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Blessing the void

Nicholas Turner returns to the problem of how to bless a civil partnership and the questions that will face when the Coalition considers the introduction of so-called gay marriage


wrote last month about one of my favourite philosophers, J.L. Austin, who taught a great deal about

the power of words. Many of the sentences we seak are not statements but acions. Nowhere is this more vividly

exemplified than in a marriage service, when the couple form the union themselves by the solemn vows they make one to the other. What Austin taught, beter than any other, was the need to recognize those occasions when we use words to do something, and not merely say something. Tis

distinction between acion

and commentary – or rather most people’s inability properly to distinguish between the two – was immediately brought to prominence when Dr Williams spoke

to MPs

recently, and restated the Church of England’s refusal to allow the blessing of civil partnerships in church. I have writen on this before, when the Civil Partnership Act was being introduced six years ago. Allow me to repeat the point, for it will become still more

important when Parliament

considers, as it has promised to do, the introduction of gay marriage some time this month.

No spoken words Section 2 of the Act tells us that

a civil partnership is formed solely by registration. Te registration, ‘in the presence of a civil partnership registrar, and in the presence of each other and two witnesses’, consists solely of a signature on the civil partnership document. Tere is to be no declaration of

consent or commitment, no vows of any kind, no expression of any undertaking whatsoever. Above all, and this is the crucial point, the spoken word has no place in the formation of a civil partnership. Tat is the law. If you read the parliamentary

debates in 2004, you will see that this was not a bizarre oversight: it was quite deliberate. Te Minister of

State charged with introducing the legislation stated unequivocally that ‘spoken words are not part of that registration process’.

Importance of words By contrast, as we all should know

and as Austin so clearly described, words are central to the solemnization

and faithfulness have called down that blessing from him. No word, no blessing. Te formal pronouncement of God’s

blessing upon the couple

at a church wedding is not a benign hope. It has content only because the solemnization of the marriage has content.

Nothing to bless As the Minister stated, ‘a civil

there is to be no declaration of consent or commitment, no vows of any kind

of marriage. In a church wedding, the

couple are the ministers of

the sacrament, and in their words they are not sharing information, expressing their feelings, or offering a commentary upon what they are doing, they are doing it. Tat is why those words are so formal, solemn and hallowed by long usage. No words, no marriage. As for the blessing (and remember

there are two in a wedding) it is dependent upon the words of the couple one to the other. It is not tacked on as a form of reward for those who come to church; it emerges from what has gone before. Te Church

pronounces God’s

blessing upon those who by their publicly expressed covenant of love

partnership is formed when the second civil partner signs the civil partnership document, a civil marriage is formed when the couple exchange spoken words.’ A civil marriage can be blessed (though some clergy may refuse to do so) because it has spoken content; a civil partnership cannot. No content has been permited in law at its formation: there is nothing, no thing, to which a blessing may be atached. Tere is, therefore, no foundation for a service of blessing, even a morally objectionable one. Tis is the situation now, and it is quite clear. It is not a mater of justice, nor our own feelings, but of content. What, however, will the government

propose by way of ‘gay marriage’? All good liberals are in favour of it. Yes, but what exactly will it be?

Marriage and partnership Lord Falconer, architect of the 2004 Act, argued that civil marriage should be brought into line with civil partnerships. Tis was the reason for the immensely complicated legislation, and the inclusion of several clauses that could only seriously refer to heterosexual couples. It is not clear, at present, exactly

what is being proposed. It will make a difference which is equated to which, marriage to partnership, or partnership to marriage. I am well aware that most MPs and most of their constituents will not care less one way or the other. But we, as traditional Christians, remain guardians of this sacrament, one of God’s great giſts to mankind.

April 2011 ■ newdirections ■ 13 ND

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