Church and Civil Partnerships
Are faith groups acting reasonably when they argue that civil partnerships undermine marriage? Should some faith groups have the right to stop other faith groups from formalising civil partnerships?
Currently, in England, civil partnerships can only be formalised in registry offices. Since some faith communities wish to be able to formalise and bless civil partnerships the Home Secretary is seeking to enable this. Some faith groups are opposed to any change, just as they are opposed to civil partnerships.
Are faith groups acting reasonably when they argue that civil partnerships undermine marriage?
Should some faith groups have the right to stop other faith groups from formalising civil partnerships?
Civil Partnerships are identical to marriage in most respects. They celebrate two people coming together for support and mutual help. So does the current understanding of marriage. Civil partnerships are contracts covering legal rights regarding property, inheritance, pensions, social security, life assurance, tenancies and situations where “next of kin” matters. They also cover responsibilities regarding a partner’s children. The contract can only be severed by formal divorce. These rights and responsibilities are identical to those applying to any marriage. However, marriage has, historically, quite specific connotations in faith circles. It came to mean a partnership formed for the procreation and rearing of children. Sexual relations were only allowed within marriage – and, according to some Christian denominations, are only for the procreation of children. This is why contraceptives are a problem for some faith groups. Civil partnerships on the contrary are not about legalising sexual relationships, not are they about the procreation of children.
It is surprising that those faith communities who argue that the sole purpose of sex is for the procreation of children and is only allowed with marriage have serious problems with civil partnerships since such partnerships are not about procreation nor about legalising sexual relationships. They argue, however, that civil partnerships undermine marriage. They reason that if civil partnerships and marriage are virtually identical then marriage will no longer be seen in traditional terms. In other words, marriage will no longer be seen as the means whereby sex can be controlled and be only about procreation.
Perhaps a look at what Genesis has to say might be of help.
There are two distinct accounts of the relationship between men and women in the narratives of creation in the book of Genesis. In the first we are told that God created men and women and told them to have lots of children so that they could dominate the earth and all its creatures. There is no mention of marriage: just procreation and domination.
The second account is extremely interesting. Adam was created – but was lonely. God therefore decided to provide him with a “helper.” In both Greek and Hebrew, the words used for “helper” are also used of God. “The Lord is my helper,” as we find in Hebrews 13.6. In Psalm 54:4 we find, “God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.” Eve was to be to Adam what none of the other creatures could be: a helper equal and adequate to himself (עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּו). Marriage is not mentioned – nor is the procreation and rearing of children. What is being created is an equal and mutually helpful partnership, a relationship based on the relationship between human and God.
Thus the ancient rabbinical understanding of the relationship between men and women as intended at their creation is that they be equal partners one with the other. They are intended to be mutually supportive of each other. This does not appear to be far from what is intended within civil partnerships – or within marriage.
Marriage became contractual early on in human history, as we can see from the tales told of the patriarchs in the later chapters of Genesis. The forms and workings out of the contract, along with rights and responsibilities within the marriage, have developed over time and are still evolving. Today sex is understood as not just being about procreation but is also the means whereby partnerships can be deepened and thoroughly bonded – where each partner has concern and love and respect for the other. Faith groups that deny this are not be clear-sighted about the positive aspects of human sexuality.
In the light of Genesis Chapter 2, with its narrative of the creation of Eve as an equal and mutually supportive partner for Adam, we ought to affirm any two people who wish to devote themselves to each other in love and respect whether it is called “civil partnership” or “marriage.” Affirming two people entering a relationship they wish to be permanent and to their mutual benefit ought to be a priority for any faith group, and ought to be blessed by them in their special buildings.Where something as good as two people wishing to be of mutual support to each other throughout life, a source of real stability in society, is desired, no faith community should prevent other faith communities from affirming and blessing such unions. Nor should any faith community be coerced into blessing such a union, rather we should explore the theological implications together in love.