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Bishops lift ban on consecration of civil-partner clerics

04 January 2013


Trailblazer: the first openly-gay Anglican Bishop, Gene Robinson, in Concord, New Hampshire, last week. He retires as Bishop of New Hampshire on Saturday

Trailblazer: the first openly-gay Anglican Bishop, Gene Robinson, in Concord, New Hampshire, last week. He retires as Bishop of New Hampshire ...

THE moratorium on the appointment as bishops of gay priests in civil partnerships has been lifted.

The House of Bishops announced in 2011 that clergy in civil partnerships should not be appointed as bishops until the outcome of a review of its 2005 statement on clergy in such partnerships ( News, 8 July 2011). The Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Rt Revd Robert Paterson, was subsequently appointed to chair the review group ( News, 2 December 2011); its other members were the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, and the Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher.

Shortly before Christmas, Church House published a 13-point summary of business conducted by the House of Bishops when it met on 10 and 11 December. Point 7 of this, which has caused some confusion in online forums and among campaigners, said that the Bishops "considered an interim report from the group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling on the Church of England's approach to human sexuality". This group was set up in January 2012, with a wider remit than the group chaired by Bishop Paterson, which was looking specifically at civil partnerships ( News, 6 January 2012).

The summary said that the Bishops did "not intend to issue a further pastoral statement on civil partnerships" until the Pilling group concluded its work later this year. It did not mention the work of Bishop Paterson's group.

The summary, however, went on to say that the Bishops "confirmed that the requirements in the 2005 statement concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate".

This amounts to a lifting of the moratorium on the appointment of clergy in civil partnerships as bishops. The 2005 statement on civil partnerships states: "The House of Bishops does not regard entering into 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."

Issues in Human Sexuality, compiled by the House of Bishops in 1991, is the Church's definitive statement on same-sex relationships. It states that "the clergy cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships," and calls on "all clergy to live lives that respect the Church's teaching".

Reports last year suggested that the Dean of St Albans, Dr Jeffrey John, was considering a legal challenge to the moratorium ( News, 20 January 2012).

Update: At 5 p.m. on Friday, Church House issued a statement from the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, on behalf of the House of Bishops. It said:

"The House of Bishops' Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships issued in 2005 did not address specifically whether clergy who entered such partnerships should be considered for the episcopate. What the House has now done, following the work undertaken by the group chaired by the Bishop of Sodor and Man set up last year, is to look at the matter again last month.

"The House has confirmed that clergy in civil partnerships, and living in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality, can be considered as candidates for the episcopate. There had been a moratorium on such candidates for the past year and a half while the working party completed its task.

"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 for any particular role for which he is being considered, are for those responsible for the selection process to consider in each case."

Shortly after the statement was issued, the director of Changing Attitude, the Revd Colin Coward, told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "In theory I welcome the announcement. . . I'm not sure that I trust it. . . I think the Church has issued a statement which I think will be laughed at by the majority in this country. I think it's unenforceable and I think it's totally inappropriate. . . 

"I would have the Church welcome, equally. . . gay clergy as bishops in loving, faithful, committed relationships. The important thing is the fidelity of relationships and the Church ideally should accept civil partnerships as equal to marriage, and should accept equal marriage when that becomes law in 2014."

Dr John was quoted in The Guardian on Saturday as saying: "If it is genuinely true that all levels of ordained ministry are now more open to gay people than they were before, then this is a very good thing."

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement said in a statement that the Bishops' announcement was a "welcome first step. . . towards full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in the life of the church".

The chairman of Reform, Prebendary Rod Thomas, told the BBC on Friday evening: "This is a very serious step indeed, because the Church has never agreed that people in civil partnerships should ever become bishops in the Church of England. For most people, this is just the same as saying it would be alright if they were married to gay partners, and that's never been decided. So to slip something in like this is hugely worrying. It would be much more divisive than what we have seen over women bishops. If you thought that was a furore, wait to see what will happen the first time a bishop in a civil partnership is appointed."

Anglican Mainstream issued a statement on Friday evening, signed by its Convenor, Dr Philip Giddings, who is Chair of the House of Laity, and its Secretary, Canon Chris Sugden. The statement said in part: "Most people assume that civil partnerships are sexual relationships. It is casuistical to claim that they are not. This is presumably why many clergy in such partnerships refuse to 'give assurances' to their bishops that theirs is a 'non-sexual' relationship. 

"Since a decision to move from the current position would be a grave departure from the Church's doctrine and discipline, it should be made by Bishops in Synod not by Bishops alone. Otherwise it looks too much like salami-slicing away at the Church's teaching. A bishop known to be in a civil partnership could hardly be a focus of unity nor be a bishop for the whole church. Such an appointment would be a very divisive move both within the Church of England and in the wider Anglican Communion." 

Mixed messages from polls. A survey carried out by ComRes, published on Boxing Day in The Independent, suggested that 62 per cent of respondents thought that C of E clergy should be allowed to marry same-sex couples. The newspaper did not specify how many people were questioned.

A poll of 2500 Conservative Party members, carried out by the Conservative Home website, found that 71 per cent of those who replied thought that same-sex marriage was splitting the Party, and 78 per cent believed that the Prime Minister had underestimated the strength of feeling about the issue.

Question of the Week: Do you think it is right to lift the moratorium on making clergy in civil partnerships bishops? 

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