Civil partnerships, the episcopate and the House of Bishops furore

I want to place as the foundation stone of this blog Jim Cotter’s Canticle for Christmas 3 based on John 1 from Out of the Silence to remind myself of the truth that convicts me as a follower of the way of Jesus the Christ. Light in darkness and truth in love is fundamental to my experience of the presence of God.

Eternal Word of the living God,
dream from before the beginning,
in whom and through whom everything has come to be,
in you is life, the life that is our light,
the light that shines on in the darkness,
which the darkness has never overcome,
the true light, enlightening our humanity,
shining in the world.

There was a storm of media interest yesterday in the revelation that the House of Bishops has changed the policy of the Church of England to allow celibate civil partnered priests to be come bishops. The discussion I took part in with Rod Thomas of Reform on Radio 4s PM programme and later with Gerry O’Brien, a member of General Synod on Radio 5 Live highlighted the gulf between us of our experience of the nature of God, the teaching about God that we receive from Scripture and the revelation of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of love.

This difference of our experience of God is fundamental to the divisions in the Church about women in the episcopate and bishops in civil partnerships. I think this underlies every other issue, which are secondary to the gulf in belief about the nature of God amongst Christians.

I am reading many books which describe and explore images of and metaphors for God which have made sense to me since my earliest years. The Church is not having an open, honest, public conversation about the dramatically different visions of God held by progressive and conservative Christians. This is one of the reasons I revisited Honest to God earlier this year. Yesterday’s announcement was made as if the metaphors and images of God commonplace amongst the majority of Christians in the UK and the majority of the population who reflect on the nature of God are not also commonplace among bishops and priests.

So many thoughts and questions arise from yesterday’s statement by the Bishop of Norwich and the media frenzy which followed that this is inevitably going to be a lengthy blog.

Confusion about the announcement

The change of policy was revealed in the report issued following the House of Bishops meeting. Christina Beardsley wrote about this here.

Paragraph 7 said that the House considered an interim report from the working party on sexuality chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling.

“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 was no mention of the working party on civil partnerships, chaired by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, which was formed prior to Sir Joseph Pilling’s group, and was due to ‘report to the House in time for the House to reach conclusions during 2012.’ The House of Bishops report says the House confirmed that requirements apply equally in relation to the episcopate, a curious choice of word, since it wasn’t confirmation but a new decision. Few people beyond Changing Attitude noticed that the House of Bishops had announced a change of policy which the media now think has dramatic implications. I’m not so sure, as I will explain later.

The Church Times phoned me midweek to ask if I knew whether the Sodor and Man group was responsible for this revelation in the HoB report, whether the group had finished its work and whether this was an announcement of a change of policy or teaching. The Church Times had phoned Church House to ask the same questions on Monday, and Church House didn’t have an answer.

I don’t believe Church House had any intention of issuing a public statement highlighting the change in policy until Andrew Goddard wrote about it on the Fulcrum website and the media began to ask questions.  The result was the statement issued yesterday by the Bishop of Norwich.

Did Church House hope no-one would notice? It is another shocking failure of communication by Church House. The media department can’t claim that Christmas and the New Year intervened because the summary of the House of Bishops meeting was posted on 20 December. Why didn’t they issue a press statement then? Their failure to do so meant that there was a lot of misguided reporting yesterday and to me and others, Church House once again looks incompetent and determined to sabotage any progress towards a change of policy and teaching that might generously affirm the place of LGB&T people in the Church of England.


In the media interviews I did yesterday it was repeatedly claimed that gay priests were for the first time eligible to become bishops. This is patently wrong and one of the reasons I repeat the statement that there are already 14 bishops who are gay. I say this not because I want to out them but because it is the truth, a truth many wish to hide or deny.

I know from first-hand experience that some of those bishops were actively in same-sex relationships and encounters earlier in their lives. The claim that gay priests in civil partnerships will be asked to repent of previous sexual activity is one of the worst elements of the newly-announced practice. I wonder how many of the bishops who are gay were asked such an inappropriate question. I suspect that in the appointment process, no-one dared ask if they were gay, let alone ask about present or previous sexual activity.

Herein lies one reason why I don’t think yesterday’s revelation will lead to any gay priest in a civil partnership being appointed as a bishop any time soon. How many priests in civil partnerships where sexual intimacy is an integral part of the relationship will willingly abandon sex with their partner in order to become a bishop? Well, the ruthlessly ambitious ones might, I suppose. Even if a priest in a celibate civil partnership were to be nominated as a bishop, who in these circumstances is going to subject themselves not only to inquisition by the CNC or those involved in the appointment of area, suffragan and PEVs, but to general inquisition by the public at large and the people of their diocese? Is there a single gay priest willing to subject himself to the inquisition of Reform, Anglican Mainstream, Fulcrum or the Church of England Evangelical Council?

Threats by conservatives

In the interviews I undertook for the BBC yesterday, one was with Rod Thomas, Chair of Reform and another with Gerry O’Brien, a member of the Church of England Evangelical Council. Both are members of General Synod. Both issued threats to the Church, that if it went ahead and appointed a civil partnered priest as a bishop, dire consequences would result, the Church would be split and they would seek episcopal oversight from another Province.

I’ve heard it all before but I’m still shocked by the ease with which they threaten the Church. Groups representing a small minority in the Church are sabotaging the reputation of the Church of England as being a denomination which reflects the values of British society (which the majority of the population still considers to be Christian) but which, more seriously, communicates belief in a God whose qualities are rejected by the majority. The God of conservatives is seen with stark clarity to be prejudiced, partisan, anti-women’s equality, homophobic, dishonest.

Rod Thomas and Gerry O’Brian are no longer seen to be loyal Anglicans nor in touch with God revealed in Jesus Christ. There is a growing desperation in their attacks on the Church for its slowly changing attitude to LGB&T people. It looks to be deeply un-Christian. Jerry O’Brien dared to ask me whether I ever read the Bible. How dare he be so offensive and abusive to me? That’s the problem with the Reform/CEEC mentality – they don’t really believe I’m a Christian.

Conservatives are doing immense damage to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this country and to the reputation of the Church of England. I know they think that I am doing the same because I am openly and unrepentantly a gay priest in a civil partnership. I think they are pursuing their Biblical literalism two centuries after the majority abandoned such understandings of Scripture.

Who has the authority to make the decision?

Both Rod and Gerry claimed that the House of Bishops had exceeded its authority and the matter will have to be brought to General Synod for approval. I think they are wrong. I think authority to change the teaching of the Church lies with the House of Bishops, and the decision has already been taken. They will ask questions in Synod, I have no doubt, and the questions will receive the usual non-committal replies. They may table a private member’s motion, but that will require signatures to be considered for debate, has to be accepted by the Business Committee and will not come before Synod until 2014. It would almost certainly be amended by the House of Bishops to remove any threat.

House of Bishops

The House of Bishops is now in a trap of its own making. Originally, as those bishops who spoke in the House of Lords made clear, the Bishops were opposed to civil partnerships. They have now undertaken a volte face following the Government’s proposal to introduce equal marriage. Bishops now claim they supported civil partnerships from the beginning when the record clearly shows they didn’t. Why the about turn?

The answer is in the sex. They seem to have got it into their heads that it’s easier to believe that because having sex isn’t a necessary requirement when you enter a CP, having sex when you get married is, so better the devil they think they know, CPs, than the unknown devil that arrives in 2014 – equal marriage. The bishops are wrong and misguided, of course.  The ethical and moral ground on which they continue to erect their policies has collapsed. The majority of lesbian and gay couples including Anglican clergy couples, model their civil partnerships on marriage with the same values, qualities and expectations of love, intimacy, fidelity, spiritual depth mutual health and comfort, and sexual fulfillment.

The majority of bishops know this to be the reality and accept it. They interview and license clergy in CPs, welcoming their partners, acknowledging their presence in front of the congregation, and affirming their relationship as blessed by God and a gift to their church.

What is curious is why these self-same bishops seem to be unable to be equally open and honest when in a House of Bishops meeting. Maybe they are. But my suspicion is that they are yet to have a really honest, truthful, open conversation about homosexuality on the one hand and what some of them really think about gay people and what they do in the real world of their dioceses. Following the invitation to senior women to join the House for a conversation about women in the episcopate, it is time for a similar meeting with senior lesbian and gay clergy. It shouldn’t be necessary, of course – the House already has the resources of its own gay bishops, but not at its disposal under the don’t ask, don’t tell policy.

What next?

The focus on the House of Bishops isn’t going away. Scrutiny of the House of Bishops’ position will continue in advance of the Pilling group reporting in December. The authority of the House of Bishops in the Church and the country has been significantly eroded following the failure to secure a yes vote for women bishops and now, the statement on civil partnered bishops. Yesterday’s announcement has been treated as laughable by the majority. This is a sad state of affairs and I long for change.

I am privileged to have enjoyed many conversations with bishops which have been mutually honest, open and trusting. I know there is a significant majority who are fully affirming of LGB&T people, including their own clergy, who know that the position adopted by conservatives does not reflect God’s reality, and who are generous in their pastoral support. These bishops clearly have difficulty in bringing their own pastoral experience and wisdom to bear on the corporate decisions of the House of Bishops. Is there any hope this will change in the short term?

The pessimistic me beats the optimistic me. I know the Holy Spirit is at work all the time, revealing the truth in love. Stuff happens, and it’s quite possible for significant change to occur in the House of Bishops, and the Spirit might enlist the arrival of Justin Welby to achieve a more radical change of heart and mind. Past evidence reinforces my pessimism that such a degree of change and transformation is unlikely.

The House will continue to have difficulty issuing a corporate statement which affirms and rejoices in the deeply loving, lifelong commitment made between two mature, adult lesbian or gay Christians, many in senior positions in the Church.

But the practice of the Church has already changed dramatically. Being gay is not judged to be a condition judged by God, not something that is mutable and able to be changed or ‘healed’, not a mistake, not something to be denied or suppressed. Bishops know that LGB&T people and same sex love are integral to the life of the Church of England now.

I think the bishops have a year in which to review and revise their attitudes as a House towards LGB&T people. This means addressing the matter in advance of receiving the Pilling report in December, by when it will be too late to have prepared themselves for the introduction of equal marriage in 2014. Unless …. unless Sir Joseph Pilling prepares a report which deals with all this in an honest and creative way. His group clearly has the potential to produce a radical report which could help the House of Bishops escape from the hole they are at present digging for themselves.


  1. Erika Baker says

    Colin, I like what your wrote very much and I do think that our different experience and concept of God lies at the heart of our differences.

    I would just like to say, though, that these revelations are not a new announcement. They were already published in William Fittal’s response to the Equality Act 2010:

    The summary (Point 29) already mentions repentance of sexual activity as a requirement for a gay person to become bishop.

  2. Richard Ashby says

    I wonder whether the ‘change of policy’ has been done deliberately? After all the bishops must have known that however this announcement was slipped out, it would be noticed and cause the expected furore. Have they decided at last to tough this one out and let the evangelicals blow up over it? Yes the policy is deeply dishonest but at least it seems to me that it is some movement in the right direction, if only a small one. I wonder, too, whether the debacle over the women bishops issue has strengthened their arms in their termination not to be sen to be too far out of step with society. Again,it’s quite dishonest to cite ‘Issues’, but, as I say, maybe it’ progress of a sort?

    • Erika Baker says

      Richard, Alan Wilson commented on another thread that the policy was changed to make sure that priests and bishops were treated equally as the CoE could otherwise got itself in trouble with employment law. And that the HoB is probably rather surprised at the interpretation that has been given to the announcement.
      Because we all know it won’t change anything and we will not end up with a single civil partnered bishop because of it.

  3. Rosina Elston says

    While the bishops argue the finer points and wait around for political manouvres, people ‘in the pew’ will continue to drift away in the specrtum between apathy and disgust. I am distressed that so many people who form the creative heart of so much in our national lives should be treated like mis-gendered or criminal beings.

  4. Christopher Bowman says

    Colin may I firstly add applause to your candid reflections! Illuminating and ‘concise’ as you write – you do state:
    ‘The House already has the resources of its own gay bishops, but not at its disposal under the don’t ask, don’t tell policy.’ But we are also given are we not to understand that such persons whose names are put forward for election are put through a process of vetting? This could not leave one to draw one conclusion – that the bishops know who on their number are gay? Or that quite simply there are those in the HoB lacking in integrity to be in their number?
    My own personal conclusion with this change of heart – if it can be described as such is simply this – fear! Fear of the need for a greater openness, fear of the now apparent total need for a transparent openness unlike ever before! We live in a world of words transmitted at a touch of a button! I have no doubt there are a good many clad in purple who may wish it now otherwise! We, more especially they need to get this matter sorted as a matter of urgency! Too many questions too few answers! Now 14 where do we start? Really at the end of the day the only questions should be about their sanctity and pastoral effectiveness! But once again well done!

  5. Peter Foot says

    Too much of all of this is about the Bishops. The issue is the representation of the Laity.

    One can posit a million issues regarding the Bishops – but their view is no different from that which informs this blog. Go to where there are Lay people determined to demonstrate Biblical certainties – THAT’S the problem.

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