Britain Redefines Marriage

LONDON — Pop icon Elton John “married” David Furnish Dec. 21 in the same Windsor town hall where Prince Charles tied the knot last spring with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Homosexual activists in the United Kingdom hailed the event as a symbol of the social acceptability of their sexual behavior.

But to Britain’s Catholic leaders, the legalization of homosexual unions symbolizes something very different: the disintegration of their nation’s understanding of what comprises authentic marriage.

And, along with the decision by the Church of England to allow its ministers to partake in homosexual civil unions so long as they promise to remain chaste afterward, it represents another obstacle to Catholic-Anglican unity.

Under the country’s Civil Partnerships Act, which came into force the week before Christmas, same-sex couples now have the same legal and financial rights as heterosexual married ones. Any homosexual couple over the age of 16 can register as a civil partnership. Should the union break up, it can be dissolved only through the courts.

In a Dec. 7 statement, Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff, chairman of the bishops’ Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, called the legislation “same-sex ‘marriage’ in all but name.”

 As a result, he said, “there is a real danger that the deeply-rooted understanding of marriage as a permanent and exclusive relationship between a woman and a man, and as the best context for raising children, will be eroded.”

Archbishop Smith said the government must move to “support and promote marriage rather than undermine it.” A civil partnership, he added, is not based on “natural complementarity of male and female,” and the “natural purpose” of sexual union cannot be achieved by same-sex partnerships.

Lifelong marriage between a man and a woman, Archbishop Smith concluded, represents “an unchanging ideal and a vital anchor for a rapidly changing world. ... Its value to society should be promoted and never diminished.”

The Vatican has not officially responded to the legislation, but privately, officials fully endorse Archbishop Smith’s statement.

“Some complain that the Church is interfering in such matters, but if the state takes upon itself the ability to alter something as ingrained and natural as marriage, then what will the state not intervene on?” asked one official. “There is an implicit absolutism here, civil as well as moral, that if a state sees no limits to its encroachment in terms of legislation, whether that be considered benevolent or not, what you have, in essence, is a dictatorship.”

Another official called the U.K. legislation “part of the slippery slope towards denying the reality that is the evil of homosexuality.” He added that even conservative politicians accept civil partnerships because it “gets the issue off their backs,” but actually the law “forms resentment” because it serves to “numb consciences.”

“The whole bent of society and the cleverness of the homosexual lobby is to move where they have consensus, to overtake and to legislate,” he said. “But what I fear more is that they are introducing this ‘sexual-identity’ confusion; that kids who would usually have worked these things out and in the end been a functional part of society are now more and more inclined towards sexual deviances.”

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Church of England has been vague on the issue. According to Bishop John Flack, head of the Anglican Center in Rome, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England and titular head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, has not issued a statement and is unlikely to do so because of the deep internal disputes over homosexuality and homosexual clergy.

“Any statement is likely to increase that division,” Bishop Flack said. “The archbishop will approach it in a different and, I expect, cautious and thoughtful way.”

Chaste ‘Marriage’

However, the equivocal messages from the Church of England have done little to ease internal Anglican tensions. Under guidelines announced July 25, the church will allow homosexual clergy to register for civil partnerships, but only on condition they live chaste lives and inform their bishops first.

The allowances were made because homosexual orientation, though not homosexual behavior, is already acceptable for Church of England clergy.

“We have a long history in this regard, and many cases of homosexual Anglican clergy of the same sex living together, but it is only recently that people have suspected these couples as having a relationship,” said Bishop Flack. “Unless we receive definite information that sexual relations exist, we leave matters alone and respect their privacy.”

Anglican clergy are not allowed to preside over same-sex civil partnerships or to bless same-sex couples. However, because of the nature of authority in the Anglican Communion, hundreds of clergy are expected to do so. Many bishops are understood to privately endorse the practice.

In fact, such blessings are already taking place. Rev. Christopher Wardale, vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Darlington, Durham, was among the first to obtain a civil partnership Dec. 21, exchanging vows in Newcastle with his same-sex partner. Afterward, BBC News reported, “a service of celebration was held at a city church, where the former bishop of Durham, Rev. David Jenkins, preached.”

Anglican leaders in developing countries, where the majority of the Anglican Communion’s 78 million members live, have reacted angrily to the Church of England’s position. A Nov. 15 letter to Archbishop Williams, signed by 12 developing world Anglican primates, criticized the Church of England for not following the lead of the Catholic Church in seeking a conscientious exemption from the civil partnerships legislation.

“Surely the Church of England should have sought a similar exception,” the letter said. “Not doing so gives the appearance of evil with regard to its ‘partnered’ clergy even if meaningful discipline is exercised and you failed to mention the implication of this new act with regard to the laity that will force all parish clergy to accept openly gay partners to the altar rail on penalty of church discipline.”

The Global South primates said that the failure of the Anglican Communion to reach agreement about homosexuality was injuring ecumenical dialogue with other Christian churches.

“We are sure you must feel the shame caused by the brokenness within our own communion when you interact with these churches ecumenically,” the Nov. 15 letter said.

As with the ordination of women, Bishop Flack conceded the church’s approach to the legislation would be detrimental to Catholic-Anglican dialogue. Nevertheless, he said, “Over the last 40 years our partnership has grown into friendship and, as with any friendship, there is a measure of hurt as well as disagreement, but we ensure that ecumenism continues.”

Vatican officials agree that dialogue will continue despite the problems generated by the civil partnerships issue.

“Because their teaching safeguards teaching on marriage and the celibate lifestyle, there is no significant impact on relations,” said one Vatican official. “We’re concerned about what it’s creating, dividing the Anglican Communion even more. The July 25 statement created quite an uproar, because of the volatile nature of the debate and because the Anglican Communion is going through a delicate time at the moment.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.

(Register staff and CNS

contributed to this report.)