Predictably Irrational?

Andrew Goddard has a stonking piece out on Fulcrum on “Men and Women”.

Andrew GoddardThere has been little or no new serious theological reasoning advanced as to why the original view of the bishops about civil partnerships was wrong.  Without that being offered, there is the danger that the predictably irrational path is being followed without people realising this is what is happening.

In 2011, the House of Bishops set up the Sodor and Man group to review the 2005 statement on civil partnerships.  They recognised that “there is a theological task to be done to clarify further our understanding of the nature and status of these partnerships”. Its findings have, however, never been published.

If that theological task has been done then it needs to be published urgently to counter the predictably irrational forces at play and assist in rational debate about how the church should respond to civil partnerships.  The fact that the House of Bishops in December last year reaffirmed their 2005 statement suggests the Sodor and Man report did not give a convincing theological rationale for changing the church’s stance.

Most of the arguments advanced for civil partnerships now are no different from those advocated by civil partnership supporters at the time but rejected.  They call for a revision of the traditional Christian sexual ethic, summed up by Archbishop Justin Welby in his recent Sunday Times interview as “whether it’s gay or straight, sex outside marriage is wrong”.  If the church is to change its current stance on civil partnership it will need to rewrite, downplay or abandon that sexual ethic.

Two other factors at play 

Another reason for the change in some people’s thinking is perhaps signalled by the Bishop of Liverpool’s statement that civil partnerships are “a just response to the needs of gay people”.  It is indeed good, right and just that the growing number of committed same-sex partners in British society be given legal rights and protection through granting recognition in law to their relationships.  But this does not mean that the recognition should take the quasi-marital form it does in civil partnerships and which the Church of England cautioned against and widely opposed.  Nor does it follow that because something should be given legal recognition and regulation that it should therefore also be formally promoted and blessed by the church.  Such an argument may not be predictably irrational but is certainly theological irrational.

There is, however, one rational element in the reframing we may be about to experience in British law.  If same-sex couples are able to marry then the Christian criticism that civil partnerships are wrong because they are effectively same-sex marriages will have less force.  It will remain the case that the legislation makes them marriage in all but name so the criticism will not be invalid.  Nevertheless, anyone entering or remaining in a civil partnership will consciously have chosen not to classify their relationship as marriage.  They thus will in some sense bear indirect witness to marriage as created by God.  The difficulty is that this does not offer an argument for civil partnerships as sexual relationships and also that it may be a very minority witness.

The next challenge?

The current evidence is that the overwhelming majority of those in civil partnerships are likely to apply to be reclassified as married.  It may well be that civil partnerships prove little more than a short-term stepping stone towards same-sex marriage, particularly for many Christians in same-sex unions.  Among other challenges this new reality will also mean that the church could soon have clergy who are legally in a same-sex marriage. In other words, if the church moves to bless civil partnerships but continues to oppose same-sex marriage it will probably find itself doing so just as most gay and lesbian couples abandon that structure and ask instead for the church to marry them to their same-sex partner or bless their same-sex marriage.  The period of choosing between three options may not last very long.  In a short time the choice may be largely between upholding a traditional view of marriage and redefining marriage as the means of commending same-sex partnerships.


The Church of England cannot now run away from examination of its teaching in relation to same-sex relationships.  It needs, however, to have a serious discussion involving theological reasoning.  The danger is that it will instead simply embrace civil partnerships through playing catch-up with social changes and succumbing to forms of “predictably irrational” behaviour.  Ironically, it may therefore act in a way that means it loses theological coherence and integrity, widens divisions within the Church of England and the Communion but still remains out of step with social change.

It would be much better were the Church of England to reaffirm traditional teaching and communicate that vision of human flourishing positively.  It could then put its energies into commending those with same-sex attraction who embrace that teaching and pursue that vision and developing good forms of pastoral support for them while continuing to explore the appropriate pastoral responses to those who in conscience reject traditional and biblical teaching.

Cracking last paragraph. Would the Church of England ever be so bold?

Go and read it all.

2 Comments on “Predictably Irrational?

  1. Andrew has got hold of a good idea here.

    He has grasped that gay relationships, and in particular Civil Partnerships, have been so quickly and wholly accepted that it is increasingly likely the Church of England will be moved to celebrate them liturgically in some way.

    Though Andrew thinks this is a bad idea.

    At one point he claims that those who stay in Civil Partnerships will in some unexplained way be honouring the idea that God made marriage for opposite sex couples. Some of my friends who intend to form or stay in a Civil Partnership, will find that both amusing and strange.

    Andrew thinks you are more likely to choose the middle option if you are a Church of England bishop. He thinks that it would be a mistake to see “love Civil Partnership” as the middle ground between “hate gays” and “hate gay marriage”.

    Andrew has the extraordinary ability to recognise a trend at just the point where his advocacy will fail to have any influence. I can give examples.

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