What exactly is Rowan Williams saying about the new civil partnership bill?

We are still trying to unravel the Sunday Telegraph article about Rowan Williams’ seeming opposition to a proposed British law that would lift the ban on blessing same-sex civil partnerships in religious ceremonies.

As several commentators have pointed out, the language of the story, which uses “civil partnership” and “homosexual marriage” more or less interchangeably, seems almost deliberately unhelpful. The cause of clarity is not advanced by suggestions that this legislation, which allows, but does not compel, would somehow force the Church of England to change its teaching on marriage. Nor is it obvious how the Church would resist legislation that requires nothing from it.

One question to contemplate this morning is whether this muddled presentation of the matter actually serves the Church of England’s interest by casting the matter as a case of the state dictating to the church. The editorial writers at the Guardian make it clear that such an interpretation is not anchored in fact:

We have strongly supported all the laws which have established equality in public life, even in places such as the armed forces where it had once seemed so difficult. We have also argued against exemptions for religious bodies providing services that are not inherently religious, such as Catholic adoption agencies. A law that forced churches to alter their doctrinal activities, however, would be different and indeed problematic. By requiring clergymen to bless ceremonies they believed to be wrong, it would enforce hypocrisy.

But no such law is being proposed. Under the plans no church, chapel, synagogue or mosque will be compelled to host any ceremony. Nor would changing the law – and so implementing an amendment to the Equalities Act, which the Lords passed with all-party support last year – create any new “right” for gay couples, as some have wrongly reported. The plan is merely to allow religious bodies which support partnership ceremonies – such as the Quakers and some liberal synagogues – to hold them.

This is a proposal which the Church of England – whose own bishops split on the issue in the Lords last year – should find unexceptional.

It is at least remotely possible that Williams does find the legislation unexceptional, or perhaps of mild concern, but that he and the Lambeth Palace staff have once again done an poor job of making his views public, and that they have been ill-served by the story-hyping British press. The blogger Clayboy (Doug Chaplin) takes the latter view:

It seems we can be reasonably certain of several things. First, Archbishop Williams said the Church was not going to allow same-sex blessings to be conducted in Church, even if the law is changed to permit religious ceremonies to be used in civil partnerships. Then he said that the Church would continue to hold and teach that marriage was between a man and a woman. He also seems to have said that this was a matter for the Church to decide, and not for legislation to compel it to do otherwise.

It is something of a mystery why any of these would be newsworthy, and one may doubt whether the wording reported by Wynne-Jones of Kirby’s summary is precisely Rowan Williams’ wording. He is normally both an honest and a subtle answerer of questions. …

Now we move on to the way this story is picked up elsewhere. The Pink News clearly have no other sources than the Sunday Telegraph story. Yet for them this has become “Archbishop of Canterbury says Church will fight moves to introduce gay marriage“, and that he personally is not prepared to allow Church of England buildings to be used for civil partnerships.

By the time this reaches the Daily Mail (where else?) for another re-write with no new substance, this has become “Gay weddings will never take place in church buildings, vows Dr Rowan Williams.”

Commenting on this posting, however, our friend Simon Sarmiento suggests that the archbishop is his own worst enemy:

While I don’t disagree with the main thrust of your analysis, I think I would draw a rather different conclusion, namely that the Church of England and Lambeth Palace are really quite poor at communicating with the media, and getting their message across in the way that they would wish to see it.

To assume that such a meeting would remain private would be extremely naive.

The Telegraph report says that Lambeth Palace was asked for, and gave a comment, so somebody there had knowledge that the story was coming.

Lambeth Palace could clear all of this up by simply stating the archbishop’s views on the matter. While we are waiting for that to happen, enjoy Judith Maltby’s op-ed article from the Guardian:

The revival of the religious life in Anglicanism, and the honoured place it now has, goes to show how we can as a church change our mind and rectify our mistakes. It also goes to show that there really is enough of God to go around; that different ways of faithful living do not compete with each other but add to the enrichment of the whole. Gay and lesbian people of faith actually want God’s blessing at an important time of public commitment. So much for aggressive secularism.

Past Posts