What the Bishops Could Have Said…

by the Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford, Canon Chancellor at Southwark Cathedral and author of “God, Gender, Sex and Marriage

Mandy Ford

Readers of Via Media, I confess…I am a woman priest in a civil partnership and I love the Church of England!

This does not mean that I am not hurt and frustrated with the institution which I serve in the light of the House of Bishops Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships. Institutions can be abusive, and we have seen evidence of that in the Peter Ball case. But at their best, institutions can provide a measure of stability and tell stories that last longer than individual lifetimes.

I suppose that all I can say is that I am not yet convinced that the Church of England, as an institution, is a lost cause.

There was a time when the institutional character of the Church of England meant that it shared and shaped the moral and ethical life of the nation. The Church was there to bless, to celebrate and to mourn at key events in the lives of individuals and the nation. Liturgies, ceremonies, prayers and ritual provide space for people to ponder the mysteries of life and love at such important times.

Parish clergy know this and welcome couples of all manner and conditions of life who want to get married in church. Something in the symbolism of the liturgy speaks to them; the joining of hands, the giving of rings, the language of feasts, sacrifice, hospitality, generosity…And like every symbolic event, all its parts combine to make up a whole which is greater than the parts.

Our liturgy tells us that marriage has a threefold purpose for the couple who share in God’s generous gift of life-creation; are shaped in holiness by the joys and challenges of sharing their spouse’s daily life; and enter a relationship of mutual sacrifice that offers care and protection in times of vulnerability. This is love in all its aspects; charity, agape and eros.

The Church understands marriage as both a social and spiritual event. It is a legal and social contract, a covenant, a sacrament. It is a contract made between the couple that the State and the Church recognise (and give equal status to, whether that contract is enacted in a church or a registry office).

Trying to unpick the strands might seem like a sensible theological exercise, but only serves to pull the whole thing apart. Reductionism is not serving the institution well, nor does it reflect the rich diversity of human identity and experience. The Living in Love and Faith process properly engages with the complexity of the issues within a rapidly changing context, in a way which, regrettably, the recent Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships does not.

More has been revealed in the past couple of days about the poor process that resulted in the publication of the Statement, which were handled by the wrong people and agreed, under the usual pressure of time, by the House of Bishops. A statement of this kind was never going to address the real issues facing the Church, and the bishops in their teaching and pastoral roles.

The problem, which many of us might argue is of their own making, has its roots is the House of Bishops decision to approve the legislation that introduced Civil Partnerships instead of equal marriage back in 2004. The pace of change was such that compromise was inevitable and so bishops offered limited support to civil partnerships for same sex couples because civil partnership looked different from marriage, on the spurious argument that since penetrative sexual intercourse was not a condition of fulfilment  of the contract of civil partnership, a civil partnership could be a celibate relationship.

The Church has chosen to imagine that the defining difference between a Civil Partnership and Marriage is the place of sexual activity within them. There was a bit of bluster over the weekend about the place of vows, but this simply doesn’t hold in the case of civil marriage. But this is not the way the world beyond the Church understands what is going on here, and as a result we are losing the opportunity to offer purpose and meaning to both marriage and civil partnerships.

If the purpose of marriage is reduced to that of sexual intercourse which is open to the procreation of children, we loose the beauty of marriage in later life,  as well as the marriage that embraces people with disabilities or infertility as the result of illness, never mind the possibility of marriage between people whose sexual activity is not procreative because of their gender or gender realignment.

If the House of Bishops persists in the illusion that civil partnerships are a legal mechanism for protecting inheritance rights in celibate friendships, they are losing the opportunity to support a step that could  provide much needed stability and protection for the millions of children living in households with parents who are not married.

Those who campaigned for equal access to civil partnership were generally thoughtful middle class people with a healthy scepticism of the historic legacy of patriarchal marriage. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan who campaigned for equal access to civil partnership spoke about their desire to “formalise their relationship in a more modern way, focused on equality and respect.”  The tragedy is that the church could have expanded its framing of marriage in this way decades ago, emphasising the importance of marriage as a soul-making, hospitable institution which serves the whole community and enables the flourishing of all who participate.

The greatest benefit of the new legislation may well be to co-habiting couples who cannot afford the cost of a “traditional” wedding, or who do not see their relationship as having a religious dimension. How sad that the House of Bishops could not have used the opportunity to welcome this new way of being married – blessing and encouraging all that is good, protecting the weak and vulnerable.

We may yet come to the point where we can do this  (and I for one heartily pray for that day) but in the meantime, I do wonder if the House of Bishops might have recognised that they have plenty of listening, discerning and learning yet to do, and have taken the advice from Wittengenstein, “that whereof we cannot speak we should keep silent”?

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18 Responses to What the Bishops Could Have Said…

  1. Sarada Gray says:

    Thanks for this. As a Quaker I was quite shocked by the Bishops’ statement and could not understand where it was coming from. It seems a singularly unhelpful contribution to the debate, likely to be hurtful to many, off-putting to some and puzzling to those of us who have followed the trajectory of thought within the C of E.


    • Ian says:

      ‘I could not understand where it was coming from’. I can understand that from a Quaker—but that would be an odd statement for any Anglican to make. It is coming from the dominical teaching about marriage in the gospels, which has long shaped Anglican liturgy and canon law, right from the Book of Common Prayer, which still determines the doctrine of the Church of England.

      The statement simply reiterates that, and confirms (as any informed Anglican is aware) that this remains unchanged unless and until both liturgy and canon law are revised, and the BCP is revoked as the founding formulary of the Church.


    • John Freeman says:

      Many thanks Mandy for such an excellent exposition. Sadly we are both hurt angry


  2. Ian says:

    Mandy, thanks for this thoughtful response. There were clearly real problems with the presentation of this statement, which was in fact a legal and technical note, in exactly the same genre as the 2005 one on CPs (and from which it copies over whole paragraphs).

    I think, though, you are mistaken in saying that the statement ‘reduces’ marriage to procreative sex. It does no such thing, because it does not claim to be an exposition of marriage in any sense. It is answering one single question: are CPs the same as marriage? The bishops actually offer a clear and careful exposition of what the Government has done in creating CPs alongside civil marriage: they have differentiated it in two important aspects (compulsory vows, and assumption of conjugal relationship) and in fact I know someone who is taking advantage of that (we spoke at the weekend) to enter a CP with a platonic friend.

    If there is confusion, it is with the Government and not the bishops.

    And if the HoB had decided that CPs were, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from marriage, then the only thing they could have done to respect the LLF process is prohibit clergy like yourself from entering CPs. Would you have wanted that?


  3. thomasrenz2015 says:

    “the church could have expanded its framing of marriage in this way decades ago, emphasising the importance of marriage as a soul-making, hospitable institution which serves the whole community and enables the flourishing of all who participate” seems an odd comment in the light of the three earlier paragraphs beginning with “Parish clergy know this” – surely the wedding preface in our liturgy has long done this?

    I am also puzzled about the comment on the benefit of the new legislation for partners who don’t want a religious dimension. We already have civil marriage. “You must exchange vows if you’re getting married” even at a civil ceremony (https://www.gov.uk/marriages-civil-partnerships/plan-ceremony), admittedly, but these are not religious vows.

    In our Borough the costs involved with entering a civil partnership are exactly the same as the costs of entering a marriage. Presumably your comment about “cost” relates to presumed *cultural* expectations that a “marriage” has to be celebrated in a traditional way, while civil partnerships can be entered into without having a party or doing any of the other things that make the “traditional marriage” expensive.


  4. MariHoward says:

    Surely the point of Civil Partnerships is, as the couple who raised the question of extending these to heterosexual partnerships, is that the ‘institution of marriage’ based around the church ‘wedding’ has become anachronistic, as it bases its ceremony around the idea of a the bride (female) being handed over (symbolically, but there it is in the words, ‘Who gives this woman?’ by her father (or a substitute, her stepfather or a chosen friend) to the care and use of a new male person, the bridegroom? Although this picture of marriage isn’t imagined or much thought of by the majority of couples today, it is the true basis of marriage in ‘traditional’ terms, and still is is many other cultures. Today’s women are not handed over to become secondary to a different carer/provider, and to bear him children, but to be equal partners in forming a new couple, the woman is more than likely to be earning her own living and will continue to contribute (even if/when they have children), she can own property, she is an autonomous individual. So although traditional wedding may be nice, with photos, speeches, food and toasts, and a big party, traditional clothes (white dress, now hardly likely to be a symbol of virginity), it doesn’t speak of the reality of what they are doing by marrying. The heterosexual civil partnership offers the security and stability angle of marriage without making a fairy tale day out of the serious business of committing to one another, and expresses this in an honest and up to date way. There is no reason why the Bishops should object and try to ‘keep God out of it’ should a couple want a blessing. Or why a believing Christian couple might want one, seeing that they will not be practicing marriage to unite families or to provide the man with a legal woman to ensure his heirs are raised within his house… etc. Woman are now (mostly) officially equal with men in the eyes of our culture, and I would hope in the eyes of the Church and of course of God – note how Jesus related with women, and how it was a woman who first saw and talked with him in the Garden. I am, of course, aware that the Church wedding puts forward that the couple have now become ‘joined’ by God – probably the only theological problem here – though for decades there have been church weddings where nobody believed that…maybe whether or not God specially ‘joins’ a couple who follow the C of E marriage liturgy – but it remains the fact that modern women are not coming to marriage with the intention and belief of being lesser than their spouse in the relationship.


  5. Tini Brodie says:

    Thank you , Mandy.
    Tini Brodie


  6. Sarada Gray says:

    I guess it all comes down to the problem of how a traditional institution with inherited creeds should respond and adapt to a changing society. There’s a range of opinion within the Anglican tradition about whether homosexuality is a ‘sin’ or not whereas most people in Britain outside the church would say that it is not. It is not necessarily the job of the church to simply go along with social trends but it must take account of them and ultimately ask itself, what is the bottom line here? I would suggest that the bottom line is what Jesus would have done. Would he have condemned two people wising to live together in love? I’m not going to answer that question as everyone will have their own response


  7. ed mayo says:

    We shouldn’t give up on the Church of England. Quite right, thank you. And it would certainly help if the archbishops don’t make us into a laughing stock.

    For those who would like to see an inclusive Church, the text of an Open Letter to the Archbishops can be found here:

    And if you want to join in signing the Open Letter, you can click on the link at the top of the page.



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  9. Mary Hancock says:

    To clarify for Mari: the Church of England ‘Common Worship’ marriage liturgy (the modern liturgy which is used for most marriages in a CofE church) does not include the ‘giving away’ of the bride (or the groom, for that matter). Neither does it require the bride to promise to obey. The basis of a modern church wedding is that it is a mutually supportive and equal partnership made in covenant one to the other (not a transactional contract) and made in and reflecting the love of God.


  10. David Shepherd says:

    Definition – an argument, based on generalising a rule that applies *only to an exceptional case*, is wrongly applied to *all* cases in general.

    Example 1 – “If we allow people with glaucoma to use medical marijuana, then everyone should be allowed to use marijuana”

    Example 2 – ““If the purpose of marriage is reduced to that of sexual intercourse which is open to the procreation of children, we loose the beauty of marriage in later life, as well as the marriage that embraces people with disabilities or infertility as the result of illness, never mind the possibility of marriage between people whose sexual activity is not procreative because of their gender or gender realignment.”

    Both arguments imply that there no difference between the exception and the general rule.

    So, for example 1, the permissible exception is not recreational, but analgesic. Also medical marijuana does not contain the most powerful psychoactive ingredient (THC)

    For example 2, the definition of infertility is “a disease of the reproductive system defined by the failure to achieve a clinical pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sexual intercourse’ (WHO)

    So, it’s a fallacy for Mandy Ford to categorise same-sex couples with infertile opposite-sex couples.


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  12. Rev Canon David Jennings says:

    Thanks, Mandy. It is worth remembering that the Church does not marry couples; it blesses (solemnizes) a covenant entered into by two people. On this basis, it could be argued that the Church, apart from guidance and pastoral support, has nothing to say about the institution which, of course, is regulated by the state. It was on this basis that some years ago, with the knowledge of the diocesan bishop, I was able to celebrate a Mass of Commitment for two partnered gay men (and at which Mandy was present); the Eucharist itself being an act of blessing. It is also worth noting that sex is not a Gospel issue; love and fidelity are, and such can be expressed through sexual activity as an expression of love and fidelity or not as the case or circumstances may determine, and which cannot be defined or determined by gender or any other factor or human condition. To paraphrase Pink Floyd, ‘hey, bishops, leave those kids alone’.


  13. Stephen Robinson says:

    The question is why some Bishops are protesting now. They were involved in the discussion, saw the draft and had the opportunity to comment. It seems like a case of “It wasn’t me guv” …. but it was. Sooner or later Bishop (yes Gloucester it’s you), you will have to make a statement, keep to it and accept that you will upset someone


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