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News > UK >

Assurances of celibacy may not be enough to qualify for a bishopric

by Gavin Drake

Posted: 21 Jun 2013 @ 12:11

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ASSURANCES that a candidate for the episcopate who is in a civil partnership is living a celibate life may not be sufficient to qualify him for appointment to a bishopric, new guidance from the Church of England's legal office said this week.

The revised guidance on the impact of the 2010 Equality Act on the selection of bishops follows the decision by the House of Bishops last year to lift the ban on celibate clergy in civil partnerships' being put forward for the episcopate ( News, 4 January).

Like the old guidance, the new document explains that, while it is unlawful to treat a candidate to an office less favourably than other candidates because of his sexual orientation or civil partnership, churches and other religious organisations can apply requirements relating to sexual conduct, including a requirement not to be in a civil partnership "where that requirement is applied to give effect to the non-conflict principle".

The guidance says that it follows from the House of Bishops' statement in December, that "clergy in civil partnerships who are living in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality can be considered as candidates for the episcopate."

It goes on to say that "before a priest in a civil partnership can be considered for episcopal nomination, the archbishop of the province in which he is serving will wish to satisfy himself, following discussions between the diocesan bishop and the clergyman concerned, that his life is, and will remain, consistent with the teaching of the Church of England. . . These assurances will be sought before a candidate comes to be considered for nomination to a diocesan or suffragan see."

But the new guidance says that assurances that a candidate is "in a non-sexually active civil partnership" may not be sufficient to guarantee a nomination to a particular bishopric. The CNC, or the diocesan bishop in the case of a suffragan appointment, would still be able to impose a requirement that a person in a civil partnership could not be put forward for the office concerned.

"Those responsible for making the nomination are entitled in law to reach a judgment on whether the fact that someone is in a civil partnership would prove an obstacle to nomination, given the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of those worshipping members of the Church of England to whom the bishop concerned would . . . be ministering."

The advice echoes the guidance given in cases relating to divorcees, where those responsible for nominations are "entitled to reach a judgment on whether marital history might prove an obstacle".

The decision by the House of Bishops to lift the ban on celibate clergy in civil partnerships from being considered for the episcopate drew sharp criticism ( News, 11 January); but it was defended at the time by the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, who said: "the House believed it would be unjust to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity with the Church's teaching on sexual ethics, or other areas of personal life and discipline.

"All candidates for the episcopate undergo a searching examination of personal and family circumstances, given the level of public scrutiny associated with being a bishop in the Church of England. But these, along with the candidate's suitability . . ., are for those responsible for the selection process to consider in each case."

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