The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Mike Hill, has issued a pastoral letter about Civil Partnerships to his clergy. Towards the end of the letter, the bishop describes the vulnerability and pain he feels, the tension and loneliness he faces as a public figure, and asks for prayer.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the Church of England have lived with vulnerability, pain, tension and loneliness in various degrees in our lives private and public. The Civil Partnership Act has removed one of the main barriers to overcoming vulnerability, pain, tension and loneliness. Our relationships can now receive legal protection and public recognition.
The House of Bishops wishes to withold such protection and recognition from clergy couples and prayer (which the Bishop of Bristol recognises as of great value for himself), from lay couples. The Bishop reinforces the inferior status the Church continues to give to her faithful lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members.
Civil Partnerships – A Pastoral Letter
Since early December 2005, UK citizens of the same sex have been able to register civil partnerships under the Civil Partnership Act 2004. This legislation has led to some confusion and concern among many Christians – both around what it actually is and what impact it might have on the Church’s teaching and pastoral practice. I am writing, therefore, to clarify the confusion and address the concerns you and members of your churches might have.
The Church’s teaching & practice
Much of the confusion and concern for some Christians has been around the perception in the media and wider society that civil partnerships are “gay marriages” by another name. Before I address that perception, I must stress that the Church’s teaching and practice concerning marriage and same-sex relationships has not changed. It is my responsibility as Bishop to uphold the Church’s teaching.
Firstly, the priest’s declaration at the beginning of the Solemnization of Matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer remains the standard of teaching about marriage in the Church of England and is enshrined in English law.
Secondly, the position of the Church of England on same sex relationships is set out in the 1987 resolution of the General Synod. The House of Bishops statement “Issues in Human Sexuality” (1991) and resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference offer supplementary guidance. The more recent study guide “Some Issues in Human Sexuality” (2003) may also be a useful resource.
All Christians, married or single, lay or ordained, are called to live holy and faithful lives. This means, as a rule and a norm (notwithstanding the place of conscience), that those not married will be celibate and those that are will not commit adultery.
The Civil Partnership Act 2004
In this context, the interpretation of civil partnerships in some of the media as “gay marriages” will disturb many Christians. The Bishop of Rochester has received some publicity for the statement he made to his Diocese. I have to say that his anxieties have some very strong foundation. There is a suspicion that, despite official denials, the government might have intended civil partnerships to be understood in this way, a suspicion only fuelled by the unhelpful statement on the government’s official website that “wedding bells” would be ringing in time for Christmas. Some aspects of the Civil Partnership Act itself reinforce this interpretation, especially the reference to “prohibited degrees of relationship” (i.e. as in legal restrictions on those who may marry), the provisions for dissolution and nullity, and the failure to make the provision apply equally to partners of the opposite sex. These are among the causes of the Church’s unease.
However, although many people might consider civil partnerships to be “gay marriages”, the Church does not. It is important to remember that civil partnerships according to the 2004 Act have none of the theological content of marriage. For Christians, although marriage is upheld by the law, it is not defined by its association with it. Marriage is defined by being a relationship that is also a sacramental sign of union. The legal rights that the law confers on such unions in terms of property, pensions and inheritance remain secondary to the nature of marriage itself – and need not be exclusive to it. A civil partnership cannot be a marriage merely because it has similar legal rights.
The legislation should be understood, and in some cases welcomed, in this light. For example, as the general advice of the House of Bishops (downloadable from www.cofe.anglican.org/news/pr5605.html) states, we must not collude with the fashionable tendency to consider every relationship as sexual in character. There are many people who have committed themselves to share a home for mutual support and financial security whose relationships are entirely compatible with Christian teaching and the expectations of the church. I pay tribute to those many unmarried friends who have set up Christian homes together and whose chaste lives testify, no less than do those of faithful married couples, to the importance of mutual support and affection in the Christian life.
Civil partnerships are available to people in these and similar situations. That people in these positions have been denied the legal rights that a civil partnership provides has been a longstanding injustice. The Civil Partnership Act is a remedy for some victims of this injustice and, as such, should be partially welcomed by the Church.
These are, therefore, some of the aspects of the Civil Partnership Act that we should welcome. Expressions of concern about the appropriateness of civil partnerships should bear this in mind. It is however a matter of regret that our welcome has to be limited because of the aspects of the Act that have fuelled considerable anxiety. As the Roman Catholic Bishops in England and Wales have pointed out, in removing injustices responsible legislators should not endanger the place of marriage and family in society.
Pastoral and personal responsibilities
It is lawful for clergy and laity alike to enter into civil partnerships. As described above, there are situations in which a civil partnership will be in keeping with the Church’s teaching. The pastoral statement from the House of Bishops is in this context.
Firstly, as clergy, you have a pastoral duty to support and encourage those who are in a variety of ways seeking to conform their lives to the pattern of Christ’s holiness. However, while the Church should always give thanks to God for the gift of holy friendship, “clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership” (House of Bishops guidance para. 17). No liturgy is anticipated and therefore requests for any public service cannot be granted. Neither do you have leave, under Canon B5, to provide your own forms of public liturgy as the House of Bishops have debated and rejected exactly such a provision. On this subject, there can be no ambiguity.
Secondly, a distinction may be drawn between the expectations which fall on the clergy and laity respectively. When teaching about the qualities of local church leadership in the Pastoral Epistles, nothing is demanded there that is not a demand of all Christian people. St Paul’s point, therefore, is that these qualities should be especially true of local church leaders. While all Christians should live by and witness to the way of Christ, clergy have a particular responsibility because of their public and representative role and pastoral responsibilities. Clergy have the same legal rights as lay people to avail themselves of the provisions of the law. They must always be aware, however, of the wider effects of their actions. Scripture and the Ordinal alike make clear that more will be asked of us as shepherds of the flock, both in our life now and on the Day of Judgment. I cannot defend any unmarried cleric living a non-celibate life or indeed any married cleric in an adulterous relationship.
It should however also be recognised that clergy no less than laity have a right to have their privacy respected. Bishops have a duty to defend that right, not just as an abstract principle, but also in respect of those in civil partnerships who seek to live within the teaching of the church.
The House of Bishops’ advice about the “assurances” that may be sought of those entering civil partnerships has been seriously misinterpreted. In accordance with traditional Anglican pastoral practice, I do not intend that in this diocese there should be unreasonable interrogatory questioning of either clergy or lay people about their personal attitudes or behaviour. This must not be misunderstood. It is important that all are made aware of the Church’s teaching in these matters. The suggestion that lay people should not be asked for “assurances” in no way detracts from the pastoral responsibility of the clergy to guide those in their pastoral care in obedience to Christ and holiness of life. I am glad therefore of the opportunity to remind the clergy of their duty in this regard. Furthermore, I will expect those who advise Bishops in this diocese to assure us that candidates for holy orders in the diocese understand and accept what it means to “model their life and that of their household according to the mind of Christ.”
I find within myself a level of vulnerability and pain in all of this. The tension between upholding Biblical teaching and the Church’s tradition on the one hand, and, on the other, wanting to be compassionate and hospitable to gay people feels a lonely road to walk. Having to be public in the exercise of my responsibility to uphold the Church’s teaching makes me feel vulnerable on every side. Please pray for me.
This letter is written at a time of great tension in the Church. I hope that all members of the Diocese of Bristol will remember their overriding obligation of charity. This should include a willingness to think the best rather than the worst of each other. These issues touch the heart both of the gospel and of our personal identity and integrity. May God give us all both clarity and compassion as we seek to be faithful to His Will.