The question arises from an intriguing item in the latest summary of decisions by the House of Bishops:
Paragraph 7 says that the House considered an interim report from the working party on sexuality chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling. It continues:
Pending the conclusion of the group’s work next year the House does not intend to issue a further pastoral statement on civil partnerships. It confirmed that the requirements in the 2005 statement concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate.’
There is no mention of the working party on civil partnerships, chaired by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, which was formed prior to Sir Jospeh Pilling’s group, and was due to ‘report to the House in time for the House to reach conclusions during 2012.’
It does look though, from paragraph 7, as if one important outstanding matter has been decided, namely, that a member of the clergy who is in a civil partnership is no longer automatically debarred from nomination to the episcopate. This appears to lift the ban on such nominations that was introduced when the working parties were announced in July 2011:
This document (GS Misc 997) emphasised that the review of civil partnerships would be taking place in a changed context, compared to the House of Bishops Statement of 2005: some clergy had now entered into civil partnerships, General Synod had approved improved pension provision for the surviving civil partners of clergy who have died, and Parliament had legislated for the registration of civil partnerships on religious premises. However, in the brief statement from the Bishop of Norwich that accompanied it the issue of bishops was uppermost:
The review will include an examination of whether priests in civil partnerships should be eligible for appointment as bishops. The 2005 statement was silent on this issue and, while the relevant legal background was analysed in a recently published Legal Office note, the House acknowledges its responsibility to address the policy issue. To avoid pre-empting the outcome of the review the House has concluded that clergy in civil partnerships should not, at present, be nominated for episcopal appointment. The review will be completed in 2012.
The legal advice mentioned here, which reviewed the provisions of, and exemptions to, the Equality Act 2010, emphasised that an episcopal candidate who is in a civil partnership would need to be celibate, and that other ‘relevant factors’, including their past behaviours, might be subject to scrutiny, though the weighting attached to this was not (paragraph 30), and probably could not, be spelt out.
The latest decision from the House of Bishops simply states that there is now a level playing field, as regards eligibility for episcopal office, with that for ordination as set out in its 2005 statement on civil partnerships where the condition is:
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’.
That statement also notes that
clergy are fully entitled to argue, in the continuing debate, for a change in that teaching …
At Changing Attitude, England, that is what we do – laity as well as clergy. And we look forward to hearing more outcomes from the group that reviewed civil partnerships, especially the broader issues that were mentioned when the working party was launched.