What has been announced?
Two new developments have been announced.
1. In relation to the 2005 Statement on Civil Partnerships a review has been established and will be completed in 2012 (although there is no commitment to publish it then). It will include considering whether priests in civil partnerships can become bishops.
2. There is to be a “wider look at the Church of England’s approach to same-sex relationships more generally” which will produce a consultation document in 2013.
Why is a review on Civil Partnerships needed?
There are a number of reasons for this review:
1. The 2005 document was heavily criticised by some for being too permissive and by others for being too restrictive. This was evident in the February 2007 General Synod debate which in its final form did not speak positively of the statement but noted that the House of Bishops intended to keep their Pastoral Statement under review. This is what is now happening.
2. The understanding of, and response to, civil partnerships has evolved in both church and society since they were introduced. In particular,
a. they are widely seen as “same-sex marriage” by another name
b. registration will soon be permitted on religious premises (and the Church of England has signalled that General Synod will decide if Anglican churches are eligible to apply for authorisation), and
c. the government will shortly consult on introducing same-sex marriage either alongside or instead of civil partnerships.
3. The 2005 statement permitted clergy to enter civil partnerships. This was because
The House of Bishops does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is 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).
However, the statement also stated,
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).
A number of clergy have entered civil partnerships and it appears not all would be willing to give the assurances referred to in the statement and not all have been asked to give them by their bishops.
4. In speaking of a clergyperson giving assurances to his or her bishop the statement clearly only considered the situation of deacons and priests and not bishops.
5. The House of Bishops – like the wider church – is probably not of one mind on whether someone should be able to be a bishop if in a civil partnership, even if they can give assurances. In such a situation instituting a formal review is an established way forward.
6. There is, as a result of all these factors, more work to be done on how the Church of England is to understand civil partnerships and to respond to those laity and clergy who enter into them. In the words of the House of Bishops’ statement – “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. The House believes there is a theological task to be done to clarify further our understanding of the nature and status of these partnerships”.
What are the constraints on the Civil Partnership Review?
1. The statement is clear that “It will be undertaken in the context of the Church of England’s teaching on same sex relations as set out in the General Synod motion of November 1987 and Issues in Human Sexuality (a teaching statement from the House of Bishops in 1991)”. This is really only a descriptive statement and clearly does not prohibit developments away from those two key contextual sources.
2. However, it is also stated that the review will “be consistent with the approach taken by the Anglican Communion in Resolution 1.10 of the Lambeth Conference 1998 and subsequently”. While “consistent with the approach” has some potential for manoeuvre, this gives little room for moving towards a more affirming stance towards civil partnerships. This is because that resolution, among other things,
a. states that “abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage”,
b. rejects “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and
c. “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions”.
What has changed as a result of the statement?
1. The only clear change is that the House of Bishops have decided that “it would be wrong to pre-empt the outcome of the review and that clergy in civil partnerships should not at present, therefore, be nominated for piscopal appointment”.
2. This announcement goes beyond the legal advice recently released and upholds a more conservative position. The legal advice simply stated that “where someone is in a civil partnership and/or is known to have been in a same-sex relationship, even though now celibate, it is for the CNC in the case of diocesan appointments and for the diocesan bishop, in consultation with the relevant archbishop, in relation to suffragan appointments, to come to a view whether the person concerned can act as a focus for unity because of these matters” (para 27) and that in piscopal appointments “relevant factors which can properly be taken into account include... whether he was in a civil partnership” (para 29)
What has shaped the Church of England response to civil partnerships and same-sex relationships in the past?
1. The Church of England has sought to uphold both its own teaching in the 1987 General Synod motion and the Communion’s teaching in Lambeth I.10. This holds that marriage between a man and a woman is the divinely ordained context for sexual relationships and thus that same-sex sexual relationships “fall short”, are not to be blessed and should not be entered into by clergy.
2. In 1991 Issues distinguished between laity and clergy in its guidance. It allowed freedom of conscience for lay people to enter into a faithful same-sex sexual relationship but required all clergy to live in accordance with church teaching. This was not a case of different moral rules for each but of different levels of discipline within the church.
3. In responding to civil partnerships the bishops sought to distinguish those that were sexual from those that were non-sexual. They permitted the laity to enter either form without being disciplined but only permitted clergy to enter civil partnerships that were avowedly non-sexual.
4. Lambeth I.10’s restrictions in relation to same-sex unions were understood by the bishops in their 2005 statement to prevent blessing of any civil partnership but to allow clergy to enter civil partnerships if they were non-sexual.
What might be proposed as a result of the Civil Partnership Review?
1. There are broadly two practical areas to review – (a) the church’s pastoral and/or liturgical response to those entering civil partnerships, (b) the church’s expectation of deacons, priests and bishops in relation to civil partnerships. These need to be shaped by what the new statement describes as the “theological task” of clarifying “our understanding of the nature and status of these partnerships”.
Two major changes in stance being sought – full acceptance or total opposition?
2. Some (such as Changing Attitude) clearly hope the review will lead to a wholly positive response to civil partnerships as an authentic Christian pattern of life. This would result in
a. removing the current distinction between sexual and non-sexual civil partnerships
b. allowing partnerships to be blessed, and
c. being in a civil partnership as, in itself, of no significance in relation to one’s suitability for ordination.
Given the need to act “consistent with the approach taken by the Anglican Communion” and the ongoing (until 2013) review of wider teaching, such major developments appear highly unlikely to happen.
3. Some (such as Anglican Mainstream) hope the review will remove some of the distinctions that have been drawn in the past to produce a more consistent and coherent negative response to civil partnerships. This would result in
a. cautioning against affirmative pastoral responses to lay Christians who enter civil partnerships,
b. being in a civil partnership judged as something “intrinsically incompatible with holy orders”,
c. extending the current discipline on clergy to all who minister with the bishop’s licence.
Such developments would be “consistent with the approach taken by the Anglican Communion” and so compatible with the terms of reference. However, taken as a whole these measures could be seen as marking a significant change to a more conservative stance prior to the 2013 consultation document. They would certainly be opposed by a number of bishops who wish the church to move in the opposite direction and they may be too counter-cultural in their pastoral outworking for others who are supportive of traditional teaching.
Maintaining the current stance of distinguishing within the category of civil partnerships – challenges
4. The alternative to either a universally positive or a universally negative stance to civil partnerships is clearly to maintain some of the established distinctions, notably those between acceptable and unacceptable civil partnerships and between discipline in relation to clergy and laity. Here there are a number of challenges –
a. By what method and on what grouds is one to distinguish between those civil partnerships compatible with church teaching and thus holy orders and those not?
b. How is such a distinction to be applied to different groups? Can the sharp distinction between clergy discipline and lay discipline be maintained given the number of lay people who exercise significant authorised ministry within the church? Should a further distinction be drawn between what is required of bishops compared to other clergy?
c. How does a proposal have theological integrity and coherence in any differentiation between laity, deacons and priests, and bishops? How, in particular, does it not appear simply to be a pragmatic compromise of a divided church with those who reject church teaching shaping a more permissive response to lay people but church teaching continuing to be applied to those in (at least some) ordained ministries?
How could the church distinguish between civil partnerships? – Possible processes
5. One path would be to abandon the attempt to distinguish between civil partnerships and instead create an ecclesial structure for same-sex relationships that was distinctively Christian. Christians could then be encouraged to enter this either alongside or as an alternative to civil partnerships. This route would enable some form of liturgy to be created and would be the pattern of life required for any ordained person in a same-sex relationship. Although there is much attractive in this proposal, the definition of such a way of life will require the work of the other review and a period of consultation and discernment. Given the current stark divisions in the church over whether such a relationship must be a form of avowedly non-sexual friendship or could be a quasi-marital sexual relationship it seems unlikely a consensus could easily be reached on such a structure.
6. An alternative path would continue with the current practice of deciding whether civil partnerships are compatible with Christian teaching on a case-by-case basis. In relation to suitability for ordination this could follow broadly one of two forms. The current practice of setting down the principles for distinguishing and leaving bishops to apply these at their discretion could be continued. Alternatively, following the pattern of remarriage after divorce, a canon could be created which stated civil partnerships – like marriage during the lifetime of a former spouse in canon C4 – would normally be an impediment to entry to holy orders but a faculty could be issued by the archbishop of the province for the removal of that impediment. There could then be established an agreed, consistent process for issuing such a faculty. Either way the question would need to be considered what criteria – simply whether the relationship is sexual? – would determine whether or not a particular civil partnership was viewed as acceptable.
Distinguishing different groups within the church in relation to discipline
7. In relation to different groups and the form of church discipline, the distinction between clergy and laity needs to be reviewed and a better rationale needs to be given for any such distinction. Clearly it is neither desirable nor practicable to implement the same form of discipline with regard to all lay Anglicans as to clergy. However, the fact that bishops are to be satisfied that Readers are “of good life” (canon E5) gives weight to the claim that at least this lay office needs to be considered in relation to whether, given current CofE and Communion teaching, certain forms of civil partnership are incompatible with the office. This is confirmed by reports of widely varying practice across dioceses in relation to civil partnered lay readers.
8. The review is explicitly going to address the question of civil partnered clergy becoming bishops. There would appear to be broadly three options in relation to nomination of civil partnered clergy as bishops –
a. no further enquiry beyond that already made of them as clergy entering civil partnerships
b. additional enquiries and scrutiny above and beyond those applied to clergy
c. a total prohibition (as has been applied until the review reports).
Here it is important that the church has a clearly principled stance and does not simply appeal without further justification to the bishop as “focus of unity”. Although this is an important and distinctive element of the episcopal office, if the church teaches that a particular way of life is consistent with Christian discipleship and not in itself an impediment to ordination then some explanation needs to be given to justify it being made an absolute impediment to episcopal ministry simply because a minority do not accept this teaching.
Forms of legitimate pastoral response
9. With regard to liturgical and pastoral responses to lay and ordained Anglicans, a formal blessing of civil partnerships is unlikely due to the constraints of consistency with Lambeth I.10. However, there will be pressure for other forms of recognition and celebration. Here the 2007 proposals of Canadian bishops may be looked to by some for guidance. The new statement notes that “We recognise that bishops and clergy have found ways of engaging pastorally with those in civil partnerships, both at the time of registration and subsequently” without being specific. These forms of pastoral engagement have included bishops attending their clergy’s civil partnerships and clergy holding a Communion service and/or service of thanksgiving (as distinct from blessing) in church for civil partners. Here it is important that the breadth of permitted pastoral response is consistent with, and supportive rather than undermining of, the church’s theological understanding of “the nature and status” of civil partnerships.
What is the other work that has been announced?
1. Little detail has been given in relation to the wider project also announced. All that has been said is that the House has “decided that more work is now needed on the Church of England’s approach to human sexuality more generally” and so, with the intention that it will “produce a further consultation document in 2013”, it will
- “draw together material from the listening process which has been undertaken within the Church of England over the recent years in the light of the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution”
- “offer proposals on how the continuing discussion within the Church of England about these matters might best be shaped in the light of the listening process”
The Bishop of Norwich stated that this “is motivated by a desire to help shape the continuing debate constructively and not by any view about what the outcome should be”.
2. This new development may represent the implementation of Archbishop Rowan’s call for work in this area at General Synod in November 2010, which Giles Goddard and I recently urged be taken forward in an article in Church Times. Archbishop Rowan’s speech
a. called urgently for “some thoughtful engagement that will help us understand how people who read the same Bible and share the same baptism can come to strongly diverse conclusions” as “in the last few years the debate on sexuality has not really moved much”.
b. noted that “neither side always has the opportunity of clarifying how they see the focal theological issues – how one or the other position relates to our belief in a divine Saviour”
c. commented that “if we are not to be purely tribal about this, we need the chance for some sort of discussion that is not dominated by the need to make an instant decision or to react to developments and pressures elsewhere”.
d. recognised that “there is a formidable literature in this area, with much theological sophistication”, but also that “in the debates we involve ourselves in, in and out of Synod, here and elsewhere in the Communion, the prevailing tone is often rather different”.
e. appealed to Synod “to help me do better by working with me to create the ambience where better understanding may happen. I hope that Synod will not be averse to thinking about how we can take this forward, without the pressure of feeling we have some single and all-important decision to make”
What is to be done and how is it to be done?
3. One crucial and as yet unanswered, perhaps still largely unaddressed, question is that of this work’s intended focus and goal and hence of what structure and method(s) are best suited to achieving that goal. The announcement places great emphasis on the “listening process” within the Church of England. It is however unclear what particular examples of this in recent years it has in mind or what specific insights – in terms of either substance or process – it believes these might yield in terms of “the continuing discussion within the Church of England”. Archbishop Rowan’s Synod speech also spoke positively of the successor to the Communion’s listening process – “the methods currently being developed in the ‘Continuing Indaba’ project, with its success in creating many such spaces for face-to- face discussion across cultures”. Although much value has come from these two methods it is not clear how helpful they are on their own if the goal of this work by the House of Bishops is – in the Archbishop’s words – “clarifying the focal theological issues” or, in the Bishop of Norwich’s words, to “help shape the continuing debate constructively”.
4. Within the recent history of CofE and wider Anglican discussions there are a number of other different models that could be used in this project, most notably
a. The International Anglican Conversations on Human Sexuality produced a report in 2002 which set out common ground and areas of disagreement after meetings which were in part shaped by the Public Conversations Project
b. Some Issues in Human Sexuality was published in 2003 after a working group of the House of Bishops had spent several years discussing the issues among themselves and with interested parties
5. Various other models have been developed and used outside church contexts to enable opposing perspectives to discover shared beliefs and clarify the nature of diverging perspectives. Among these there is the Bridge Building Dialogues Program and National Consensus Process developed by the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine, the funders of the Communion’s Continuing Indaba Project (a project which has some similarities to, but is significantly different from, this consensus process model).
6. There are clearly high levels of tensions in relation to the subject of sexuality. This new work by the House will therefore likely become the focus of conflicting hopes and fears in the wider church. It is , therefore, vitally important that it has clear terms of reference and works by a coherent process that has integrity, engenders the confidence of as wide a spectrum of views as possible, and is able to deliver the goals sought. While there must be an element of confidentiality during its work, the work of the group also needs to be as open and transparent as possible.
How should evangelicals respond to these developments?
1. It is vitally important that evangelicals committed to the biblical and traditional sexual ethic set out in Lambeth I.10 engage constructively with these two new initiatives. Some, weary of apparently unending dialogue and listening, fearful of the possible outcome and concerned to put their energy into more important issues, may be tempted to keep their distance or engage in a defensive manner. Such approaches, however, risk the wider church not recognising the strength– both in numbers and in argument – of the evangelical positon.
2. These two reviews provide an opportunity for evangelicals to
a. re-explore the historic Christian vision for sex and marriage
b. regain intellectual and spiritual confidence in the biblical rootedness, theological coherence and significance and psycho-social validity of traditional Christian teaching compared to a revisionist position
c. enter constructive theological dialogue with those seeking to revise Christian teaching in order both to correct and be corrected by those with whom we disagree.
3. As this is an initiative of the bishops it is important that evangelical bishops are willing to provide leadership in helping evangelicals and the wider church through biblical and ethical teaching and witness in this area. Bishop Graham James commented that “contrary to popular perception the House of Bishops has spent very little time over recent years discussing homosexuality”. The same is true of many bishops in their ministries. There is an understandable desire not to major on a controversial topic and a fear of being aligned with some voices that are labelled extreme or obsessive. Nevertheless, there is also the danger – that the review may perpetuate – of allowing the need for ongoing listening to become an excuse for silence. Although listening and dialogue is vital, it risks creating a teaching vacuum when bishops should be articulating biblical and church teaching in this area through prophetic engagement with secular culture and winsome, persuasive apologetic and teaching within the church.
4. Evangelicals as a whole need to engage more seriously with the experience and insights of those who experience same-sex attraction, especially with those who do so and share their understanding of the Christian sexual ethic . This requires listening to how they understand their sexuality in the light of the gospel and the biblical witness and how they live it out in Christian discipleship.
5. There are a range of voices here among those who seek to live consistently with biblical teaching. Some testify to changes in the strength or direction of their sexual attractions or seek such changes. Others believe their life will remain one of struggle against their same-sex attractions to those. Some have accepted their sexuality as a form of divine ‘gifting’ or ‘vocation’ and, whilst holding to the disciplines of chastity in singleness are happy to identify as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ Christians. Others reject such identity labels based on sexuality sometimes describing themselves as ‘post-gay’. Only by recognising and relating positively to this full range of Christian approaches can evangelicals contribute constructively to wider church discussions by
a. understanding the implications of traditional teaching
b. developing credible pastoral responses to enable such Christians to live faithful, chaste lives with the support of the church
c. addressing elements of unhealthy suppression of same-sex attraction and sinful homophobia among evangelicals
d. living out an attractive alternative to the acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships offered by wider society and some within the church
6. Evangelicals also need to consider a range of challenging questions about the moral status of civil partnerships and their significance in the public life of the church. These include
a. Are civil partnerships problematic in the life of the church only if they are an avowedly sexual relationship?
b. Should those in civil partnerships give assurances – and if so of what kind and to whom? – that the partnership is not sexual or can one assume conformity with biblical teaching until evidence is given otherwise?
c. Is the problem with civil partnerships their public quasi-marital nature, irrespective of whether they are sexual?
d. Can civil partnerships be viewed and lived out as a form of chaste same-sex loving friendship as has existed for decades amongst evangelicals, including evangelical leaders in ministry and mission?
e. Does the lack of legal clarity about the meaning and significance of civil partnerships and the public perception in wider culture of them as ‘same-sex marriage’ mean entering one is intrinsically undermining of Christian teaching before the world? Is this so, irrespective of the couple’s intentions and even if the world – and many in the church – are not scandalised by such action?
f. Even if not to be commended, can civil partnerships be tolerated as a “second best” for Christians who are struggling to order their same-sex attractions in as godly and healthy way as possible? If so, does this extend to those in authorised ministry?
7. In addressing these questions together, evangelicals also need to acknowledge those areas where there are differences in emphases among themselves and consider how to avoid partisan and campaigning stances that risk making these into fracture points. These relate to such issues as
a. different pastoral responses to those struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction and those in same-sex relationships
b. the theological significance and ecclesial weight of Christian disagreements over this issue
c. how to respond to bishops and other Christians who hold, express or implement views contrary to Communion teaching
d. what evangelicals should do if the reviews lead to developments that they believe to be inconsistent with that teaching and with Scripture.
8. Finally, as those with a particular concern to share the gospel and participate in God’s mission, evangelicals need to consider how the way in which they engage with this issue is consistent with that primary calling. We are called to announce and live out a sexual revolution revealed in Scripture’s teaching about human sexuality. We are continuing, however, to live through a different and often totally incompatible form of sexual revolution that extends far beyond the issue of homosexuality and civil partnerships. Perhaps the most important question therefore is how we articulate – in word and deed - our alternative biblical sexual revolution in a way that provides good news to our society, including those within it who experience same-sex attraction whom the church has so often failed in the past.