Church of England Bishops and Civil Partnerships

Andrew Goddard considers in detail a recent communique from the House of Bishops in December 2012 about Civil Partnerships and the episcopacy

Church of England Bishops and Civil Partnerships

by Andrew Goddard

Tucked away within a wider press release just before Christmas it has been announced that at their December meeting the Church of England’s House of Bishops decided that “the House does not intend to issue a further pastoral statement on civil partnerships” and that “the requirements in the 2005 statement concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate”. The announcement is already beginning to gain attention and speculation as to its significance including at Changing Attitude and Thinking Anglicans but its full import remains largely unconsidered. What follows seeks to set this decision in context and highlight important questions that remain unanswered and issues that need addressing.

What is the background to the announcement?

The announcement is set in the context of the House receiving an interim report from the group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling. This is due to report next year and is engaged in a wider and potentially much more significant review of the church’s response to sexuality issues. It is, however, intriguing that no mention is made of the group chaired by the Bishop of Sodor and Man which was specifically tasked by the House to provide “a review of the 2005 statement in the light of subsequent developments” and to “include examination of whether priests in civil partnerships should be eligible for appointment as bishops”.

Has anything changed?

By applying the requirements of the 2005 statement in relation to the episcopate it could be claimed that nothing important has changed but there are important issues for those who are committed to the position of the CEEC’s St Andrew’s Day Statement that the church (italics added)

assists all its members to a life of faithful witness in chastity and holiness, recognising two forms or vocations in which that life can be lived: marriage and singleness (Gen. 2.24; Matt. 19. 4-6; 1 Cor. 7 passim). There is no place for the church to confer legitimacy upon alternatives to these.

Such a position leads to a commitment to stand with, and strongly affirm, all Christians, whatever their experience of sexual attraction, who remain faithful to biblical teaching and the teaching of the Church within these two vocations. It also values celibate same-sex friendships. This traditional stance would therefore welcome the appointment of bishops who experience same-sex attraction and live faithfully in one of these two vocations. The difficulty is that it is unclear how being in a civil partnership relates to these two vocations.

The press release describes the decision on civil partnered bishops as one of “confirmation”. This implies continuity with current policy. In fact, no priest in a civil partnership has ever been appointed as a bishop and the 2005 statement did not address this issue. That is why the review group was set up to determine whether priests in civil partnerships should be eligible for appointment as bishops. Furthermore, in setting up the review group the bishops clearly stated that “to avoid pre-empting the outcome of the review the House has concluded that clergy in civil partnerships should not, at present, be nominated for episcopal appointment”. The decision is, therefore, a reversal not a confirmation of the existing policy.

Why no further statement but a change of policy?

Normally a change of policy requires, and is announced alongside,some explanation. It could be argued that there is continuity as clergy in civil partnerships must be in relationships “consistent with the teaching of the Church of England” to be considered for the episcopate, presumably meaning they must give assurances the relationship is not a sexual one. However, the reason the moratorium was put in place was a recognition that there remained major questions about the nature of civil partnerships that needed to be reviewed.

The problem is that civil partnerships are a form of quasi-marital same-sex union and

It is clearly the case that a significant number of Anglicans, on grounds of strongly held religious conviction believe that a Christian leader should not enter into a civil partnership, even if celibate, because it involves forming an exclusive, lifelong bond with someone of the same sex, creates family ties and is generally viewed in wider society as akin to same-sex marriage (para 26, GS Misc 992).

This is presumably why, as the bishops said in setting up the review on civil partnerships, (italics added),

The House believes there is a theological task to be done to clarify further our understanding of the nature and status of these partnerships.

The method of such a task was also clearly set out – “Within the Anglican tradition our theological thinking is formed by a reasoned interpretation of Scripture, within the living tradition of the Church informed by pastoral experience” – but the fruit of this work has not been made public.

The House’s failure to offer such theological clarification is particularly concerning given the questions raised widely across the church about the 2005 statement, the changed social reality seven years on from the first civil partnerships and in particular the current debates about same-sex marriage and the relationship between civil partnership and marriage. Without clarifying the church’s “understanding of the nature and status of these partnerships” appointing a bishop in such a partnership would send out a confusing message in our contemporary social context given the church’s teaching on sexuality. To move from the current stance is therefore a significant step which requires further explanation and justification.

In order to enable the wider church to understand this development, ideally the bishops should publish the review’s report and recommendations. These presumably led them to the decision not to revise the earlier statement but nevertheless to lift their moratorium and introduce a policy of opening the episcopate to civil partnered clergy.

Taking and announcing the decision to allow civil partnered bishops in this way at this time without issuing a further pastoral statement leaves a number of important issues unclear.

Issues needing clarification

1. Teaching on marriage and singleness

The fundamental problem is that civil partnerships are a form of quasi-marital same-sex union. The House of Bishops has made quite clear the Church’s continued opposition to same-sex marriage but during the introduction of civil partnerships, the Church of England stated concerns that they are equivalent to same-sex marriage. That is primarily why, despite some impressions to the contrary recently, the Church was far from wholehearted in supporting civil partnerships when they were introduced. It is also why the government is proposing that civil partners should be able to convert their partnership into marriage in a manner that would not be seen as the legal ending of one relationship and the start of another and would require no formal ceremony.

2. Ambiguity, public witness and being a focus of unity

The 2005 statement from the bishops made clear that

it would be inconsistent with the teaching of the Church for the public character of the commitment expressed in a civil partnership to be regarded as of no consequence in relation to someone in- or seeking to enter- the ordained ministry. Partnerships will be widely seen as being predominantly between gay and lesbian people in sexually active relationships (para 21).

Because of the ambiguities surrounding the character and public nature of civil partnerships, the House of Bishops would advise clergy to weigh carefully the perceptions and assumptions which would inevitably accompany a decision to register such a relationship (para 22)

In such a situation the wisdom of permitting civil partnered clergy to become bishops, particularly given their role as a focus of unity, is highly questionable as the message such an appointment would give potentially undermines the church’s official teaching.

3. Civil partnerhips and the church’s blessing

The 2005 statement makes clear that “the ambiguity” surrounding civil partnerships means “it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships. In addition, the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership” (para 17).

There is therefore at least a tension if not a contradiction in the decision that it would be legitimate to appoint a civil partnered bishop. If this is a pattern of life the church cannot recognise and bless liturgically in any form and which most people see as equivalent to same-sex marriage, further justification is needed to explain how a bishop as senior pastor can be in such a partnership given they promise to fashion their own life and that of their household according to the way of Christ.

4. Implementing the 2005 statement

The press release simply refers to the “requirements in the 2005 statement” concerning relationships “consistent with the teaching of the Church of England” being applied “equally” in relation to episcopal appointments. It is, however, unclear what this means in practice.

Clergy in civil partnerships should already have been “willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality” (para 19) and they should “expect to be asked for assurances that their relationship will be consistent with the teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality” (para 21). It is unclear whether, in consideration for the episcopate, it will simply be assumed such assurances have already been sought and given and if not whether the relevant Archbishop or someone else will seek and receive them before consenting to consecrate. It is also unclear whether or how the advice offered in “Choosing Bishops – The Equality Act 2010” (GS Misc 992), which allowed consideration of more than simply whether the partnership was currently a sexual relationship, continues to apply in relation to considering civil partnered clergy as bishops.

5. The Anglican Communion and its moratorium

The review group was, in its work, to “be consistent with the approach taken by the Anglican Communion in Resolution 1.10 of the Lambeth Conference 1998 and subsequently”. The wider Communion struggled to understand the Church of England’s stance in 2005 and this latest announcement clearly opens the way for those in a form of legally and socially recognised same-sex union to serve as bishops within the Church of England.

Particularly given the lack of explanation, this decision will be viewed by many Anglicans in the Church of England and across the Communion as representing a departure from the Communion’s clear call for “a moratorium on the election and consent to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate who is living in a same gender union until some new consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges” (Windsor Report para 134). While some would welcome such a departure from this moratorium which has been supported by all the Instruments, the majority of Anglicans worldwide believe it would be wrong and for the Church of England to act in this way would seriously damage the Communion.

6. The peace and unity of the Church of England

Given the current tensions in the Church of England over women bishops, the Global South’s concerns as to how the new Archbishop of Canterbury can restore their confidence in Communion structures, the debates about same-sex marriage in British society and the ongoing work of the Pilling Group on sexuality, this decision to reverse existing policy, with no rationale, further increases tensions in an unnecessary manner.

What now?

Given the serious issues raised by this decision, great caution will need to be shown before someone in a civil partnership is nominated to the episcopate by a diocesan bishop or the CNC. It is to be hoped that, on the basis of their review, the House will, early in the New Year, provide both General Synod and the wider church with a fuller explanation of its new policy addressing concerns such as those noted above. In addition, the many bishops sharing these concerns may consider making known their response to this development and offer a clearer commitment to biblical and Anglican teaching than has been offered in the short statement announcing the House’s decision.

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