Jonathan Petre, writing in the Mailonline, reports that sources say the House of Bishops Working Party chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling will recommend that clergy wanting to enter civil partnerships should no longer have to promise their bishops that they will abstain from sex. The report will argue that gay clergy should not be treated any differently than other clergy who do not face intrusive questioning about their sex lives – and that they should be able to follow Church teachings without having to make a solemn vow.
Petre says the report is also likely to urge churches to be far more welcoming to gay people, and encourage vicars to support them with prayers. It will not call for a change to the Church’s current teaching that sex outside traditional marriage is sinful, but will open the door to further liberalisation by calling for a fundamental review.
However, the report will stop short of recommending that formal services are drawn up to bless civil partnerships as that would be seen as too similar to gay marriage, which the Church strongly opposes.
Jonathan often phones me when he’s chasing a story or a rumour, and I’m always willing to be as helpful as possible. That usually that means not very helpful, because I’m rarely privy to the kind of accurate leaks that Jonathan seeks. But – he is often a reliable source of unattributable news.
Firstly, if it is true that clergy will be free to enter a civil partnership without having to agree to remain celibate, then the door will have been opened to one of Changing Attitude’s key ambitions – that church teaching about lesbian and gay relationships applying to clergy and laity imposed following the publication of Issues in Human Sexuality and reinforced by Lambeth 1.10 need to be reviewed and reframed to be equal to the rules for heterosexual clergy.
Secondly, it’s hard (if not impossible) to square this recommendation with the failure to call for a change to the teaching that sex outside marriage is sinful and the failure to recommend the introduction of services to bless civil partnerships because that would be seen as too similar to gay marriage.
The bishops and the non-episcopal members of the Working Party have an impossible task, trying to resolve with theological, intellectual and emotional integrity Church of England teaching about human sexuality in general and LGB&T sexuality and gender issues in particular. Either LGB&T people are created in the image of God or we aren’t. Either the same values of love, fidelity and intimacy apply to us or they don’t. If this report is accurate, the Working Party is going to recommend a fudge which, as CA has been repeatedly told, will satisfy neither ‘side’.
Thirdly, if as Petre says, the report is not going to recommend services of blessing, that contradicts the leak which Peter Ould confidently blogged, having confirmed the news from a number of sources. There is absolutely no doubt, he said, that the report will propose the introduction of some sort of liturgy to bless same-sex relationships.
I really hope the Working Party has thought through the conundrum they face with more care and thought than Jonathan Petre’s report and his variance with Peter Ould’s report indicates.
If clergy are going to be free to enter a civil partnership which can be consummated sexually, then the Church should formally bless those relationships and celebrate them as gifts from God. Services of blessing that clergy can offer to both lay people and clergy who wish to celebrate their commitment in love in church are fundamental to the reform of practice and teaching.
The House of Bishops faces a second and far more difficult conundrum – equal marriage. Why welcome civil partnerships when they are about to become more or less redundant and not welcome equal marriage? Well, we know the answer. If they are unable to square this circle, they are going to be taken to the cleaners, by politicians, LGB&T campaigners secular and religious, and by everyone to whom this will look blatantly illogical and stupid.
Fourthly, Petre says the report is likely to urge churches to be far more welcoming to gay people, and encourage vicars to support them with prayers. So vicars might be able to support them with prayers, but not by using an authorized service of blessing. When and how will they demonstrate their support in prayer – beyond what any sensible priest is already doing by praying publicly and privately for the well-being of LGB&T people?
The Church of England is not going to send a welcoming message to LGB&T people unless it proclaims that God loves and the Church welcomes us unconditionally, the same as God welcomes heterosexuals, who are no more privileged and equally valued.
Finally, it’s no big surprise that any move to change the present teaching is likely to provoke fury among conservatives. The traditionalist who Jonathan Peter quotes is absolutely right, but some decades or centuries out of date. There has always been a slippery slope because there have always been gay Christians and gay clergy. Many gay clergy have never been celibate. Many lesbian and gay clergy are already in civil partnerships and many will convert to marriage.
I have every confidence that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy and lay people will continue to construct their Christ-like lives in love and integrity and will ignore the rules, with the support of their bishops, and contract civil partnerships and marriages and live faithfully together, setting a holy example to others. What the House of Bishops will do I have no idea – they have a big problem – and of course, those in touch with their clergy and people know this all too well.