Sex is reserved for married heterosexual couples, new pastoral guidance from the Church of England has affirmed. The new guidance also draws a clear distinction between marriage and civil partnerships, noting that sexual relations are not proper to the latter.
The guidance, titled “Civil Partnerships – for same sex and opposite sex couples. A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England,” was issued last month in response to a 2019 change to UK law, broadening access to civil partnerships by making them available for heterosexual couples for the first time.
Civil partnerships were created in 2004 for same-sex couples but are legally distinct from marriage. Same-sex couples were given the legal right to marry in the England and Wales in 2013, but civil partnerships remained available to same-sex couples only.
“Sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings,” says the guidance on the issue. “The introduction of same sex marriage, through the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, has not changed the church’s teaching on marriage or same sex relationships.”
Although the Church of England acknowledges that “many of the provisions in the legislation on civil partnerships are, however, similar to, or identical with, those in marriage law,” the nature of the commitment in a civil partnership is different than that of a marriage.
“In particular, [civil partnerships are] not predicated on the intention to engage in a sexual relationship,” says the guidance.
“There is likely to be a range of circumstances in which people of the same sex or opposite sex choose to register a partnership, including some where there is no intention for the relationship to be expressed through sexual activity.”
The guidance applies only to the Church of England, and not to other branches of the worldwide protestant Anglican Communion.
Since the law’s original passage, some pairs of people who are not romantically involved have entered civil partnerships for tax or benefit purposes.
In the guidance, the Church of England states that because of the “ambiguity” regarding sexual activity in civil partnerships, combined with its teaching on the nature of marriage, it does “not believe that it is possible for the church unconditionally to accept civil partnerships as unequivocally reflecting the teaching of the church.”
The Church of England has previously published policies that seem intended to accommodate modern sexual ethos and gender theory without directly contradicting Scripture and Christian history. The results have sometimes seemed gymnastic.
Although the Church of England accepts both married men and women for ordination to the priesthood and as bishops, it does not conduct or recognize same-sex marriages as marriage. In December 2012, the Church of England permited gay clergy in civil partnernships to become bishops, provided they were living in continence with their partners, that is abstaining from sexual relations.
“The House [of Bishops] believed it would be unjust to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity with the Church's teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life and discipline,” Graham James, Anglican bishop of Norwich, stated in January 2013.
“All candidates for the episcopate undergo a searching examination of personal and family circumstances, given the level of public scrutiny associated with being a bishop in the Church of England.”
In 2018, the denomination published pastoral guidelines for liturgies concerning the so-called “gender transition” of church members. These new liturgies are intended to affirm and celebrate a person’s shift to a chosen gender identity, and to “to recognize liturgically a person’s gender transition.”
The guidelines, titled Pastoral Guidance for use in conjunction with the Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in the context of gender transition, were approved by the Church of England’s House of Bishops in December 2018, and published shortly afterwards.