The Straight Civil Partnerships Question

The question is this. If civil partnership is opened to straight couples then would someone in such a partnership be eligible to be considered for ordination?

It is a simple question but carries enormous complexity with it and can help to illuminate where we are in the changing world of legal relationship states.

I first raised this question in June 2013 in a series of 10 unanswered questions about marriage, most of which remain unanswered even now.

The thing is, it is entirely possible that some straight couples within the different jurisdictions of the UK may soon achieve their hope to be in civil partnerships. I’m aware of both a legal challenge to the current law that is proceeding and also government consultations coming from both Holyrood and Westminster.

Now, first of all I need to declare that I’ve always been against extending Civil Partnerships to straight people and thought that the best way forward was to turn all gay couples’ civil partnerships into civil marriages. However that has not happened and so we have a situation where there is a basic inequality – gay couples have the option of either marriage or civil partnerships. And lo, inequality is something that we can’t really tolerate in modern society and so something will need to be done. I can’t really see any alternative to opening civil partnership to straight couples. It seems to me to be only a matter of time and whether I like it or not, that is what will happen.

So, will someone in a straight relationship who is in a civil partnership be eligible for ordination. In Scotland is it well established that someone in a same-sex relationship in a civil partnership is eligible for ordination.

This is not merely a rhetorical question. All these kinds of questions affect real people. As individuals and couples try to work out the best thing for their own relationships they are currently left second-guessing how they are going to be perceived by the churches that they may belong to.

I am aware of straight couples in the church who would be interested in entering a civil partnership rather than a marriage.

But what’s that about.

I’ve been opposed to civil partnerships continuing because I saw them as intrinsically products of discrimination. They were a legal confection devised to look like marriage and to onto which gay couples projected familiar signs and symbols to get as near as they could to the gold standard of marriage. However, things have now changed.

It seems to me that straight couples looking for civil partnerships are clearly saying that they want something that is different to marriage and people like me probably need to get used to the idea that it is just different and not less than marriage now even though it once was.

The church has not really caught up with modern sexual relations in so many areas. As I listen to people twenty years younger than me their presumption is that serial monogamy is a good thing. They believe in faithfulness. They don’t think cheating is acceptable. However, they also are entering into relationships which they themselves would acknowledge might not last forever. The permanence of marriage is not where they are at and I suspect that the civil partnership option might well appeal to such couples.

The thing is, marriage carries with it a whole load of presumptions, not least that the end of a marriage is a Very Bad Thing. Divorce still carries stigma with it.

I suspect that at least some of those seeking civil partnership rather than marriage are choosing to reject the possibility of divorce as they feel that the dissolution of a civil partnership carries fewer negative connotations than being divorced.

But back to the straight civil partnerships question. Would someone in a same-sex relationship in a civil partnership (presuming that such things will soon become a reality) be able to be ordained in the Scottish Episcopal Church – or the other mainstream churches for that matter?

If not, why not?

So far as I can tell, Canon Law is silent on any relationships other than straight married ones.


  1. Bro David says

    Pardon my ignorance, but what is the legal difference between the two*? Does one bestow rights and responcibilities that the other doesn’t? Is one esier to get into than the other? Inversly, is one easier to get out of than the other? Does/can one have an expiration date built into it and the other is until death or divorce?

    People want to know.

    *Different possibilities exist in my homeland currently for same gender couples. Civil marriage in Mexico City, DF, Quintana Roo and Coahuila, which is, per the federal supreme court, legally binding in all states of the Mexican Union. Meaning that there are states that recognize civil marriages when performed elsewhere, but do not allow them to be performed, in addition to the three jurisdictions which perform them. Then there are a number of states, including some that perform civil marriages, where civil unions are allowed. I have no idea what the legal difference is. A number of states have been forced by local courts to perform legal marriages, but on a case by case basis. My home state of Hidalgo is at a standstill with the legislature leadership stating that the society is not mature enough to abide marriage equality, so there is no civil marriage or civil partnership performed, but legal marriage from elsewhere is legally recognized.

    • Not much difference at all. Mostly it is nomenclature. People are tending to refer to their spouse in a marriage as husband or wife, according to whether they are male or female. People in Civil Partnerships seem less likely to do so though that’s not universally true. People in civil partnerships tend to be more likely to refer to their Civil Partner as a partner rather than spouse, wife or husband.

      The end of a marriage is divorce. The end of a civil partnership is the dissolution of the civil partnership. It isn’t particularly any easier to get out of – it just doesn’t have the Divorce word tied to it.

      • Bro David says

        In Scotland, are there religious organizations who have publicly stated that couples in CPs are living in sin because it isn’t civil marriage?

        Can CPs be for a given timeframe, say, this partnership is for 5 years and then we shall reassess our situation?

        • Generally those who might do so would condemn people in civil partnerships because they were in gay relationships rather than because they were in civil partnerships. (Only same-sex couples can enter civil partnerships at the moment).

          Civil Partnership is not for a given timeframe. It lasts until either partner dies or until the civil partnership is dissolved.

  2. I have to say I’m a little wary of something which seems to be saying from the outset “we’re not going to go the full distance”. It seems to me that as Christians we’re called to strived for perfection and then to repentance when we don’t achieve it – it’s not for us to plan on the assumption of a particular future failing. We accept that our clergy are fallible and hence may suffer the breakdown of a marriage. It is a different kettle of fish, I think, for our clergy to choose a lesser relationship than the sacrament of marriage (once all of them have access to both). Whether that means it should be a bar to ordination… I don’t know.

  3. Craig Nelson says

    I’m not that fussed about straight civil partnerships as the two forms are virtually identical. Hence I do not see this as a situation of discrimination. There are historical reasons for civil partnerships being introduced and celebrated for a time and there are still some reasons for retaining that option now (not the least of which is that Northern Ireland does not have marriage for same sex couples but there are other reasons and hopefully the NI anomaly will be resolved soon).

    I think it is for heterosexuals to define for themselves if they want a civil partnership, rather than the Government, the great and good or the church to decide for them. We won’t know what heterosexual people will want to do unless they are given the choice. There are a number of scenarios I can imagine where people might prefer not to have the nomenclature of marriage. It is probably a small number but if the institution already exists there is no difficulty in making it gender neutral. And if it is a big number then if anything that strengthens the case, because that is what a large number of people want.

    Having said that I would anticipate the Church might determine that there might be a requirement for such CPs to be converted into marriages in order to be ordained.

  4. I have to confess that I’ve tended to react with bemusement to those who object to heterosexual civil partnerships, since here in Québec, as in New Zealand, we have both civil marriage and civil unions and it seems to work out all right for us. There is no difference in availability, benefits or obligations. Couples are free to choose which form they want, and partners in a civil union always have the option to convert (I’m not sure about the reverse).

    What you’ve helped me to appreciate is the very different history and context civil partnerships in Britain came out of. Our context is one of the most secular societies in the Americas since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, after centuries of being one of the most clericalist. Overnight, human welfare was taken out of the hands of the (mostly Catholic) Church and passed onto freshly founded government departments for health, social services, and education.

    The immediate motivation for civil unions may have been to provide equivalent legal protections to same-sex couples as the marriage case wended its way through the courts (since amending the Civil Code, unique in otherwise common-law Canada, is something Québec’s National Assembly could do on its own). But it can be assured of a measure of ongoing demand in a society that places less value on legal marriage. It remains less popular than civil marriage (which, unlike in France, can be solemnized in a church), probably in part because it isn’t automatically exportable out of province, whereas obtaining recognition of a foreign marriage is relatively straightforward in most countries.

    That contrasts with the British situation, with its legacy of established churches, and where civil partnerships do seem to have been treated from the beginning, by proponents and detractors alike, as a more self-conscious conceit. That is, civil partnerships were seen as the way gay couples got “married” or at least tried to emulate it, as you indicate. I can see why, in that context, the development of civil marriage could seem to render civil partnerships moot in a way that was not the case here or in New Zealand.

  5. Augur Pearce says

    I quite see what you are saying, Kevin, but the problem is that the legal distinction between marriage and CP (in Great Britain anyhow) is not the one you are drawing. So far as dissolubility is concerned, they are both in exactly the same boat. Both can be dissolved by the order of a competent court; but unless so dissolved, both last for life and exclude entry into a second life union at the same time.

    The differences are

    (1) the name and the ‘pecking order’ in the eyes of much of society: in countries where marriage equality has come about by a court decision, it has usually been because some form of civil union, even if carrying all the same material rights with it, has been recognised as an inferior and therefore discriminatory option.

    (2) the expectation of genital activity in heterosexual marriage: civil partnership legitimises sex between the partners (see, e.g. Sexual Offences Act 2003 s.23; Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 s.45(2)), but does not require it. Opposite-sex marriage, however, does expect the particular penetrative form of sex which the law calls ‘consummation’, at least to the extent that an incapacity to consummate, existing when the marriage is formed, allows the marriage to be annulled. (In Scotland that is as far as it goes – reasons for retaining the rule appear at . In England, of course, it goes further, so that wilful refusal to consummate is also a ground of annulment. And in England this used to be the rationale behind the idea that a husband willing to consummate could physically overcome the reluctance of a wife who was not, without being guilty of rape.)

    (3) the protection of marriage as a cross-border status: the British version of civil partnership is not identical to the civil unions and registered partnerships of some other countries, and no assumptions can be made about how other jurisdictions will recognise it. The fact that civil partners can adopt as a couple here does not, for example, assure them of the right to adopt in France. Marriage is referred to in far more conventions and judicial decisions and is slowly moving to a status where it will be internationally protected even where the couple is of the same sex. (I’d give it ten years before a Strasbourg decision to that effect.)

    (4) the transmission of titles of honour through heterosexual marriage: the (hopefully fictious) Earl of Livingston’s opposite-sex wife is a countess, his same-sex civil partner (and even his same-sex husband) would be plain ‘Mr’. On this showing, it seems likely that his opposite-sex civil partner would be plain ‘Mrs’, and even possible that his children by her would be unable to inherit the earldom.

    The first, third and fourth points all seem to me to militate in favour of straight couples getting married. The big objection of principle to marriage on the part of heterosexuals is surely the second. This is the only legal characteristic of marriage which requires the parties to adopt traditional gender roles. Without it, straights would be free to marry and yet to decide every question of their common life as equals. They can already take decisions on their property and their children on an equal basis – in those areas civil partnership now has no advantage over marriage at all.

    • Yes – I’m aware that I was making a comment that wasn’t about legal distinctions. Just as people loaded civil partnerships with concepts that went far beyond that which was legal when only same-sex couples had access to them, so I think they will have layers of meaning once straight people have access to them. Those layers of meaning will be different to those they once were. The basic difference being that formerly people were using civil partnerships as things that were so near to marriage as to enable those in them to think of them as almost marriages whilst in the future they will be an institution which will exist not for how close they come to marriage but for the very purpose of being different to marriage.

  6. FakePete says

    Is Civil Partnership a natural compromise for a Christian in a relationship with a non-believer? Does the believer sanctify the non believer by entering into a CP?

    • I’d never thought of that one. However, I don’t think that works as it would begin to suggest that marriage is a religious thing. I think we’ve established that you can get married without any religious involvement and I think that’s a good thing.

      • FakePete says

        Another question comes to mind: Should liberal Christians hold up CP as marriage without the patriachal bagage: A superior form of marriage (Marriage 2.0) in the light of Galatians 3:27-28?

  7. In the eyes of a number of people in the community ‘marriage’ may no longer be the gold standard. Or a civil partnership for that matter. I’ve heard it said, and written, that what matters in a relationship is not ‘a piece of paper’ but the love and commitment the two people bring to the relationship. And I think at the deepest level that is true. However, that ‘piece of paper’ does bring something to the relationship, possibly for the benefit of other people and society primarily. I’ve been married for almost 41 years and can say that what brings security to a relationship is the willingness of both parties to put the difficulties and joys of a relationship ahead of semantics.

  8. Rosemary Hannah says

    I think it is about time the church grew up with regard to relationships. Or at least it started looking at what actually happens. We have I think got past expecting brides and bridegrooms to have different addresses pre the wedding.
    That is now how society does things now. (That some people may is not a reason for making all the rules up to fit the exceptions)

    It is not, I think, reasonable to expect clergy to be markedly different. I remember however saying to a clergyman of years of discretion: ‘When your partner …’ and his replying ‘Ah, well, best be careful. When my fiancée …’ because the backlash against anything that implied too much intimacy was to be feared. That is, IMHO, bonkers.

    So I hope that simple prescriptive rules would not be applied.

    And having said that, if I discovered a clergy person had a promising side line as a paid escort, I would be perturbed. Not because of a lack of purity but from fear perhaps that was not the best way to show that adult relationships were blessed hard work.

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