Bishops react to Civil Partnerships

Several bishops have made statements, written articles in diocesan newspapers or issued letters to clergy.

St Edmundsbury & Ipswich
Changing Attitude patron Richard Lewis, Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich told the East Anglian Daily Times that gay clergy “are amongst the best we have, and I am daily thankful for them. Instead of bickering about what is thought to be wrong in terms of human relationships, for men and women and same-sex couples, it would be good if there was some affirmation of the things that are good and worth celebrating.” He backed the civil-partnership legislation and urged people to affirm gay clergy. “Gay people are a very important part of the Church, and the Church actually needs them if it is to understand and relate to the world at large.”

The law on civil partnerships was correcting an injustice: “There’s a real sense of putting something right, and I welcome that. I support the civil partnership because it does affirm a human relationship, and gives rights in terms of next of kin, financially, that was not possible before. The thing that really sticks in the throats of a number of people is coming to terms with the fact that, for many gay people, entering into civil partnership is about a long-term committed and loving relationship. Whether people find that understandable or acceptable actually is their problem,” he said.

In his letter to clergy, Bishop Tom Wright of Durham said: “I shall be very sorry if members of the clergy, by holding services of blessing or near equivalent, force me to make disciplinary enquiries. If clergy decide to enter a civil partnership they are thereby putting me in a new situation in which my own integrity as diocesan bishop, and my collegial position within the House of Bishops, strongly suggest that I should follow the process thus recommended.” But he concluded: “I fully understand that some people feel bound in conscience to disobey the clear and official teaching of the Church on these matters.”

Jonathan Gledhill, Bishop of Lichfield, issued advice to clergy and churches in the diocese in relation to the Civil Partnerships Act which first highlights the key points from the House of Bishops Pastoral Statement. Jonathan writes that, “it is clear that the media are very happy to misreport Civil Partnerships as being equal to marriage. Even the BBC are sometimes using the terms as if they are interchangeable.” What will be news to Jonathan is that many gay and lesbian couples are equating it to marriage, describe their ceremony as a marriage and believe themselves to be living as Mr and Mr or Mrs and Mrs.

Jonathan Gledhill continues: “The House of Bishops decided that, given the ambiguity in the concept of civil partnerships, it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with their registration. It is the ambiguous nature of Civil Partnerships which guided the House of Bishops in the statement’s attitude to clergy. And the way this section of our statement has been reported in the media confirms the way in which Civil Partnerships are being viewed. The House of Bishops has NOT said that: “gay clergy can marry so long as they remain celibate”. What we have said is that entering into a Civil Partnership is not intrinsically incompatible with holy orders. This is because Civil Partnerships are NOT marriage.”

The Bishop of Rochester issued a letter to clergy the day before the new Changing Attitude group held their launch meeting (see group news, p 7). It is highly critical of the House of Bishops statement.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali criticised the studied ambiguity of the Bill with its “careful mimicking of marriage” which undermines “the distinctiveness and fundamental importance to society of the relationship of marriage.” The Church’s response should have been, in terms of the Human Rights Act, to derogate from the legislation on the grounds that its ambiguity was not consistent with fundamental Christian teaching on marriage.

Because of the ambiguity in the legislation, the House of Bishops “has been unable to say that civil partnerships entered into under this legislation would be inconsistent with Christian teaching. This is, and will continue be, a recipe for confusion.”

He says the “Statement has given bishops the task of ensuring that clergy who enter into these partnerships adhere to church teaching in the area of sexuality without giving the bishops the clear means to do so. In the days to come, this step will both severely test the Church’s discipline and stretch pastoral relationships to breaking point.”

By “declaring that lay people who enter such partnerships should not be asked about the nature of their relationship, it has compromised pastoral discipline at the local level.” He said this ‘not wanting to exclude from the fellowship of the Church’ flies “in the face of clear biblical teaching and the unanimous practice of the Church down the ages.” He ”will continue to support clergy and other ministers who seek to bring the fullness of the faith to bear on the pastoral situations they encounter. I know they do this with the greatest sensitivity and care.”

Who is in control of our lives?
Given the statements issued by Jonathan Gledhill and Michael Nazir-Ali, there is understandable caution in their dioceses, and in others where bishops have expressed similar views, on the part of lesbian and gay clergy who would like to register their partnership. The bishops, as Jonathan and Michael’s anxiety in restating or challenging the House of Bishop’s line reveals, are not in control of the situation. Gradually, we lesbian and gay Anglicans are taking control of our lives and destinies. We know we have waited for this moment for years (many of us) and we are not going to be intimidated by bishops who think they know better than us what is good for us, good for the Church and acceptable to God. We have known all our adult Christian lives, through prayer and listening to God, what we have long desired, and we are not ultimately going to be denied by anxious bishops.

Join the discussion