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Bishops break ranks on civil-partnerships

31 January 2020

Hostile reaction to House of Bishops’ statement leads to dispute over its pastoral value


Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan outside Kensington and Chelsea Register Office, in Chelsea, London, after becoming one of the first couples to register for a civil partnership

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan outside Kensington and Chelsea Register Office, in Chelsea, London, after becoming one of the first couples to re...

CRITICISM of the pastoral statement on civil partnerships by the House of Bishops was among the items discussed by the College of Bishops this week. Several bishops are numbered among the critics.

The statement, issued in response to new regulations enabling opposite-sex couples to enter civil partnerships, asserts that neither same-sex nor opposite-sex civil partnerships can be blessed. It reiterates that being in a civil partnership is not a bar to ordination, but that candidates must be willing to give assurances to their bishop that they are celibate.

It emphasises that the Church’s teaching on marriage has not changed — sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage are “regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings” — and states that, “because of the ambiguity about the place of sexual activity within civil partnerships of both sorts, and the Church’s teaching that marriage between a man and a woman is the proper context for sexual intercourse, we do not believe that it is possible for the Church unconditionally to accept civil partnerships as unequivocally reflecting the teaching of the Church.”

It advises, however, that when approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership, clergy should “respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case”. The Church will continue to “affirm the value of committed, sexually abstinent friendships”.

The guidance is largely a restatement of the Bishops’ 2005 response to the Civil Partnership Act, but its tone and timing have been criticised by bishops. They were led by the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, who on Sunday issued a statement confessing that she had made “wrong assumptions” at last month’s meeting of the House of Bishops, and described herself as “deeply frustrated and saddened” by the way in which the statement was published.

Her comments were swiftly endorsed by the Bishops of Worcester, Bristol, Newcastle, Sheffield, and Norwich, and, among the suffragans, by the Bishops of Repton, Crediton, and Tewkesbury.

This breaking of episcopal ranks has raised questions about governance in the House of Bishops, including the process whereby statements from the House of Bishops are read and approved.

“I cannot deny seeing the content of the statement at the meeting of the House of Bishops in December, and in terms of factual content the statement is reiterating that in the light of the recent change in law allowing civil partnerships to be extended to opposite-sex couples, nothing has changed regarding the legal and doctrinal position of the Church of England,” Bishop Treweek wrote. “There should have been no surprises for anyone in that.

“However, I am complicit in making wrong assumptions in December and not asking questions about how this statement was to be used. For me, the publication of the statement in cold isolation from anything else, on a seemingly random day and lacking any pastoral ‘surround’ or mention of the Living in Love and Faith process, has been perplexing and upsetting.”

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, wrote on Twitter that he had been “frustrated by the process which led to the publication . . . not least because it was deemed business and not discussed and debated by the House. But more, I’m deeply saddened by the hurt it has caused.”

Asked on Twitter by a member of General Synod, Robert Hammond, how the statement had been signed off by the House of Bishops, “when so many seem to distance themselves from it”, the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, replied: “That is a very good question and one which we are asking ourselves.”

A General Synod briefing paper notes that the House of Bishops Delegation Committee agreed the pastoral guidance on 22 November “with a minor amendment”. The members of this Committee are the Bishops of Blackburn, Stockport, Ely, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, Portsmouth, Lichfield, Sherborne, and Willesden, and the Bishop at Lambeth.

Only two have publicly commented on the statement. The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, wrote on Twitter: “To the question ‘What is the teaching of the C of E about CPs?’ we gave an answer based on existing teaching and practice. It’s not complicated.”

On Monday, the Bishop of Lichfield, Dr Michael Ipgrave — joined by the diocese’s suffragans — said that the statement was “offered simply as a reiteration of the teaching and current discipline of the Church of England”. They wished to “reaffirm our commitment to a radical Christian inclusion for all people” set out in a letter sent to all clergy and lay ministers in the diocese in 2018 (News, 18 May 2018).

The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, and the Bishop of Taunton, the Rt Revd Ruth Worsley, said that they were “deeply sorry” for the “hurt and pain” caused by the statement. “We commit ourselves to learning to communicate better, to listening well, and to being more sensitive to the needs of others in all that we say and do.”

Some criticism of the statement has focused on its timing — publication of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) teaching document, the result of almost two years of working groups’ exploring perspectives on gender, identity, and sexuality, is scheduled for this summer (News, 4 January 2019). Members of the LLF working groups are among those speaking out.

The statement notes that clergy are “fully entitled to argue” for a change in the Church’s teaching, “in the Living in Love and Faith process and elsewhere”.

The Bishop of Reading, the Rt Revd Olivia Graham, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that she had been “deeply saddened” by its “unpastoral tone”, which was “Cold. Legalistic. Loveless. Astonishing timing — mid LLF discussions. Please know that Bishops are not of a mind on this.” The Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Jonathan Clark, expressed his support for her comments.

The Prolocutors of Canterbury and York, Canon Simon Butler and Canon Chris Newlands — both partnered gay men — said on Monday that they were “concerned for the integrity of the Living in Love and Faith process”.

In a letter to the Archbishops and the Archbishop of York-Designate, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, they identified a “notable failure to demonstrate ‘a radical new Christian inclusion’, which has to be about process as much as it is about content.”

They suggested that, since the General Synod had voted not to take note of a House of Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships (News, 24 February 2017), prompting the commissioning of the LLF programme, “most people in the Church of England have exercised a degree of restraint in the field of human sexuality. . .

“Regrettably, and not for the first time, such self-restraint has not been seen in the House. We can only imagine what those closer to the process than we are might think of this intervention by the House, after so much costly work. It feels like a significant betrayal.”

They request that the pastoral statement be withdrawn, and an apology be made for the timing of its release at next month’s meeting of the General Synod.

On Saturday, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, shared a link to an open letter to the Archbishops that described the statement as “cold, defensive, and uncaring of its impact on the millions of people it affects” and warned that it had made the Church “a laughing stock to a nation that believes it is obsessed with sex”.

Organised by three members of General Synod (Christina Baron, Jayne Ozanne, and the Archdeacon of the Isle of Wight, the Ven. Peter Leonard) and the Chaplain to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, the Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain, by Wednesday it had been signed by 3350 people, including the Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, several serving deans, and 84 members of General Synod.

Some have defended the pastoral statement, contending that it simply restates the Church’s teaching and was a necessary clarification given the new civil-partnership regulations, which came into force last month.

The Revd Dr Ian Paul, an NSM at St Nicholas, Nottingham, and member of the Archbishops’ Council, told Radio Four’s Sunday programme, that the Bishops had had to “do some of the work that the government hasn’t done”, in considering whether marriages were equivalent to civil partnerships.

The Church’s teaching was “not out of touch with what’s going on in the world around but it is out of step, and it always has been.”

He argued in his blog that criticism of the timing of the statement (before completion of the LLF process) was “based on a bizarre misapprehension. LLF has never involved suspending the current doctrine of the Church on marriage and sexuality”.

The College of Bishops is due to meet this week — from 29 to 30 January.

On Tuesday, the Acting Bishop of Lincoln, Dr David Court and the Bishop of Grantham, Dr Nicholas Chamberlain, issued an Ad Clerum setting out their intention to raise concerns at this meeting. The statement had “significant pastoral and missiological implications which clearly undermine the work of the Church today.”

Listen to more on this story on The Church Times Podcast. It is also available on the Church Times app for iPhone and iPadApple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and most other podcast platforms.

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