Episcopal cloud over conversion of civil partnerships

19 December 2014

LINA MASLANKA

Newly married: the Revd Richard Haggis and Ricardo Gonçalves, and their marriage certificate

Newly married: the Revd Richard Haggis and Ricardo Gonçalves, and their marriage certificate

THE Revd Richard Haggis always regarded his civil partnership with Ricardo Gonçalves as an "interim measure". He planned to convert the partnership to a marriage as soon as it was legal to do so (Wednesday of last week), but a delay in renewing Mr Gonçalves's passport necessitated a five-day wait.

Even so, staff at the register office in Oxford admitted to being new to their duties, reliant to some extent on a crib sheet.

"I'm pretty certain what we have is the right thing," Mr Haggis said on Tuesday. "I do know a thing or two about marriage certificates."

It is knowledge gained through years of ministry as a clergyman in parish ministry. Ordained priest in 1986, he was, until 2006, assistant curate of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, in Chelsea. Today, he is without an appointment in the C of E, and has "absolutely nothing to lose", he says, in speaking openly.

"I don't believe in civil partnerships as anything but an interim measure, and marriage is allowed, so that is the thing to have, not sitting tight in a bunker and waiting for things to be all right," he said.

He was referring to the current House of Bishops guidelines for the clergy, which state that they should not enter a same-sex marriage. It is guidance that, some feel, prevents other clergy who are planning to convert their civil partnerships to marriage from speaking out.

The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, said on Monday that those he knew of "don't feel safe telling their bishops. . . Many of my gay friends feel far more vulnerable than in the past. . . The most vulnerable - ordinands and chaplains - are being actively picked off."

An exception is Canon Jeremy Davies, who retired in 2012, but has permission to officiate in the diocese of Salisbury. He converted his civil partnership to marriage on the day when it became legal to do so.

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He said on Wednesday that having held the "traditional view of the Church of England", he had come to believe, while preparing other couples for marriage, that the Church suffered from a "preoccupation with sex" and an "inability to get its theology of human relationships right". Marriage was "first and foremost about developing a relationship and long-lasting, enduring commitment".

Mr Haggis believes that his struggle to find employment in the Church is entirely attributable to his decision to write an article for The Guardian in 2005, in which he criticised the Bishops' stance on same-sex relationships among the clergy: specifically, the questions to be asked of those entering civil partnerships. He has suffered a "very long period of depression", but has found solace in celebrating at Fairacres Convent, in Oxford.

Although he regards his civil partnership in 2007 as the main celebration - "there was dressing up and rings and cake" - marriage is, he believes, "very important - a fundamental bit of civil rights". A keen genealogist, he has traced the marriage certificates of his famly back to 1839, and can now add his own to the archive. "I felt not only that I was part of history, but that finally I belonged in it," he said.

Scottish warning. The Scottish Episcopal Church's clergy have been warned by its College of Bishops that to solemnise a same-sex marriage will be a criminal offence. The Bishops also said that the Church "cannot give official sanction" to informal blessings of same-sex marriages of civil partnerships, and that bishops would expect to be consulted by clergy before any such blessing were carried out.

It is the "expectation" of the Bishops that clergy and lay leaders will not enter into a same-sex marriage, and those who confound this expectation "will put themselves in a position outwith the SEC's doctrinal understanding of marriage". The same applies to candidates for ordination or Readership, who have been told that, if they enter or plan to enter into such a marriage, they will be "unable to promise obedience to the Canons". They, too, must consult the bishop.

The guidance was issued last week in the expectation that the first same-sex weddings in Scotland will take place on 31 December. The Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Act came into force on Tuesday, and couples who gave notice of their intention to marry will be able to do so after 15 days. Those already in a civil partnership were able to convert it to marriage from Tuesday. The first couple to do so were Douglas Pretsell and Peter Gloster, who did so at the British Consulate in Melbourne, Australia, early on Tuesday morning.

Changing Attitude Scotland expressed sadness last week at the "threatening tone" of the statement from the Bishops. The Provost of St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth, wrote on his blog that it had "seriously disrupted the peace and unity of the Church". He has said that couples who convert their civil partnership can bring the marriage certificate to the cathedral, where it can be "laid on the altar at a Eucharist in thanksgiving".

The guidance notes that the Church is "currently in a period of discussion".

Question of the week: Should sanctions be imposed on clergy who marry a same-sex partner? Vote here

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