The Church of England has reaffirmed its teaching on human sexuality in pastoral guidance issued to clergy, which states that sex should only take place within heterosexual marriage.
It was prompted by a Supreme Court ruling extending the right to register civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.
The guidance was issued on 23 January, 2020, a month after being approved by the House of Bishops. The document also confirms that neither same-sex nor heterosexual civil partnerships can be blessed in church.
“Sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings”, the document says. “For Christians, marriage – that is, the lifelong union between a man and a woman, contracted with the making of vows – remains the proper context for sexual activity.”
The House of Bishops says it seeks to “uphold that standard” in its approach to civil partnerships, while affirming “the value of committed, sexually abstinent friendships.” The Church allows clergy to enter civil partnerships provided that they commit to celibacy.
The document anticipates that civil partners of the opposite sex may now ask clergy to bless their unions in church and argues that it “would not be right” to develop a liturgy for such services.
It goes on: “Where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.”
Much of the criticism of the guidance has come from members of the Christian LGBT+ community and others, who believe that the Church needs to change its teaching to include and affirm same-sex relationships. Luke Dowding, the executive director of the ecumenical LGBT+ organisation OneBodyOneFaith, said that while he understood that the bishops felt they needed to issue guidance around the changed status of civil partnerships, many people had been “deeply hurt” by the reiteration of its statements around same-sex couples and the “patronising and derogatory” way in which their relationships were described.
A Church of England working party, Living in Faith and Love, is considering whether there are grounds to change the Church’s teaching on sexuality and gender. It is due to report on its progress to General Synod in February and to publish its deliberations in July. Andrew Foreshew-Cain from the Campaign for the Equality of Marriage in the Church of England, said any hopes that the process might lead to change has been destroyed by the bishops’ statement.
But David Hilborn, an Anglican clergyman and principal of Moorlands evangelical Christian training college, said the bishops could not have issued different guidance at this stage.
“This is a thoroughly logical statement based on existing Church of England doctrine and canon. We must wait to see what Living in Love and Faith produces on the much broader canvas on which it has been operating, but it is wholly unrealistic to expect that the bishops would have pre-empted that process by suggesting any fundamental change in policy based on their response to this much more specific matter of male-female civil partnerships.”
Jayne Ozanne, member of the General Synod, gay evangelical:
“The thing that has shocked and saddened me most is that the House of Bishops appear not to have taken on board the primary reason people were so upset with their statement in February 2017, on marriage and same-sex relationships. It was rejected by General Synod then because of its tone and the way it talked about the people it affected. The desire to commit to one’s life partner should be something that is a cause for celebration – loving faithful committed relationships are a blessing to the couple, to their families and to society around them. It is about time the Church recognised the harm it does by putting out such cold and unpastoral statements.”
Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream, for orthodox “biblically faithful” Anglicans:
“The guidance is simply a restatement of Orthodox Christian teaching over the past 2,000 years which is that the proper context for a sexual relationship is in a marriage between a man and a woman. Its only become controversial because the bishops have been so reluctant to defend and explain that teaching during recent years and to promote the biblical basis of marriage and its positive benefits.”
The Rev Dr Ian Paul, member of Archbishop’s Council, the executive body governing the Church of England, and of General Synod:
“Historically, the Church has understood marriage as between one man and one women, because marriage and sex are about the coming together of bodily difference (and the associated other differences between men and women) into a union, that it is a foundational building block of society, and that it is the right context for the procreation and raising of children, and this continues to be the Church’s position. The Church is not ‘out of touch’ with the reality around – but it is out of step. In a sexualised world, we are offering the good news that you don’t have to have sex to live a fulfilled life, and you don’t have to conform to sexual pressure in culture.”
Professor Adrian Thatcher, trustee of Modern Church, which advocates for liberal theology in British churches:
“In affirming that marriage remains the ‘proper’ context for sexual activity, the bishops confuse uncontracepted heterosexual sexual intercourse with personal intimacy, and so stigmatise as ‘improper’ all straight single, yet-to-be-married, and post-married people, along with all people of a different orientation, who are intimate with each other. For such people the pastoral statement is pastorally disastrous, affirming the very teaching that is the cause, and not the solution of the Church’s current problems.”
Dr Susannah Cornwall, senior lecturer, Exeter University:
“The Church of England is invested in maintaining that civil partnerships don’t entail sexual relationship because that’s how they manage to have them as an option for their clergy, who can only enter them if they give assurances that they are celibate. That it has chosen to emphasise that heterosexual marriage is the only legitimate place for sex is not surprising. What is more surprising is its argument that to convert a marriage into a civil partnership would necessarily mean a repudiation of vows.”