Changing Attitude reveals results of Civil Partnership Survey
A survey undertaken by Changing Attitude since the Civil Partnership Act became law on December 21st 2005 has found that 87 couples – 174 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) members of the Church of England, lay and ordained – have registered their civil partnership. These couples live in 25 of the 43 English dioceses. Twenty seven couples followed the civil ceremony with a service of blessing, either in church or in another venue.
The Revd Colin Coward, Director of Changing Attitude, said: “Civil partnerships have helped to increase the stability of same sex relationships and reduce the social exclusion to which LGBT people are often subjected, especially within faith communities.”
“We do not yet know how many Anglican couples, especially clergy, were inhibited from registering by the House of Bishops Statement on Civil Partnerships, or, if they did register, from following it with a blessing. Anecdotal evidence suggests the numbers are significant. Some clergy have quietly registered without informing their bishop. Many have refrained from registering their partnership, fearful of reprisals.”
“In this light, Changing Attitude England asks the House of Bishops: ‘Did you consult or take advice from any LGBT people who were preparing to register their partnership before you issued your Statement?’”
“We invite the House of Bishops on this first anniversary of the Civil Partnership Act to dialogue with us and our supporters, to formulate a policy which recognises God’s call to faithful, loving LGBT Anglicans who have, or who wish to, register their partnership. The present discrepancy between the bishops’ teaching and action causes much emotional and spiritual pain to LGBT Anglicans.”
Civil Partnership Survey
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) Anglican couples have been registering their partnerships since the Civil Partnership Act became law on December 21st 2005.
This legislation has given public status, recognition and legal support for relationships that only 40 years ago were illegal, conducted in secrecy and fear. The new law responds to a dramatic change in public opinion. The law creates a healthy environment in which lesbian and gay couples can have their bond of love and friendship recognised by society.
Changing Attitude has conducted a survey which found that 87 couples – 174 LGBT members of the Church of England, lay and ordained – have registered their civil partnership. These couples live in 25 of the 43 English dioceses. Twenty seven couples followed the civil ceremony with a service of blessing, either in church or in another venue. Some have involved their congregation in a public service of blessing and a small number invited their bishop to attend the registration and reception that followed. Anglicans who have contracted a Civil Partnership have done so with deep integrity and honesty to themselves and before God.
Changing Attitude England has been conducting the survey from the start of registration in England and Wales last December (and a few days earlier in Scotland and Northern Ireland). Information was gathered via our web site, our egroup of 300 people, our newsletter and those of partner organisations such as Inclusive Church. The survey represents only those couples who were known to these sources – the total number of LGBT Anglicans who have registered may be considerably in excess of this number.
The survey revealed that the largest group – a total of 32 couples – were gay male couples both of whom were lay people. The second largest group – 21 couples – were gay male couples where one partner is a lay person and the other ordained. Twenty six partnered gay male priests registered. There were eighteen lesbian couples where both are lay people, two lesbian couples where one is ordained and one lay, and just one lesbian couple where both are priests. The small number of ordained lesbians registering – 4 in all – may reflect the continuing anxieties among women priests about their status in the church. One of the lay couples had been married to each other. The civil partnership followed immediately on the dissolution of the marriage which was necessary if the transgendered partner was to obtain legal recognition in their acquired gender.
We do not yet know how many Anglican couples, especially clergy, were inhibited from registering by the House of Bishops Statement on Civil Partnerships, or, if they did register, didn’t follow it with a blessing. Anecdotal evidence, like the accompanying item ‘Swift to Chide and Slow to Bless,’ suggests that there is considerable unhappiness with current Church of England policy.
Secrecy for clergy
The Church of England effectively continues a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach in relation to its LGBT clergy. During the ordination selection process candidates are meant to be asked to reveal if they are gay and whether they are living with a partner. In practice, some will be asked a direct and personal question while others are advised not to say anything. A similar practice applies when people meet their ordaining bishop, or when clergy move to a new parish or ministerial appointment.
No-one living ‘in the closet’ or aware of Church policy but with a conviction that God is calling them to the priesthood is going to be open with a bishop who is known to be hostile. Unlike race or gender, sexual identity is invisible. Moreover, ordination candidates may be unaware of their sexual orientation, while those who feel able to conform to the House of Bishop’s policy on Civil Partnerships at one stage in their life may find it impossible to do so in the future.
Whether the bishop follows the guidelines set out in Issues in Human Sexuality or in the House of Bishops Statement on Civil Partnerships will vary depending on whether the bishop is a rigorous conservative, a pragmatist or positively protective of his lesbian and gay clergy.
Some clergy will have registered quietly without informing their bishop and the wider church. Many will refrain from registering their partnership, fearful of possible reprisals.
Welcome or anxiety for lay couples
Some LGBT couples have registered their partnership with the full knowledge and blessing of the congregation. This public recognition and support acknowledges the blessing which God bestows on all couples who commit themselves to one another in faithfulness and love. They become a blessing to themselves and to the wider community. This is healthy for the couple, their congregation and the wider church.
Many lay couples will not have registered for fear that such a public ‘coming out’ to their congregation will harm their reputation and church membership. Lesbian and gay Anglicans have been prohibited from teaching in the Sunday School, singing in the choir, or holding any leadership role in their congregation.
‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ remains a pernicious and habitual practice in the church, denying honesty and visibility to lesbian and gay people.
House of Bishops Statement
For a significant number of Anglicans, heterosexual as well as LGBT people, the House of Bishops Statement is inappropriate.
The statement reaffirms the Church’s teaching on both marriage and sexual intercourse. The statement says ‘Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively’ and ‘the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged.’
The statement reiterates the double standard applied to lay and ordained people while maintaining that the same standards apply to all.
For clergy, it says: ‘The House of Bishops does not regard entering into a 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.‘
The policy outlined for lay people says those ‘…who have registered civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and communion.’ ‘Lay people of gay or lesbian orientation who are unable to accept that a life of sexual abstinence is required of them and choose to enter into a faithful, committed relationship are not to be excluded from the fellowship of the Church.’
The Statement appears negative and ungenerous towards Anglicans who register a Civil Partnership, although the pastoral stance adopted by many bishops ranges from the pragmatic to the generously supportive. This discrepancy between the bishops’ teaching and their actions causes much emotional and spiritual pain to LGBT Anglicans.
In the light of its survey Changing Attitude England asks the House of Bishops: “Did you consult or take advice from any LGBT people who were preparing to register their partnership before you issued your Statement?”
Changing Attitude England is not aware of any consultation having taken place. Indeed, the Statement is believed to have been a hurried response to the approaching legislation. It has now been subjected to one year of practical testing. Some bishops have demonstrated by their actions that the policy was not accepted by all members of the House when it was published. The Bishop of Worcester, Dr Peter Selby, a patron of Changing Attitude, wrote an article in the Church Times (19 August) dissociating himself from the statement. Conversations with at least 15 other bishops suggest that he is far from being alone in his views.
Changing Attitude believes that the presence of partnered lesbian and gay people in the Church of England is a fresh expression of church. On this first anniversary of the Civil Partnership Act we invite the House of Bishops to dialogue with us, and our supporters, to formulate a policy which recognises God’s call to faithful, loving LGBT Anglicans who have, or who wish to, register their partnership.
Office of National Statistics figures
The Office of National Statistics reveal that 15,672 civil partnerships were registered between December 2005 and September 2006. England hosted 84% of all ceremonies while Northern Ireland held just 1%. London enjoyed 25% of partnerships in the nine months after December 2005.
More men than women have so far registered civil partnerships, making up 62% of partnerships in England, 57% in Scotland, 56% in Northern Ireland and 51% in Wales. The ratio between men and women appears to be changing over time with the gap between the proportion of male and female partnerships in England and Scotland reducing over time. In London, there were around three times as many male partnerships as female partnerships.
The key Church statements.
In summary they are:
The General Synod motion of November 1987 which affirms that ‘homosexual genital acts’ fall short of the Christian ideal and are to be met ‘with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion’;
The House of Bishops’ statement of December 1991 – Issues in Human Sexuality – which states that ‘heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of Creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry’, that the conscientious decision of those who enter into homophile relationships must be respected and that the Church must not ‘reject those who sincerely believe it is God’s call to them’. Nevertheless, because of ‘the distinctive nature of their calling, status and consecration’ the clergy ‘cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships’;
The 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10, which drew a clear distinction between homosexual orientation and practice, rejecting the latter as ‘incompatible with Scripture’ while calling on ‘all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all’. It also recorded that the Conference ‘cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions’. This resolution, like Issues in Human Sexuality, called for continued listening to the experiences of gay and lesbian people.
The Windsor Report 2004 examined the implications for the Anglican Communion of developments in North America which are at variance both with the Lambeth Resolution and the declared teaching of most of the worldwide Church.
SWIFT TO CHIDE AND SLOW TO BLESS
A first hand view of the Anglican Church and the Civil Partnership of Clergy
In May I formed a Civil Partnership with Geraldine with whom I had been living for over five years. As a civil ceremony it was very special. Like many same-sex couples since December last year, we had put the ceremony together ourselves, having chosen both the words and music, and the Registrar was delightful. After the ceremony we had a party at our home for family and a small number of friends, complete with champagne. It was a wonderful day and we even managed to get away for a ‘honeymoon’ a few days later. Afterwards my daughter commented that the ceremony was more sincere than any marriage she had attended and regardless of what the law might say about civil partnership, we do feel married.
Had we not been Christians, this would have been sufficient. Had Geraldine not been a priest in the Church of England it would have been different.
God brought us together – we lived 140 miles apart and had never met, but God definitely brought us together – and we wanted God to be there at our celebration. I know He was there – but we could not acknowledge Him. It was a civil ceremony, so no sacred music, no prayers, in fact we were very fortunate that the sympathetic registrar allowed Geraldine to wear her dog collar, it being a symbol of faith. God is not welcome in the register office.
We had dutifully written to our bishop to inform him of our forthcoming civil partnership and had received a warm letter in reply, assuring us of his prayers and also enclosing a copy of the House of Bishops Guidelines. He did not ask us for any assurances of celibacy. He did suggest that we inform the churchwardens of our intention which we did not, many of Geraldine’s parishioners being somewhat evangelical in persuasion.
And so we were caught up in a web of deceit (mild, maybe, but deceit nonetheless): nervous of the gentlemen of the press nosing around the registers, we agreed that Geraldine’s occupation should be recorded as ‘clerk’ (missing off ‘in holy orders’) and giving her title as ‘Miss’ rather than ‘Revd’. We did not invite any of Geraldine’s family because of the homophobic views of 2 close members. We only invited those friends from church whom we knew could be trusted to keep quiet.
We did have a service of Blessing by our Team Rector, but at home, not in church because whilst the Archbishop of Canterbury said, ‘it is through liturgy that we express what we believe’, he then went on to say, ‘….we as a body cannot support the authorization of such rites’. Indeed the House of Bishops affirms that Anglican clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.
The Church has made us dishonest. We felt cornered into making misleading statements prior to our civil partnership and frequently refer to each other as ‘my housemate’. If we thought that the Church would back us then we would not feel this to be necessary. To all intents and purposes I am ‘the vicar’s wife’ – certainly I fulfil all the functions of one except to be acknowledged as such and to be included on official invitations. I have even felt it necessary to use fictional names in this article.
The Church has denied us its blessing – although it is unable to stop God from doing so. It has denied us the right to a choral ceremony and to have all our friends present to celebrate with us, which Geraldine and I would so much have loved.
Thankfully it is God who will decide whether or not we will enter the kingdom of heaven, and not the House of Bishops.
As a civil partner I don’t have a title: I am not Mrs – so as a Vicar’s civil partner I shall simply sign off as her ‘vixen’.
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