Archbishop's view on cohabitation rights challenged

By staff writers
June 11, 2006

Archbishop's view on cohabitation rights challenged

-11/06/06

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has been challenged about his view that the extension of legal rights to cohabiting couples may undermine the institution of marriage.

In comments made ahead of a speech he will give on Fatherís Day next weekend, the head of the Church of England said that marriage had ìsuffered a long process of erosionî and claimed plans to give legal rights to cohabiting couples might make the situation worse.

In May 2006 the governmentís Law Commission proposed that established live-in couples should be able to claim a share of each otherís wealth, including property, pensions and other assets, if they split up and were left financially vulnerable.

But the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia says that if there is a ìmarriage muddleî, as Dr Williams claims, it is of the churchís as well as the stateís making ñ and that trying to stop the civil authorities providing protection to cohabitees is a bad way to promote the ideal of lasting love that marriage is meant to enshrine.

ìThe real confusion here is failing to recognise the distinction between covenantal and contractual relationships, and trying to make them the same thing,î says Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley.

He continues: ìThe Christian understanding of marriage is of a voluntary covenant of loving faithfulness made publicly by two people before God. The civic understanding is of a non-religious contract expressing certain legal rights and responsibilities. These two are simply run together under Christendom, where the roles of church and state are mixed up.î

Ekklesia says that it welcomes the debate prompted by Dr Williamsí comments for ìbringing the issue out into the openî ñ but adds that ìthere must surely be something wrong when the churchís ëdefenceí of holy matrimony apparently involves perpetuating what many will see as an unholy injustice on established live-in couples.î

The Archbishop of Canterbury points out that definitions of cohabitation are fraught with difficulty. This is something the Law Commission is wrestling with. Under current UK law civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples offer legal protection, but these are not an option for heterosexual couples.

But critics point out that the Church of England has been ìgrudgingî (in the words of to the Bishop of Worcester) on civil partnerships too, and that a plural state will have to find ways of acknowledging and dealing with the different kinds of relationships people form.

Ekklesia says that it is unhelpful to cloud such issues by imposing a specific religious view on a civil arrangement ñ and vice-versa. It argues that the Christian meaning of marriage as covenant is rooted in an understanding of the freely-given love of God, and that, ironically, it is this perspective which is undermined when it is made a matter of obligation for people who do not share that view or experience.

ìClearly the churches and other faith communities have a lot more thinking to do about the relationship between what they wish to uphold themselves and what it is helpful for the state to requireî, says Jonathan Bartley.

Meanwhile a listener to BBC Radio 4ís Broadcasting House programme this morning (11 June 2006) said he would like to invite the Archbishop of Canterbury to a party celebrating 25 years of cohabitation with his partner ñ so that Dr Williams could explain to them and to the divorced people there how security for cohabitees undermined the marriages of others.

Jonathan Bartley's latest book, Faith and Politics After Chrristendom, will be published at the end of this month. It argues for a new way of looking at the relationship between religion and public life, and says the churches need to abandon an establishment mentality in order to be more subversive and creative in what they offer.

Archbishop's view on cohabitation rights challenged

-11/06/06

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has been challenged about his view that the extension of legal rights to cohabiting couples may undermine the institution of marriage.

In comments made ahead of a speech he will give on Fatherís Day next weekend, the head of the Church of England said that marriage had ìsuffered a long process of erosionî and claimed plans to give legal rights to cohabiting couples might make the situation worse.

In May 2006 the governmentís Law Commission proposed that established live-in couples should be able to claim a share of each otherís wealth, including property, pensions and other assets, if they split up and were left financially vulnerable.

But the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia says that if there is a ìmarriage muddleî, as Dr Williams claims, it is of the churchís as well as the stateís making ñ and that trying to stop the civil authorities providing protection to cohabitees is a bad way to promote the ideal of lasting love that marriage is meant to enshrine.

ìThe real confusion here is failing to recognise the distinction between covenantal and contractual relationships, and trying to make them the same thing,î says Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley.

He continues: ìThe Christian understanding of marriage is of a voluntary covenant of loving faithfulness made publicly by two people before God. The civic understanding is of a non-religious contract expressing certain legal rights and responsibilities. These two are simply run together under Christendom, where the roles of church and state are mixed up.î

Ekklesia says that it welcomes the debate prompted by Dr Williamsí comments for ìbringing the issue out into the openî ñ but adds that ìthere must surely be something wrong when the churchís ëdefenceí of holy matrimony apparently involves perpetuating what many will see as an unholy injustice on established live-in couples.î

The Archbishop of Canterbury points out that definitions of cohabitation are fraught with difficulty. This is something the Law Commission is wrestling with. Under current UK law civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples offer legal protection, but these are not an option for heterosexual couples.

But critics point out that the Church of England has been ìgrudgingî (in the words of to the Bishop of Worcester) on civil partnerships too, and that a plural state will have to find ways of acknowledging and dealing with the different kinds of relationships people form.

Ekklesia says that it is unhelpful to cloud such issues by imposing a specific religious view on a civil arrangement ñ and vice-versa. It argues that the Christian meaning of marriage as covenant is rooted in an understanding of the freely-given love of God, and that, ironically, it is this perspective which is undermined when it is made a matter of obligation for people who do not share that view or experience.

ìClearly the churches and other faith communities have a lot more thinking to do about the relationship between what they wish to uphold themselves and what it is helpful for the state to requireî, says Jonathan Bartley.

Meanwhile a listener to BBC Radio 4ís Broadcasting House programme this morning (11 June 2006) said he would like to invite the Archbishop of Canterbury to a party celebrating 25 years of cohabitation with his partner ñ so that Dr Williams could explain to them and to the divorced people there how security for cohabitees undermined the marriages of others.

Jonathan Bartley's latest book, Faith and Politics After Chrristendom, will be published at the end of this month. It argues for a new way of looking at the relationship between religion and public life, and says the churches need to abandon an establishment mentality in order to be more subversive and creative in what they offer.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.