Changing Attitude recently wrote to William Fittall, Secretary General of the General Synod, with our concerns about recent statements issued by ‘spokespersons’ claiming to speak on behalf of the Church of England. Specifically we have been dismayed by the unequivocal assertion in various media that the Church of England will not allow civil partnerships to be conducted on its premises. We think this wrongly gives the impression that the Church has already made a decision and that there is a single church view on this matter whereas in fact there is a wide range of opinion.
The proposed legislation on civil partnerships in religious premises makes clear that the relevant authority in the Church of England is General Synod, and since Synod has not yet discussed and decided the matter the statement is presumptive and premature. This is reinforced by the failure of the spokespersons to make any reference to the fact that the Church of England’s attitudes to civil partnerships and to sexuality in general are currently the subject of reviews announced by the House of Bishops.
Changing Attitude’s understanding is that staff employed at Church House, Westminster are authorised to be spokespersons, and in discharging this role they are expected to have regard to official reports, resolutions and decisions of authoritative bodies within the Church, in particular of General Synod. In this instance it looks as if they have exceeded their remit. The statement about civil partnerships does not express a decision of General Synod. We think this looks dangerously like a privileged personal opinion masquerading as ‘the mind of the Church’.
William Fittall explained in his reply that the question “who speaks for the Church of England” is never a simple one. As an institution we are more like an organism than an organisation.
A CA supporter notes the interesting use of the word “organism” (as in something growing in the mud?) to avoid the constitutional reality. The constitutional monarch is the Governor of the Church of England and has delegated authority for decisions like this through parliament to General Synod (not the House of Bishops or the Archbishops’ Council. The location of authority is recognised by the Government in the proposed regulations for registering places of worship for civil partnerships.
Mr Fittall continues: “Even when an official document or policy position has been produced on a particular subject its status will depend on who issued it and on what authority.”
This indeed accurately describes what actually happens and is a useful reminder – the status of an official document or policy will depend on who issued it and on what authority. Changing Attitude thinks not enough attention is paid to who is issuing what and on what authority and therefore giving documents their proper weight and not the weight those issuing it hope it will be imagined to have. When a document or policy issued by a particular body needs to be legally approved or enforced, then we believe the only real source of authority is the General Synod (through measures and canons), hence the reason for our letter.
Mr Fittall again: “The Church of England’s response to the Government’s consultation document about civil partnerships in religious buildings, issued earlier this year, was agreed by the Archbishops’ Council and the Standing Committee of the House of Bishops. It noted the policy of the House of Bishops that blessings for civil partnerships should not be conducted in Church of England churches.”
The policy (not legal decision) of the House of Bishops is that blessings (not the registration of civil partnerships) should not be conducted in Church of England churches.
CA reminds Mr Fittall and the House of Bishops that blessings of lesbian and gay relationships already take place in Church of England churches. In the diocese of Southwark they happen in many churches including St Luke’s Charlton, with the formal consent of the PCC and the knowledge of the previous two bishops. They happen in many churches in the Diocese of London including St Martin in the Fields which conducts services of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Partnership (not the public blessing of lesbian and gay relationships which I had mistakenly written earlier) with the formal consent of the PCC. The Bishop of London has been informed of this practice. Fees are charged, sent to the diocese saying they are for a serice of Prayer and Dedication following a civil partnership, and are banked by the diocese. [The St Martin’s service is not an authorised service of the Church of England nor, strictly, a Blessing and in keeping with the pastoral guidance of Issues in Human Sexuality which encourages the Church to support faithful same-sex relationships between lay homosexual Christians].
Mr Fittall: “The key issue for the Church of England was that the regulations should be framed in such a way as to preserve religious freedom and secure a genuine system of denominational opt-in. The relevant body for specifying whether Church of England places of worship could, as a matter of principle, be used for hosting the registration of civil partnerships would be the General Synod.”
William Fittall says the Church of England has no intention of allowing civil partnerships to be registered in our churches because it would be inconsistent with the 2005 statement from the House of Bishops.
He is of course right when he says that he and his colleagues are expected to have regard to official reports, resolutions and decisions of authoritative bodies within the Church. Therefore, the matter is not entirely open as we implied. He gently reprimands us for suggesting that anyone at Church House might turn their personal opinions into official statements, thus questioning the professionalism of the staff team.
His general point that different bodies exercise authority in different areas is true – they do. The question we raise is whether or not they should or if they have the authority to do so. The Archbishops’ Council has been given a great deal of executive authority but we are not sure they have the authority to determine policy issues like this. Mr Fittall’s basic premise is that the Church of England will not opt in to CPs in church as it would be inconsistent with the House of Bishops’ statement, 2005. As a prediction this may be accurate but we maintain it is for General Synod to decide, and the matter has not yet been put to Synod.
Some members of the Houses of Clergy and Laity in Synod will have an opinion about CPs in church which differs from the House of Bishops (and bishops clearly differ between themselves). The diversity of views held by Synod needs to be heard before a vote is taken and the policy of the Church of England on civil partnerships in church formally adopted. What about the desires of lesbian and gay Christians in general and Anglicans in particular?