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Bishops join critics of their own civil-partnerships statement

27 January 2020


Bishop Treweek

Bishop Treweek

THE Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, has led a group of bishops who have reacted against the release of last week’s pastoral statement on civil partnerships. Bishop Treweek confessed 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 criticism of the pastoral statement has been supported 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.

The pastoral statement, issued in response to new regulations enabling opposite-sex couples to enter civil partnerships, stated that neither same-sex nor opposite-sex civil partnerships could be blessed (News, 24 January). 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.

In a statement issued on Sunday, Bishop Treweek wrote that the pastoral statement had “fanned into flame unnecessary pain and distress, and I wish to acknowledge my part in that.

“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. 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.

“This is even more so as it has been released just days before the College of Bishops convene once more to focus on Living in Love and Faith as we stand in the present looking to both the past and the future.”

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, wrote 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 is has caused.”

A General Synod briefing paper notes that the House of Bishops Delegation Committee agreed the pastoral guidance “with a minor amendment”. It would also have been considered by the House of Bishops. The members of the Delegation Committee are the Bishops of Blackburn, Stockport (vacant since February 2019), Ely, St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Portsmouth, Lichfield, Sherborne, and Willesden, and the Bishop at Lambeth.

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.”

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, it has now been signed by more than 2600 people, including the Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, and seven serving deans.

Bishops have been challenged about whether they disagree with the teaching set out in the statement or the manner of its release. Some criticism has focused on its timing — publication of the Living in Love and Faith 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).

The Bishop of Reading, the Rt Revd Olivia Graham, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that she had been “deeply saddened by the unpastoral tone” of the pastoral statement. “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 wrote: “While some will argue that the House’s statement last week is but an extension of its current position on civil partnerships, the timing of this statement is a serious failure of the House and its staff to commit to proper process, and a notable failure to demonstrate ‘a radical new Christian inclusion etc etc’, 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.

“Repeatedly, when bishops have addressed the concerns and anxieties of progressives and conservatives, we have agreed to the request to ‘wait for the publication of LLF’. We ourselves have both urged this approach on more impatient colleagues too as this was, we were repeatedly told, to be a new step in the life of the Church.

“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.”

The timing of the statement had been “ham-fisted” and communication “woeful”.

They write: “We cannot be yet confident that the House has, as a body, the skills, staff resource, coherence or temperament to lead the work that LLF envisages. . . It does not bode well that, knowing the content of the forthcoming material, last week’s statement could be issued without any apparent awareness of any learning to date.”

The letter concludes: “We believe that the ill-considered statement demonstrates once more the inability of the House of Bishops to connect with public attitudes, thus making the pastoral ministry of the clergy that much more difficult.” They quote Geoffrey Howe, a former Conservative Chancellor, who described negotiations in Europe under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership as akin to “sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captains.”

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. An apology is also due to members of the LLF working groups, they suggest.

In a separate piece for the Metro newspaper published on Sunday, Canon Butler argued that it was “wrong and naive to ask for and to expect abstinence from couples. . . there is no evidence that sex in other forms of committed relationship are harmful. . .

“What’s the point of teaching something that most of the faithful ignore? Wake-up call bishops: people no longer listen to you for teaching on sexual ethics.”

Members of the LLF working groups are among the critics of the pastoral statement.

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, chairs the LLF biblical studies group. The Revd Marcus Green, Rector of Steeple Aston with North Aston and Tackley, described it as “law without grace, sacrifice without mercy, rule without reason” while Professor Helen King, an authorised lay preacher in the diocese of Oxford, described it as “mealy-mouthed” and critiqued its “prurience: the continued assumption that clergy need to pry”. The Dean of Chapel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Canon Andrew Davison, suggested that the bishops were “locked into univocity vs equivocity . . . Where did analogy and analogical thinking go, and degrees of likeness and participation?”

LLF is mentioned in the pastoral statement, which 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 past two years have seen the launch of the Campaign for Equal Marriage (Letter, 3 May 2019) and the Ozanne Foundation, chaired by Bishop Bayes (News, 5 January 2018), while others have argued for no change in the Church’s teaching.

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 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”, adding that, “if there was an omission in thinking about the way it was communicated, that omission sits with the bishops.”

Those leading the LLF process have sought to manage expectations. Asked at last July’s General Synod about whether LLF would “come to a conclusion about where we stand as a church”, the chair of the coordinating group, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, warned that it was “not an exercise trying to come to the sort of conclusions you are hoping we will: it is a process by which we learn together, so that at the right time those sorts of conclusions will be able to be made” (News, 12 July 2019).

While Bishops tweeting on Sunday expressed disappointment that the pastoral statement had not been subject to debate, a brief Church House statement issued after the December meeting of the House of Bishops (9-11 December) states that they “considered progress to date in the Living in Love and Faith project through discussion, prayer and reflection”.

The College of Bishops is due to meet this week — from 29 to 30 January. Since the weekend, Bishops have continued to issue responses to the pastoral statement.

On Monday, the Bishop of Lichfield, Dr Michael Ipgrave, the Bishop of Shrewsbury, the Rt Revd Sarah Bullock, and the Bishop of Wolverhampton, the Rt Revd Clive Gregory, said that the statement was “offered simply as a reiteration of the teaching and current discipline of the Church of England within the new situation which has been created by the legal opening of Civil Partnerships to opposite sex as well as same sex couples.

“We note that the statement recognises that there will be a range of views conscientiously held within the Church of England, and as bishops we commit ourselves to encouraging within the diocese honest, thoughtful and sensitive conversations as we respect and care for one another and seek together to discern God’s will.”

They wished to “reaffirm our commitment to a radical Christian inclusion for all people and to the pastoral principles supporting that which we set out in May 2018 in our letter”. This refers to a letter sent to all clergy and lay ministers that set out a number of guidelines, including the warning that intrusive questioning was “always inappropriate”, and affirming that “LGBT+ people can be called to roles of leadership and service in the local church” (News, 18 May 2018). 

On Monday, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, and the Bishop of Taunton, the Rt Revd Ruth Worsley, said that they were “very acutely aware” that its release had “caused a great deal of hurt and pain. We are deeply sorry for this . . . 

“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.”

On Tuesday, the Acting Bishop of Lincoln, Dr David Court and the Bishop of Grantham, Dr Nicholas Chamberlain, issued an Ad Clerum clarifying that they were not members of the House of Bishops and had not been consulted on the pastoral statement.

They wrote: “We hear, understand and share the concern that has been expressed relating to the statement’s timing and tone. We both believe that the statement as it stands has significant pastoral and missiological implications which clearly undermine the work of the Church today.”

In 2016, Dr Chamberlain became the first Church of England bishop to declare publicly that he is gay and in a relationship (News, 9 September 2016; Opinion, 17 January 2020).

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