In 2019 the British Government opened civil partnerships to heterosexual couples as well as to same sex couples, giving two options for legal recognition of two people choosing to live together in an exclusive relationship regardless of their genders: marriage and civil partnership.
In December 2019 the House of Bishops of the Church of England formulated, and in January 2020 issued, a Pastoral Statement stating that the teaching of the church was that heterosexual marriage was the only relationship between two people within which it was theologically supportable that sexual intercourse should take place.
This caused a huge amount of discussion, dismay and dissent. It is useful to examine what has occurred and why.
The Bishops using the classic Church of England formula of Scripture, Tradition and Reason offered guidance that was clearly consistent with the Church’s traditional reading of scripture.
It can be argued that what the House of Bishops may not fully have acknowledged was the extent to which the application of reason by the church has historically been significant in making decisions in relation to new or emergent difficult, situations.
Humans, like most living species, have an instinct to survive and reproduce. Fortunately for individual humans these activities are generally pleasurable.
However, because of the strength of the drive for individual survival and reproduction, the process of individuals’ exercising their instinct can be disruptive for groups and societies. In order to minimize the danger this can pose to group survival, the activities of reproduction (sexual intercourse) and survival (the distribution of food and shelter) have needed to be regulated. Societal regulation is difficult without an authority structure, and through the ages, most societies have chosen to use religion (especially religions professing an authoritarian deity) as a way of enacting this regulation.
Historians can demonstrate, using examples dating from the Classical period onward, that religions have commonly taken over, absorbed or endorsed the extant choices of relationships that seemed to work for the societies in which they practised. In Western Christendom marriage relationships have been effectively regulated through religion with advantage to the state. However, in 19th and 20th Century Western Europe a loss of salience of religion (particularly Christianity) and a burgeoning of alternative relationships to traditional marriage, have led to a difficulty in States’ being able equitably to ‘manage’ individuals’ chosen relationships.
In Britain, it may be argued, cultural changes of relationships and of the authority of religious institutions led the government to legislate for Civil Partnerships as a way of treating same sex couples equitably with heterosexual couples (who were able legally to marry).
On careful consideration, the different terminologies of Marriage and Civil Partnerships were recognised as imbuing different meanings to the legal relationships. In order to resolve this contested area, the British Government subsequently authorised the adoption of both terms (Marriage and Civil Partnership) for legal regulation of both heterosexual and homosexual partnerships, distinguishing between them only in certain respects relating to their formation and dissolution.
The Pastoral Statement issued by the House of Bishops suggests that at present the leadership of Church of England feels unable to absorb and participate in the revised societal regulation of the issues of human survival and reproduction.
Two major potential utilitarian arguments can be advanced as underlying this choice:
First, that as a deliberately conservative institution, the Church of England should not depart from its traditional interpretation of scripture and its definition of marriage:
Second, that given the loss of influence of Christianity in Western Europe but its increasing growth of adherents in the Global South (where different social conditions prevail), the primary import must be to sustain a theological position that will find favour with the majority of Anglicans, accepting that this may cause problems for many members of the Church of England.
A similar challenge was faced by the Roman Catholic Church in relation to the use of artificial contraception on the publication of the Papal Encyclical, Humanae Vitae in 1968. After a period of expressed discontent, a large sector of Western liberal Catholics responded by making up their own minds (and choosing to ignore the Papal guidance).