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Church of England maintains sex guidance, despite apologizing for it

Pope Francis meets Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

The Church of England will not be withdrawing its recent pastoral guidance affirming that sex is reserved for married, heterosexual partners, despite an apology over the statement from two of the ecclesial community’s bishops.

The guidance, “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 after civil partnerships were first made available to heterosexual couples.

The guidance draws a clear distinction between marriage and civil partnerships, noting that sexual relations are not proper to the latter.

“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.”

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 England and Wales in 2013, but civil partnerships had been available to same-sex couples only.

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.”

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.”

Some pairs of people who are not romantically involved have entered civil partnerships for tax or benefit purposes.

The Church of England does not conduct or recognize same-sex marriages as marriage. In December 2012, the Church of England permited same-sex attracted clergy in civil partnerships to become bishops, provided they observe continence.

Justin Welby and John Sentamu, the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York, said on January 30: “We as archbishops, alongside the bishops of the Church of England, apologise and take responsibility for releasing a statement last week which we acknowledge has jeopardised trust. We are very sorry and recognise the division and hurt this has caused.”

They added that the Church of England’s College of Bishops is continuing its study on human sexuality, which they said “is intended to help us all to build bridges that will enable the difficult conversations that are necessary as, together, we discern the way forward for the Church of England.”

The College of Bishops have voted against a proposal to withdraw the guidance.