I took part in an interview about civil partnerships in church on the BBC R4 Sunday programme this morning with the Rt Revd John Goddard, Bishop of Burnley, Diocese of Blackburn (35 mins 35 secs into the programme).
Yesterday, the trustees of Changing Attitude talked from personal experience about the invisibility of LGB&T clergy, whether they are single, in civil partnerships or living with a partner. Many bishops have no idea who their gay clergy are.
We are also struggling to work out how we can gather information about the number of lesbian and gay clergy in civil partnerships or living together, with or without the bishop’s knowledge.
When the Diocese of York produced a DVD last year as a resource for the listening process in the diocese, the Archbishop of York was adamant that he didn’t want the DVD to go ahead without a gay priest contributing an interview. He was told that no gay priest would be willing to participate, thereby outing themselves to the Archbishop. He insisted and was given 48 hours to find someone. He never responded.
In this morning’s interview, with my information about York under my belt, I said that partnered gay priests often exist under the radar and are invisible to people like bishop John.
Bishop John’s reply was very helpful to Changing Attitude’s search for information about clergy in CPs.
He said that he has various clergy in civil partnerships in the diocese who have promised to live according to the rules. He said he knows many who are strong personal friends who have partners but live a celibate life. And he knows quite a few gay people personally who live a degree of loneliness as an offering to the church.
So now we know that in the diocese of Blackburn there are significant numbers of partnered gay clergy, some in civil partnerships, all, in the bishop’s imagination, celibate. This is a very helpful piece of information. I have never heard a bishop publicly admit to knowing significant numbers of partnered gay clergy before.
Bishop John said every priest, every bishop, is a person under canonical authority – we take an oath of obedience and we take an oath to agree to various patterns of behaviour and Issues in Human Sexuality set these out. He referred to them as guidelines. ‘Issues’ is a discussion document which evolved into a policy document. The oath of obedience is to all things lawful and honest. Our letter to William Fittall sought clarification on the legality of statements issued by the House of Bishops and spokespeople at Church House, documents such as ‘Issues’ and the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidelines for CPs.
Edward Stourton noted, the Church of England’s decision about CPs in church was promulgated in a rather papal fashion in the form of a note from the Secretary General on the church’s web site. This is exactly what Changing Attitude thought had happened.
Bishop John said the question of Civil Partnerships in church “has been discussed and thought through but as yet General Synod has not made a decision.” I don’t think this is true. I don’t think the House of Bishops has discussed and thought through the matter.
He imagines there will be a full and open debate on the matter. Changing Attitude can’t wait for that debate to happen in Synod, and will explore avenues to persuade Synod to put it on the agenda. Our slightly paranoid fear is the William Fittall’s initial statement was an attempt to keep it totally off the agenda.
So we end up dealing with strategy and conflict and legalism in the Church, when this whole thing is about love, the love two people who happen to be of the same sex, have for each other, a love which for lesbian and gay Christians is monogamous and lifelong in intent and no different from heterosexual loving relationships.
We are not, as the bishop suggested, taking our inspiration from secular culture, but from the love and desire implanted by God in the hearts and souls of lesbian and gay people. The Church is already tragically out of touch with secular society where the majority now refer to gay marriage and recognise love when they see it.
The Church has a huge amount of catching up with God to do, and a short space of time in which to do it. When will we see Civil Partnerships in church on the agenda of General Synod?