How not to be pastoral: the bishops’ new statement on civil partnerships

Once again, it’s all about sex. Whatever we mean by that. A recent article in The Independent headlined The sex-obsessed Church of England is digging its own grave included the comment that the Church is ‘intent not just on digging its own grave but also pausing on the way there to smack itself in the face with the spade’. This was one response to the statement the House of Bishops issued this week giving the official view on civil partnerships and their extension to heterosexual couples. As Ann Reddecliffe has noticed in a thread on Thinking Anglicans, and a fuller blog post discusses, this new document just copies sections of the 2005 guidance on civil partnerships. That too was called a ‘pastoral statement’. Doing a ‘compare and contrast’ between the 2005 and 2020 documents is instructive, and they feel less and less ‘pastoral’ the more one looks at them.

Procreation or the possibility of procreation is very important in the 2020 document. With apparently no recognition that things ever change in the Church of England, as in 2005 the bishops use the 1662 Prayer Book for its summary of what it teaches on marriage; this list puts ‘the procreation of children’ in top place, with ‘a remedy against sin’ and ‘mutual society, help and comfort’ in third place. I am assuming bishops go to weddings, where they would have seen from the 1970s ‘mutual society’ being mentioned first. 

Before saying anything more about the new document, let’s just explore one section where a change has been made from the previous one. I don’t think this change has previously been discussed. In the 2005 version, it occurs in section 2: marriage ‘continues to provide the best context for the raising of children’. In 2020 (section 7) this has become: ‘We believe that [marriage] continues to provide the best context for the raising of children, although it is not the only context that can be of benefit to children, especially where the alternative may be long periods in institutional care.’ Spot the difference?

To me, this change reads like a desperate attempt to insert the ‘pastoral’. But it fails miserably. It reads like somebody has said, at a late stage of drafting, ‘Oh dear, we don’t want this to sound like we think children of an unmarried couple should be taken into care’ and then this was added on. This comes across not as inclusive (a ‘radical new inclusion’ as promised?) but as an insult to those assumed to be ‘second-best’ parents. Unmarried parents; a divorced person raising a child alone; relatives raising a niece, a nephew, a grandchild; a lesbian couple raising the children from a previous marriage which one partner brought to their relationship; a gay couple with a much-wanted, much-loved child conceived by surrogate… and so it goes on. This mealy-mouthed ‘pastoral’ statement tells them that their selfless love ‘can be of benefit’. Well, thanks very much, Church of England. While we’re at it, I think the phrasing here is also pretty insulting to those who work in providing institutional care.

There is much else that is wrong with this Unpastoral Statement. The timing: issued just after we’ve been able to watch the TV summaries of the Church of England hierarchy’s failure to respond appropriately to terrible examples of sexual abuse, and just before the long process of Living in Love and Faith (LLF) publishes its resources for discussion of equal marriage, the nature of sexuality and gender identity. The prurience: the continued assumption that clergy need to pry, so that faced with a couple asking for ‘prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership’ they need to consider this in ‘the light of the circumstances of each case’; is this CP a sexually abstinent ‘friendship’ or something else?

Part of LLF is a Pastoral Advisory Group. Last year it established its ‘pastoral principles‘, stating that these ‘are about encouraging churches to offer a welcome that is Christ-centred, that sees difference as a gift rather than a problem, and that builds trust and models generosity’. Trust? Generosity? Where are these in the Unpastoral Statement?

About fluff35

I blog on a range of subjects arising from various aspects of my life. On, I focus on my reactions to early retirement and think about aspects of teaching and research which I hope will be stimulating to those still working in higher education. On, I blog as an authorized lay preacher in a pretty standard parish church of the Church of England, who needs to write in order to find out what she thinks. I took part in the Oxford/St Albans/Armed Forces C of E 'Shared Conversations' in March 2016, worked on the Living in Love and Faith resources from 2017 and was elected to General Synod in October 2021, and continue to try to reflect on some of the issues. On I share my thoughts on various aspects of the history of medicine and the body. I have also written for The Conversation UK on
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3 Responses to How not to be pastoral: the bishops’ new statement on civil partnerships

  1. Pingback: Responses to the House of Bishops statement – Thinking Anglicans

  2. Pingback: Going to dinner with the speaker – The retiring academic

  3. Pingback: Bishops to show us the way | sharedconversations

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