Bishops and Civil Partnerships: an unfortunate statement

On 11th May 1625 Henrietta Maria married King Charles I, by proxy. Now there’s a thought, marriage by proxy! The custom was not unheard of in the Church of England (Henry VIII, for example, had done it too), bishops of the time raised no opposition to the practice.

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer instructs that Matrimony was ordained ‘First … for the procreation of children…’ a position understandably not given this priority nowadays.

After many many years of strongly opposing the idea bishops of Church of England changed their mind and consented to the ‘Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act 1907′ allowing, as the name suggests, a widower to marry his late wife’s sister.

Until 1929 the Church of England allowed males to marry at the age of 14 and females at the age of 12. The move to change this age came from parliament, not the church.

Bishops opposed re marriage of divorcees in church until in 2002 the General Synod of the Church of England agreed it could happen. In fact, often acting out of pastoral concern, a great number of clergy had been remarrying divorcees in church before that date, despite the bishops’ disapproval.

Perhaps these examples help to show, as the Oxford church historian Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch has recently commented, that the Church of England’s doctrine and understanding on marriage has changed over the years. Professor MacCulloch went on to comment that the current House of Bishops seems unaware of this.

Bishops historically have often opposed change, then later changed their minds. After all they are mere human beings! It is in this context that a recent ‘Pastoral Statement’ on Civil Partnerships and recent marriage legislation,  by the House of Bishops of the Church of England should be read. The statement, reiterating the traditional Christian view on sex to be confined to heterosexual marriage, is undoubtedly ill timed, lacking in sensitivity, and a cause of embarrassment to many. One retired cathedral dean has described the letter as a fiasco… an example of carelessness and inattention. It is not at all clear why the bishops chose to issue the statement at a time when discussion and consultations are taking place in the Church of England. Significantly several of the bishops are, within just a few days of its publication, distancing themselves from it.

The understanding of the Bishops’ statement certainly differs from the view of a great number of sincere christians in the Church of England of the twenty first century, among them, undoubtedly, the majority of the people of our church, St Chrysostom’s. Most would hope the bishops would be more careful, timely and sensitive in their statements.

Without doubt questions will be asked of the bishops about why and how this unhelpful statement came about and lessons about process, sensitivity and pastoral care will be learned from what has happened.

Of course not all Anglican bishops agree with the English ones. The Episcopal bishops in Scotland, for example, hold a very different view. A refreshing statement in response to the Church of England Bishops’ statement comes from Grace (Anglican) Cathedral in San Francisco:

Looking back into time, to the 1890s, the bishops were discussing, and condemning divorce at that time. A significant voice dissented. The saintly Bishop Edward King ‘after long prayer and meditation’ argued that whilst the church should proclaim the binding nature of the marriage vow the final and overriding consideration had to be charity and pastoral care. A voice to be heard today!

And finally, let’s not forget that St Ignatius of Antioch in the second century encourages silence from bishops and reminds his hearers to revere the bishop most when he is silent, for then the bishop is most like God… One cannot help but think that judicious silence by the bishops instead of an ill thought out ‘pastoral’ statement would have served the Church better.

Fr Ian


About stchrysostoms

St Chrysostom’s is an Anglican (Church of England) parish church in Manchester, UK. We’re an inclusive, diverse and welcoming faith community rejoicing in our Anglo Catholic tradition, where people of many differing backgrounds make friends. Find our Facebook group at
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1 Response to Bishops and Civil Partnerships: an unfortunate statement

  1. Sandra comments:
    “It would be unfortunate too if the letter discouraged couples living together , sometimes with children , from marrying in church. It encourages hasty marriage.
    Moreover it diverts attention from the real sexual sins: abuse of children , exploitation of vulnerable people, rape within marriage etc”

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