Archbishop wrong on cohabitees’ rights says Christian think-tank

London, UK - June 12, 2006 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.

The UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia says that if there is a “marriage muddle”, as Dr Williams claims, it is of the church’s as well as the state’s making – 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 in the church’s understanding.

“The real confusion here is failing to recognize the distinction between covenantal and contractual relationships, and trying to make them the same thing,” says Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley.

He continues: “The 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 have been run together during the Christendom era, where the roles of church and state have been mixed up.”

In May 2006 the government’s Law Commission proposed that established live-in couples should be able to claim a share of each other’s wealth, including property, pensions and other assets, if they split up and were left financially vulnerable. It is this that the Archbishop objects to.

Ekklesia says that it welcomes the debate prompted by Dr Williams’ comments for “bringing the issue out into the open” – but adds that “there must surely be something wrong when the church’s ‘defence’ of holy matrimony apparently involves perpetuating what many will see as an unholy injustice on established live-in couples.”

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 “grudging” (in the words of 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 – 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.

“Clearly 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 require”, says Jonathan Bartley.

Bartley's latest book, Faith and Politics After Christendom, 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.