of 1989, not only has a process for considering a possible annulment, which influenced the Marriage Statement, but in other cases where a Bishop’s licence has been granted, has a special introduction to its service for the ‘Remarriage of Divorced Persons’.
Previously, I admit, I have not much liked it – it seemed inappropriately moralistic – but I wonder now whether it might not be the basis on which we could offer some form of marriage or marriage blessing in the future, at least within our own constituency, where we are prepared to hold to the tradition we have received, in more matters than just one. What is clear is that an answer to these questions is beyond the remit of the individual parish priest or PCC.
This is work that we must do together. I am not saying that our bishops alone must come up with the solutions, but I do believe that it cannot effectively happen unless they give a lead. And they are not likely to do this unless they are encouraged by the clergy and people
Clause 1 (3) of the Act reads:
‘No Canon of the Church of England is contrary to section 3 of the Submission of the Clergy Act 1533 (which provides that no Canons shall be contrary to the Royal Prerogative or the customs, laws or statutes of this realm) by virtue of its making provision about marriage being the union of one man with one woman.’
As this is elucidated in a legal and technical form, its meaning can be better understood in the official Explanatory Notes which, as with any other Act, accompany this one:
‘The effect of subsection (3) is to preserve the integrity of the Canon law of the Church of England in relation to marriage. Under the Submission of the Clergy Act 1533, Canon law cannot be contrary to general law. In particular, Canon B30 (paragraph 1) states that ‘The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman… [the Act, rather archly, stops its quotation at this point; the Canon itself continues] to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.’