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Civil partnerships, the clergy, and the episcopate; and gay marriage

18 January 2013


From Canon Michael Ainsworth

Sir, - The Revd Paul Burr ( Letters, 11 January), commenting on the 2005 Bishops' statement on civil partnerships, says: "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?"

Although the Church and its leaders are unfairly accused of prurience over what same-sex couples do in bed (or wherever), in legal terms there is an ambiguity over the sexual component of civil partnerships. That is why some argued, when they were introduced, that they should logically be available to same- or opposite-sex siblings who share a home, as well as to others seeking to make a formal but non-sexual commitment; and uncertainty remains over the specifically sexual grounds for dissolution of a partnership. The question remains: is it, or is it not, an equivalent to marriage in all but name?

The ambiguity becomes sharper if the state is to redefine the nature of marriage and its "ends". True, most would now agree that a deliberate intention not to have children is no bar to heterosexual marriage; so the procreation argument cannot be used against homosexual marriage.

But the law still regards non-consummation as grounds for nullity: a marriage is voidable if someone chooses to make this an issue; even though very few do, occasionally this can be an important provision.

Since there can be no homosexual equivalent of this, gay and straight marriage could never be exact equivalents (which is the point of the proposed legislation) unless the current law on nullity is altered, and changes are made to divorce legislation.

It will not do to say that these are minor details that can be left to the courts. Nor will it do to assert that marriage and how it is understood are purely a matter of individuals' private choice. Marriage is a public institution ("who would want to live in an institution?" feminists used to say), and its nature is a matter of public policy, with wide-ranging implications. Government, and the civil servants, no longer seem to understand this, and regard the secondary matter of where and by whom same-sex marriages are solemnised as the only key issue.

The Church of England (with most other denominations) has long said that "marriage is marriage," wherever it is contracted; for, as scripture makes clear, it is a universal rather than an ecclesiastical dispensation. But straight/gay civil marriage for all is not the answer, since everyone, faith groups included, must be able to affirm the marital status of all who make this public commitment.

I believe the solution that most nearly, though not perfectly, balances human rights with the rights of faith communities is to retain same-sex partnerships (which can sit more lightly to doctrinal and other controversies) alongside heterosexual marriage - with the crucial proviso that faith communities are as positive as they can be in helping all couples to celebrate their relationships.

St George-in-the-East Rectory
16 Cannon Street Road
London E1 0BH


From Mrs April Alexander

Sir, - It was interesting to read Bishop Paterson's reference to the "obvious inadequacies" of the Bishops' statements so far with regard to the possibility of consecrating men in civil partnerships in future, on certain conditions ("Civil partnerships: 'We should have shown the workings'", News, 11 January).

Those "inadequacies" include a total lack of reference to equalities legislation. The exemptions for the Church of England and for other denominations and faith groups from the Equality Act (2010) allow those groups, in certain circumstances, to discriminate against a person on grounds of sexual ori- entation in making an appointment. But the bishops have decided that (homo)sexual orientation is no longer a bar for men in being considered for a bishopric. They have forgone that exemption.

The Act, however, grants no exemption to any group in respect of the "terms of the appointment", which must not discriminate against anyone, inter alia, on grounds of "sexual orientation". The terms for the proposed appointments as bishops specifically of men in civil partnerships are that there should be no sexual activity (however that is defined and policed).

The language in which the House of Bishops press release is couched is clearly an attempt to get round this awkward fact by stating that "All candidates for the episcopate undergo a searching examination of personal and family circumstances." But it remains true that the terms of appointment for gay bishops will clearly be different from the terms for their heterosexual brothers and "cruel" (Canon Giles Fraser, Comment, 11 January). It may be that it will be challenged by gay male clergy and, indeed, by lesbian clergy, for whom a new category of discrimination has opened up.

Member of the General Synod and the Crown Nominations Commission
59 High Street, Bletchingley
Redhill, Surrey RH1 4PB


From Dr Andrew Connell

Sir, - You report the Church of England Evangelical Council as saying (News, 11 January) that the appointment of priests in civil partnerships as bishops is "an issue of example-setting to the nation. . . The watching world may well conclude that same-sex relationships are simply OK for followers of Jesus Christ."

I do hope so.

87 Clodien Avenue
Cardiff CF14 3NN


From Dr David Bunch

Sir, - Canon Giles Fraser is right that asking prospective bishops in civil partnerships about their sex life is immoral and unsustainable. It is cruel, intrusive, and unjust, not only to those quizzed, but also to their partners.

He is on flimsier ground when he advocates that a candidate, when questioned, should, if in a sexually active partnership, claim to be celibate, and add a wink or similar gesture so as to ridicule and satirise matters with a stage lie.

Far from challenging the legitimacy of such interrogation, the Canon's approach would collude with it, and in a way that fostered disrespect, and possibly derision, for the participants.

An alternative is for those put in such situations to refuse quietly to answer, a stance akin to the "active resistance to a system of oppression" favoured by Canon Fraser.

53 Rye Croft, Conisbrough
Doncaster DN12 2BD


From the Revd Dr Catherine Shelley

Sir, - Canon Giles Fraser's suggestion that gay clergy - or, in due course, bishops - lie about celibacy is not an answer to the problem either. While enforced singleness or abstinence from sex in relationships can be damaging in lots of ways, so can lying, and the compromises with integrity which it entails.

Many gay clergy remain single either in an attempt to preserve some sort of integrity or because most of the world does not want to enter into relationships with that sort of compromise of truth. The reality is that most gay clergy, single or not, are still unable to come out, because those who condemn homosexuality do not accept them, whether they are "celibate" or not.

Strictly speaking, all gay clergy are in fact celibate because they are, legally speaking, unmarried, even if civilly partnered. The real issue is not celibacy, but chastity, i.e. right relationship, a far larger theological concept than sexual morality. So please could we move on to making headlines about right relationships, the love of God, and justice, in a far wider context than just who does what in bed?

2b Minehead Avenue, Withington
Manchester M20 1FW


From the Revd Bruce Bridgewood

Sir, - Now that there is no longer any impediment (real or imagined) to the elevation of the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John to the Bench of Bishops, how about Dr John for Whitby? Or, better still, go for the biggy, and appoint that gentle scholar to Durham.

81 Warwick Road
London N11 2SP

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