Civil Partnerships and the Church in Wales – A Personal Response to Dr Andrew Goddard’s critique of the Statements of the Bishops of the Church in Wales

A Personal Response to Dr Andrew Goddard's critique of the Statements of the Bishops of the Church in Wales

by the Right Revd Anthony Crockett The Bishop of Bangor

Your article The Bishops of the Church in Wales on Civil Partnerships: A Personal Response by Andrew Goddard in Fulcrum appears to be an interesting case of party zeal clouding judgement. It looks like yet another example of the inability of some either to listen to argument or to reject all forms of stigmatisation and to commit oneself to listen to people whose sexual orientation may be different from one's own. I confess, too, to being puzzled by what seems - but surely cannot be - a lack of knowledge on Dr Goddard's part of the history of the development of ethical teaching in the Christian Church.

Dr Goddard has clearly read the Statement of the Bishops of the Church in Wales on Homosexuality of 26 November 2005. However, in his opening paragraph, he reveals an inability to appreciate its force - presumably because he disapproves of it. The Welsh Bishops' Statement on Civil Partnerships of the 3 December must be read in the light of the November Statement, for the two are linked by time and theme. To do otherwise is to display a disregard for the importance of context. The November Statement - obviously to Dr Goddard's chagrin - makes it clear that the Welsh Bishops recognise a spectrum of Scriptural interpretation within the Church in Wales on the subject of homosexuality, as on many other ethical matters. They identify at least five points of view amongst those who read the Scriptures with integrity. Dr Goddard obviously disagrees with the Bishops. Indeed, one suspects that he might not accept the integrity of those with whom he himself does not see eye to eye on this matter. However, he can hardly accuse the Bishops of 'having no teaching to give on this matter', when their whole point is that the Church (in Wales, at least) is seriously divided on this issue. There is no sensus fidelium to be discovered, for 'as with many other issues, there exists a wide range of Scriptural interpretation within the Christian Church' (Statement of November 26). Unless Dr Goddard wants to unchurch those with whom he disagrees (perhaps because of their 'lack of integrity'), he will need to recognise the reality of where our Church, consisting of clerics and lay people, is on this, and on other related ethical issues. Newman, in his essay on Consulting The Faithful On Matters Of Doctrine, reminds us that not allowing the laity to have a say in regard to Church teaching 'in the educated classes terminates in indifference, and in the poorer in superstition'.

What is particularly worrying in Dr Goddard's article is his apparent total disregard of the way in which ethical teaching within the Christian tradition is far from static, for it has been in development down the ages. The classic example of such a change is the case of usury. The Church in the West, following consistent Biblical teaching (which is stronger on this subject than on same-sex unions) declared at the Council of Vienne in 1312 that it learned with dismay that there were communities which, contrary to human and divine law, sanctioned lending money on interest. It announced that all rulers and magistrates knowingly maintaining such laws were to incur excommunication. Yet, by 1515, Johan Eck produced a subtle defence of the practice, which overturned a millennium and a half of unchanged Christian teaching. Interestingly, he was forbidden to debate the matter at his own University of Ingolstadt - because Church teaching was so 'clear' on the subject - and had to go to the University of Bologna, paid for by the financier Jacob Fugger. Does this complete turn-around have no bearing on current ethical debate?

Or, more relevantly perhaps, what about the complete volte-face performed by the Lambeth Conference between 1908 and 1968 on the use of contraception, a subject at least at divisive in the last century as the issue of same-sex relations in this. In 1908, contraception was declared to be 'demoralising as to character and hostile to national welfare'. In 1920, the Conference 'utter[ed] an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers - physical, moral and religious - thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race'. By 1968, the year of Humanae Vitae, the Lambeth Conference 'found itself unable to agree with the Pope's conclusion that all methods of conception control other than abstinence from sexual intercourse or its confinement to periods of infecundity are "contrary to the order established by God".'

Dr Goddard must surely be aware that Christians within Churches and between Churches have differed and do differ in good conscience on ethical questions. He must know that the Christian ethical tradition has often been one of change, sometimes through 180°, sometimes even within a few decades. If so, his strident tone and inability to appreciate the principled stance of the Welsh Bishops ought to have been avoided. Some within the Church suspect that we are seeing a similar shift in the sensus fidelium in regard to homosexuality, and they do not wish our bishops to ape the posturing of the Lambeth Fathers of 1908 and 1920.

When specifically referring to the Welsh Bishops' Statement on Civil Partnerships, Dr Goddard upbraids them for saying that they 'cannot and would not wish to prevent what the law allows for Church members, both lay and clerical'. This he builds into a 'general principle'. Again, he would have done well to have regard to the context. The Statement is about Civil Partnerships and nothing else, for every thing is what it is and not another thing. To seek to portray the specific reference of the sentence quoted as a general principle is desperate rhetoric, which adds nothing to his argument. Why should the Welsh Bishops who had already in their November Statement explained their reading of the Church's divided stance, 'wish to prevent what the law allows' in this regard? One is left with the uneasy feeling that Dr Goddard wants the Welsh Bishops to be condemnatory tout court of the Act on Civil Partnerships. Or, failing that, to insist that they have a right to pry into people's private lives and ask questions which, if they were asked of other areas of life where there might be ethical issues, would be regarded as improper. Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms recognises the right to private life. But at this point, Dr Goddard reveals his cards. He says that 'The Government's statements distinguishing civil partnerships...are widely recognised as at best disingenuous and at worst deceptive'. This may be the case with those for whom homophobia has become the shibboleth of orthodoxy. The Welsh Bishops, by contrast, saw no reason to prejudge anyone who enters into such a partnership where in law their sexual relationship is deemed irrelevant. Indeed, I read in one Sunday Newspaper that Peter Tatchell regards the Act as profoundly discriminatory because what it does not allow is 'gay marriage'.

Dr Goddard fulminates that the Bishops' Statement is 'simply false and repeats the error of the English House of Bishops' in saying that 'the new legislation makes no change in the law in relation to marriage…'. The Welsh Bishops are in good company, then! But it is he who is simply wrong on this matter. What is changed is not the fundamental law on marriage, but the list of impediments to a marriage (with, of course, consequential changes to the Marriage Acts). It is obvious that the exclusive legal rights enjoyed by people in civil partnerships (or in a marriage) in relation to property, inheritance, pension rights, status as next of kin etc, cannot continue if a member of such a partnership wishes to enjoy the same rights with another person - of either sex. One set of legal commitments must end if another is to be entered into. It is no more complicated than that, and to claim otherwise is to clutch at straws and to make mischief.

There are so many glaring prejudices in Dr Goddard's piece, but time and space do not permit any further rebuttal. He should, however, be reminded that Archbishop Akinola hath no jurisdiction in the Province of Wales, and to produce that name out of his hat shows how desperate Dr Goddard is to call anyone in aid. One is left with the awful feeling that for Dr Goddard this issue of same sex relationships has become the contemporary test of Christian orthodoxy. But why not usury and the damage done to billions who - contrary to the consistent teaching of the Bible - are consigned to a life of grinding, absolute poverty because of the usurious workings of the capitalist system - which will, no doubt, one day pay for Dr Goddard's pension? Why not the use of artificial contraception? We could then be co-belligerent with the Roman Church, and thus reinstate Onan as one of the villains of the Biblical record. On Dr Goddard's static and unhistorical view of Christian ethics, these would seem to be examples of 'clear teaching' which he would want to uphold too. Why not, Dr Goddard?

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