Clergy and Civil Partnerships and Choosing Bishops – more chinks of light

Andrew Goddard has published an analysis of the known and the unknown in an article on the Anglican Communion Institute website titled Bishops and Civil Partnerships II: Still More Questions Than Answers.

Andrew is good at researching the events and analysing what may have been the factors which led to the disastrous news story which erupted on Friday 4 January when the BBC published a news item about bishops in civil partnerships. This resulted in headlines about appointing the first gay bishop in print and online, headlines which as Changing Attitude readers know well are totally inaccurate.

Andrew analyses the process by which the Sodor and Man Working Party’s report came to be re-processed by the House of Bishops Standing Committee:

“Statements by the Group’s Chair, Robert Paterson, Bishop of Sodor and Man, and William Fittal, Secretary of General Synod, make clear that the group produced a 20 page report which was discussed at the House in May but left to be reconsidered in December. The report did make a proposal but both that proposal (which the Chair refused to divulge to the Church Times) and the report itself are confidential to the House although the Chair has declared he would be very happy for the Group’s report to be published. 

“After May, the House of Bishops Standing Committee (apparently comprising the two Archbishops, Rochester, Dover, London, Coventry, Norwich and Gloucester, who is a member of the wider review group on sexuality) took over the review.  It produced a shorter paper for the December meeting although the Review’s Chair had assumed the group would produce the final report.

“The Bishop of Sodor and Man has said that ‘It is fair to say that what came out at the end did not represent the fairly considerable amount of work by our group and the standing committee’.”

I have been told that the Bishop of Sodor and Man wanted (and had persuaded the review group to propose) the adoption of more stringent requirements when considering the appointment as bishop of a priest in a civil partnership. Specifically, I’m told Robert Paterson wanted question 4 from the Legal Office’s June 2011 Note on Civil partnerships included: whether he had expressed repentance for any previous same-sex sexual  activity. It may be that the Sodor and Man group recommended that all 5 questions rather than that question 4 alone should be asked and as a matter of course rather than as criteria that could be considered in making a judgment as to whether a person in a civil partnership “can act as a focus for unity.” The “general culture of secrecy” as Andrew Goddard calls it, has prevented the Review Group’s report from being published and the Chair of the group from talking about their work.

Andrew Goddard goes on to say that one reason why the House may not wish to make available the report’s line of thinking is that it rejected the group’s proposal, the more likely being that it recommended additional requirements – the outcome sought by most conservatives. There are signs that this may be the situation, says Andrew.

Changing Attitude was understandably concerned about the status of the other four factors which can be taken into account when choosing a bishop, listed in Choosing Bishops – the Equality Act 2010.  We wanted to know whether or not they still applied or whether the decision about the second question affected the other four. We asked a legal officer at Church House and yesterday received a response:

“The document ‘Choosing Bishops’ (published as GS Misc 992) was of course prepared in December 2010 and needs to be revised in the light of the decision of the House of Bishops at its December 2012 meeting about the eligibility of those in civil partnerships as candidates for the episcopate. The Legal Department at Church House is actively engaged on that work at the moment, and more will accordingly emerge in due course when it is completed.”

I’m grateful for the information that the Legal Department at Church House is actively working on a revision of the Choosing Bishops document at the moment. It answers one question that Changing Attitude has been curious about.  

I have also been told that the House of Bishops Standing Committee did indeed take over the work of the group because it disagreed with some or all of its recommendations. This would account for the failure of the Bishop of Norwich’s statement to claim the decision made is that proposed by the review group and the Review Group Chair’s unwillingness to divulge his group’s proposal.

Despite asking questions of legal officers at Church House, I have been unable to find out whether there were concerns about the impact of the Equality Act in the decision to change the advice about the eligibility of clergy in civil partnerships to be appointed bishop. There had been press reports that the events in relation to Jeffrey John’s candidacy for Southwark could lead to a legal challenge and speculation that this may have been a factor in December’s decision. But at the moment, we don’t know the answer.

William Fittall, Secretary General of General Synod, had sent me an email on 10 December in response to a further question from me:

“It was for the House to decide how many issues it wished to resolve now. Given the Pilling review and in view of the fast changing context resulting from the proposed introduction of same sex marriage the House concluded that it did not wish at this point to go beyond clarifying the position in relation to civil partnership and the episcopate. I think what distinguished that from other issues was that the moratorium imposed in the July 2011 statement had specifically been linked to the conclusion of the review.”

Andrew Goddard’s article ends with this Conclusion:

“The House may have simply followed the Sodor and Man Review recommendations and put the Church back to where it was in June 2011 with the Equality Act advice but no formal policy of a moratorium.  If so, then this minimum change needs to be clearly stated.  In addition, given the bishops imposed a moratorium in order not to pre-empt the review’s work, there should be no problem in publishing at least those parts of the review’s work which “show the working” behind this decision and led to lifting the moratorium and making no additional requirements.  It is however, possible that the Review’s proposal has been rejected by the House and/or we are not now back to where we were before the moratorium.  If this is the case then the House needs to make clear what has happened and the details of the church’s new situation.  In this scenario there is much more to explain to the church, including the wider Communion, and recent statements appealing to “natural justice” will not be sufficient.”

Andrew has a clearer head than me! I read the reports and become very confused and have to sit quietly in a darkened room trying to work out what we don’t know, what would be really helpful to know, who to ask question of, and why, above all, does the Church of England corporately have this incredibly unhealthy attitude to secrecy (or confidentiality, if that’s a more acceptable word) against transparency and openness.

It’s typified for me by a conversation I had at York Synod three years ago. I wanted to know why the number of seats available in the public gallery at York was limited when there is far more room potentially available to accommodate all those wanting to attend key debates. Last July, a video link was provided in a lecture theatre on a different part of the campus rather than increase seating in the University Hall.

The answer I was given: We make available in York the same number of seats for the general public as are available in the chamber at Church House Westminster. That’s the mentality at the centre of the Church of England, and it’s crazy.


  1. Kate says

    More manifestations of the way, the truth and the light shining like a city on a hill, eh?

    My head also hurts a bit, but I think you’re saying that there are two possible conclusions: one, that the hardline proposals of the group still were’nt enough for the conservatives; two, that the House of Bishops have some sort of conception of the need for progress, and rejected it because they urgently need to find something more liberal. After all, an announcement in December, just after the failed women bishops vote that went ‘Hello there! – just to remind you that we really despise gay people too!’ might have tipped Parliament over into even more forceful ultimatums than the ones they have no doubt already received.

  2. Richard Ashby says

    What a mess. Did the Sodor and Man civil partnership review up with something which the Bishops found so embarrassing that they are trying to decide what to do with it. It looks to me as if they would like to park the whole of the same sex, civil partnership stuff in the ‘too difficult’ pigeon hole and really don’t know what to do with it.

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