I love the story of the emperor who had no clothes. Whist his courtiers discussed his apparel and complimented him on what he was wearing, it took a child to point out that in fact he was naked. So much debate seems to be based on striving to establish what we want the truth to be. Both in debates about Brexit, and the endless tweets from the White House, it seems that truth is often trampled underfoot as the pictures of the reality we want are created. My sympathies lie with the child who had the courage to say that the emperor was naked, which is why I have a certain love of people who can incisively cut through the cant of debate and state what ought to have been obvious from the start. Without agreeing with his conclusions, I have enjoyed hearing Don Cupitt speaking. In similar vein, without ever wanting him to be running our country, I often thought that the late Tony Benn had some valuable things to say. I also like listening to Will Self and enjoy his contributions to BBC Question Time. It was on one such occasion, in a debate about civil partnerships, that Will Self cut through all the tangle of views and said that civil partnerships had been invented for the sake of the Church of England.
I think that is perceptive and also very true. Historically speaking, the Church of England had always been involved in changes to legislation on marriage. Going back to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, the Church of England was involved in the change in legislation that, for the first time, allowed divorce through the civil courts. The change was limited to fall in line with the Matthean exception (Matthew 5.32) and allowed a man to divorce his wife on the grounds of her adultery. Since those days the Church of England has been involved in gradual changes to the law, but in introducing civil partnerships (2004) the new arrangements were designed to work around the views of the Church of England in a way that avoided conflict with the church's views, rather than win the support of the church over the proposed new arrangements. Relationships between two people of the same gender would be given a legal status similar to marriage, but they would be called ‘civil’ (and therefore not ‘religious’) and ‘partnerships’ (and therefore not ‘marriage’), which allowed the church to pretend that that such relationships had nothing to do with marriage and certainly would not involve any sexual content. Will Self was right. Civil partnerships took the form they did so that they would not involve a show-down with the Church of England.
I wonder whether the Church of England will look back, in years to come, and think that perhaps this whole issue was not handled very well. There was opposition to civil partnerships, back in 2002, when bishops in the House of Lords backed what was seen to be a wrecking amendment to stop the proposed legislation. Thereafter the bishops were keen to promote the idea that there can be no possible connection between civil partnerships and marriage. In 2013 the bishops turned up in force to try and prevent the Same Sex Couples bill go through, the bill which introduced same-sex marriage. The Archbishop of Canterbury warned that the bill would see marriage “abolished, redefined and recreated”. In 2018 the Church of England has spoken out in favour of retaining civil partnerships, within the context of a debate as to whether such partnerships should be abolished, in view of the fact that everyone now has access to marriage, regardless of gender. The Church of England takes this view, because civil partnerships allow gay relationships to be recognised in law in a way that does not offend the church’s defence of its particular doctrine of marriage. Remove civil partnerships and all that will be left is universal marriage. That will leave the Church of England in an impossible position, which is very much of its own making.
The Prime Minister has just announced the solution to a recent legal judgment, in which an opposite-sex couple demanded the right to a civil partnership. That solution will be to make civil partnerships available to everyone, regardless of gender. Perhaps that will be the end of the matter, but suppose the wave of public fashion were to flow against marriage? Civil partnerships could become the norm and marriage itself could become as old fashioned as it is to use the old vows in which a bride promised to obey her husband. We cannot predict where this will go, but might it be the case that the sensitivities of the Church of England will in fact have led, not to the protection of marriage as a central institution of society, but to a somewhat side-lined, olde-worlde expression of commitment for those who want to celebrate old-fashioned ways? Might universal civil partnerships lead to the complete opposite to what the Church of England was wanting to achieve?