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Archbishops reprimand priest who blessed gays

by Pat Ashworth

CLERICS might disagree with the Church’s teaching on sexuality, but are not at liberty to disregard it, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

They were responding to the blessing of a clergy couple’s civil partnership at St Bartholomew the Great in London on 31 May. The ceremony for the Revd Peter Cowell and the Revd Dr David Lord was conducted by the Rector, the Revd Dr Martin Dudley. It is being investigated by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, whose permission for the ceremony was not sought or given.

In a letter sent to Dr Dudley on Wednesday, and copied to other clergy in the diocese, Bishop Chartres writes: “I read in the press that you had been planning this event since November. I find it astonishing that you did not take the opportunity to consult your Bishop.”

The point at issue was not differing opinions about homosexuality, Bishop Chartres writes. “The real issue is whether you wilfully defied the discipline of the Church and broke your oath of canonical obedience to your Bishop.”

He ends by reminding Dr Dudley: “St Bartholomew’s is not a personal fiefdom. You serve there as an ordained minister of the Church of England, under the authority of the Canons and as someone who enjoys my licence.”

The service was in the context of a eucharist. Much of the fallout has come from the use of a liturgy closely modelled on the 1662 Book of Common Prayer marriage service, and the exchanging of rings and vows. The couple said to each other: “With this ring, I thee bind, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow; In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

The Rector pronounced: “For as much as David and Peter have consented together in a holy covenant and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and thereto have pledged their troth either to other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of a ring, and by joining of hands, I pronounce that they be bound together, In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Dr Dudley has defended the ceremony not as a wedding but as the blessing of two people who had contracted a civil partnership. He had conducted it at the request of Mr Cowell, a friend and colleague, who ministers at the neighbouring church of St Bartholomew the Less.

The House of Bishops’ guidelines on same-sex blessings were guidelines and not mandatory instructions, he told the BBC’s Sunday programme, decrying the “total hypocrisy” of denying the existence of gay clergy couples.

In an article in the New Statesman, Dr Dudley writes of the thinking behind the liturgy: “This bringing together of two men would be like a marriage but not a marriage, for I am clear that marriage is between a man and a woman, and the words I will say must be said with integrity.”

The two Archbishops said that they had heard reports of the service “with very great concern”. Their statement goes on: “The various reference points for the Church of England’s approach to human sexuality (1987 Synod motion; 1991 Bishops’ Statement Issues in Human Sexuality; Lambeth motion 1.10, House of Bishops’ 2005 statement on civil partnerships) are well known and remain current.

“Those clergy who disagree with the Church’s teaching are at liberty to seek to persuade others within the Church of the reasons why they believe, in the light of Scripture, tradition and reason that it should be changed. But they are not at liberty simply to disregard it.”

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) said in a response to the Archbishops that the disregarding of “manifestly unjust official Church teaching” had a “long and honourable tradition of its own” that had encompassed campaigns against slavery, the use of unauthorised liturgies, remarriage of divorcees, and the ordination of women.

An earlier LGCM statement, issued on Monday, said that it was amazed that the service had been declared a “first”. It had used a form of words “similar to hundreds of liturgies we have seen over the years, though we thought the amendments very elegant and will be including them in the ‘help packs’ we send out.”

It continued “In recent years we have sent out nearly 2000 such packs to couples seeking a blessing for their union or to priests who are celebrating them.”

The timing of the blessing, so close to the Lambeth Conference, has drawn accusations of provocation at a sensitive time and has raised concerns for conservatives bound this weekend for the GAFCON gathering, in Jerusalem. Unless bishops exercised swift and clear discipline, the “floodgates of indiscipline” would open, warned the Revd Rod Thomas, chairman of Reform. He accused “clergy pursuing a liberal agenda” of causing schism in the Church.

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