Clergy in civil partnerships and the episcopate; gay marriage in LEPs

by
11 January 2013

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From the Revd Paul Burr
Sir, - If the Church is to maintain any confidence in its bishops on the vexed ethical issues of our day, they will have to sharpen up their act. Their decision over gay bishops, issued both without consultation of the wider Church and without formal announcement (beyond inclusion in a summary of business posted on a website), has left the Church (and media) incredulous.

"Women bishops" takes years of debate in Synod; "gay bishops" (even more divisive) can be sorted out in a routine business meeting. The Bishops look not just out of touch with the Church: they appear to show contempt for it.

There are important procedural issues. The Bishops "confirmed" that their 2005 statement on civil partnerships will apply to the episcopate: had they made a previous decision that the rest of us were not aware of? Had they made the decision before the interim Pilling report? Why no mention of the Paterson report? How can any such decision on civil partnerships be right with- out addressing the imminent redefinition of marriage?

And there are obvious substantive issues.

First, the 2005 Statement was expressly premised on the understanding that the Government had no intention of introducing same-sex marriage. That premise no longer obtains: instead, we now face fundamental redefinition of marriage by statute.

Second, the 2005 Statement managed to find an ambiguity that no one else had spotted: does civil partnership imply sex? It was always absurd to suggest such ambiguity, but it put Church and clergy alike in an impossible position (presumably intentionally), to the ridicule of those outside the Church. To persist in pretending civil partnership does not ordinarily imply a sexual relationship is perverse. Are the Bishops intent on finding the same ambiguity in gay marriage?

Third, the 2005 Statement claimed that the Church's teaching on sexual ethics remained unchanged: if this was tenuous at the time, it is now utterly unconvincing.

The development of separate theologies of the episcopate over women bishops proved troublesome, but pretending specific issues do not obtain in relation to bishops is simply silly. Bishops are symbols of unity and are appointed in a way that parish clergy gener-ally are not. Anglicans value tolerance, but there are limits: the Jeffrey John débâcle - and more recently the stepping down of the Revd Philip North - should demonstrate that.

A full and urgent statement from the House of Bishops is necessary.

PAUL BURR
The Vicarage
The Common
Swardeston
Norwich NR14 8EB

From the Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan
Sir, - On Friday and Saturday last week for a short time, the headline news on radio and TV was that the Church of England had "changed its policy" on whether men in a civil partnership can be made bishops. A slightly more careful form of this was that the House of Bishops had "decided" the new policy, or had "changed the rules". But each such statement not only gave us bad publicity, but was fundamentally untrue; and some leading church figures interviewed failed to challenge the form in which the media were presenting it, but, instead, more or less connived at it. I have seen no correction issued by any official body.

The simple truth is that there are virtually no "rules" about who can be consecrated as a bishop. Any (male) presbyter over 30 years of age meets the canonical requirements. After that, the monarch has absolute power to nominate whom she will, and the only question is by what convention a name shall be recommended (via Downing Street) to her.

For a suffragan bishop, the name will come from the diocesan bishop via the archbishop of the province; for a diocesan, the name will come from the Crown Nominations Commission. Neither of these nominating bodies is bound by any rules: they simply have to seek the best-qualified person for the particular office, and it is their part to judge whether any feature of one person's life or ministry sets him above or below another's as a prospective nominee.

That includes the question whether the person concerned will be generally accepted by the people of the diocese (a point well illustrated in relation to the recent nomination for the bishopric of Whitby).

The House of Bishops knows all this, and all it has done is to proffer "advice" (see the website). The House has no power to "change the rules"; indeed, there are virtually no rules to change.

COLIN BUCHANAN
21 The Drive
Leeds LS17 7QB

From the Revd Matthew Duckett
Sir, - The House of Bishops' 1991 statement Issues in Human Sexuality was commended for study by the General Synod in 1997, with the acknowledgement that it was "not the last word on the subject". This was quoting what the Archbishop of Canterbury (George Carey) had said in his preface to Issues, where he also noted that the bishops themselves held a wide variety of opinions, and hoped "that the Statement would do something to help forward a general process, marked by greater trust and openness, of Christian reflection on the subject of sexuality".

It is debatable whether, and to what extent, that process has actually happened in the Church of England in the 21 years since Issues was published. Nevertheless, Issues in Human Sexuality remains what it was stated to be, a position document intended to facilitate a process in which a wide diversity of views is already acknowledged; its authority is that of a state- ment from the House of Bishops which has been commended for study.

That is not nearly as snappy as "the Church's definitive statement on same-sex relationships" (News, 4 January), but it is more accurate.

MATTHEW DUCKETT
Little Ilford Rectory
124 Church Road
London E12 6HA

From Canon David Rogers
Sir, - As a partnered gay priest about to retire from stipendiary ministry, I am at no risk of becoming a bishop. But were I invited to be, and presented with the terms of the Bishops' Statement (News, 4 January 2013), I would have to decline.

First, I would not give an undertaking of celibacy which would not be asked of a heterosexual candidate, on the principle that all should be treated even-handedly.

Second, I could not make an absolute promise about a circumstance I could not predict at a time that has not yet arrived.

The Bishops of the Church of England have a thankless task in attempting to steer us through turbulent water, and predictably have pleased no one by the current statement. But there is a degree of naïvety in swapping one dysfunctional position - "Gay men may not become bishops" - for another - "Gay men in sexually active relationships may not become bishops."

My 40 years of ordained ministry have been blessed with many opportunities to accompany and support LGBT people in the fraught business of coming out, forming relationships, and persevering with the Church. While most fellow-Anglicans at all levels have been welcoming and accepting, official pronouncements have been universally unhelpful, and seem consistently to be characterised by an absence of realism and common sense.

Sadly, the current statement is simply more of the same. The pity is that men whose instinct is to be caring end up sounding comical or, worse still, cruel.

DAVID ROGERS
St Leonard's Vicarage
Beoley
Redditch B98 9AR

From Mr Brian Anker
Sir, - A great deal has been said and written about the government proposal to redefine marriage so that it becomes an institution available to people of the same sex. The proposal is that churches would be able to apply to use their buildings as venues, and have their ministers officiate at such ceremonies, while the Church of England would not be legally permitted to make such use of its buildings and personnel.

One aspect that I have not heard addressed so far is what would apply when there is a local ecumenical partnership or shared-building arrangement. Would a non-Anglican congregation that worships in a building shared with Anglicans be disbarred from applying for permission to hold the ceremonies there? Would the Anglicans be compelled to have these ceremonies take place in their place of worship against their sincere theological convictions?

There are ecumenical partnerships where shared clergy are sometimes Anglican and sometimes non-Anglican. How would the legislation apply in such cases?

It seems that the proposals are being framed with a stereotypical assumption that no progress has been made towards visible Christian unity. This matter needs to be addressed with some urgency, as there are indications that legislation will be hastened through Parliament which could promote years of discord between Churches. Or is that the intention of the political parties?

BRIAN ANKER (Reader/LLM)
10 Golding Road
Cambridge CB1 3RP

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