A PROSCRIPTION of “intrusive questioning about someone’s sexual practices or desires, or their experience of gender” is among the guidelines issued by the Bishops in the diocese of Lichfield in a letter that sets out what “radical Christian inclusion” entails.
The letter, sent to all clergy and lay ministers in the diocese last week, and signed by all four Bishops, sets out how the diocese will exemplify the “radical Christian inclusion” called for by the Archbishops last year, after the General Synod voted against the House of Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships (News, 17 February 2017).
“Our basic principle is that all people are welcome in God’s Church: everyone has a place at the table,” the Bishops write. They urge the letter’s recipients to show sensitivity: “It is not right to conceal our ethical and theological views, but we all need to tread gently when we express them, and be ready to listen sensitively.”
Besides stating that intrusive questioning is “always inappropriate”, they write that it is “unacceptable to tell or insinuate to people that sexual orientation or gender identity will be changed by faith, or that homosexuality or gender difference is a sign of immaturity or a lack of faith.”
Pastoral ministry might involve being asked to pray with people who “for any reason are troubled by their sexual desires or practices or their gender identity. . . We must be alert to the power relations involved in such . . . conversations . . . and the possibility of spiritual or emotional abuse.”
The Bishops emphasise that “nobody should be excluded or discouraged from receiving the sacraments of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” and affirm that “LGBT+ people can be called to roles of leadership and service in the local church”.
And they express the hope that they will “feel encouraged to serve on PCCs, or as churchwardens and worship leaders, for instance, and are supported in exploring vocations to licensed lay and ordained ministries.”
Tracey Byrne, chief executive of OneBodyOneFaith, said that the letter was “really encouraging”. She added: “Only this week we heard from a gay couple in another part of the country whose vicar has told them they can’t serve on any church committee, and we know too of couples whose vicar has refused to baptise their children. The kind of intrusive and abusive questioning of individuals condemned in the letter really does happen. People feel ashamed, hurt and confused when they encounter this kind of behaviour from people in positions of power and authority. It’s an affront to the gospel, and deeply damaging of individuals.”
The letter is the latest in a series of diocesan responses to the Archbishops’ call for inclusion, as the Church waits for the completion of the teaching document on sexuality and guidance on pastoral care (News, 30 June, 2017). In October, the diocese of Hereford asked the House of Bishops to commend an “order of prayer and dedication” to be used for same-sex couples after a civil partnership or marriage (News, 27 October, 2017). A month after the February 2017 Synod, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said that that his diocese must work with LGBT Christians to “find appropriate ways of expressing their love (News, 17 March, 2017).
Support for civil partnerships. Civil partnerships should not be abolished, the Church’s Director of Mission and Public Affairs, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown said this week, after the Government’s Equalities Office suggested that their future was uncertain.
In a paper published last week, the Office says that, if demand for civil partnerships remains low, “this might suggest that same-sex couples no longer see this as a relevant way of recognising their relationships, and that the Government should consider abolishing or phasing out civil partnerships entirely.”
There were 890 civil partnerships registered in 2016 in England and Wales, down from an average of 6305 from 2007 to 2013. The paper says that, by September 2019, a “proportionate amount of evidence” will have been gathered to enable the Office “to be confident in the ongoing level of demand”.
“We believe that Civil Partnerships still have a place, including for some Christian LGBTI couples who see them as a way of gaining legal recognition of their relationship,” Dr Brown said. “We hope [they] will remain an option.”
The Office’s paper notes that “a small number” of same-sex couples continue to choose civil partnership instead of marriage and that a “significant number of couples” who formed civil partnerships before marriage was available to them have not chosen to convert their civil partnership into a marriage. It plans to undertake research with people who are current civil partners “to understand their views on civil partnership and marriage, and their future intentions and preferences”.
In 2014, in response to a government consultation, an Archbishops’ Council submissions said that the abolition of civil partnerships would create an "invidious choice" for gay couples who may not wish, for religious reasons, to get married (News, 11 April, 2014). Civil partnerships offered “an important structure for the public validation of the relationship of a same-sex couple who wish to live in accordance with the church's traditional teaching”.
A number of Church of England clerics are in civil partnerships. The House of Bishops' current guidance states that clergy may enter civil partnerships, on the assumption that they are celibate.