Changing Attitude is campaigning for equality in the selection, training, ordination and appointment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy.
We estimate that about 10% of clergy are LGBT. Most are invisible to the church and there are bishops who are unaware of the LGBT clergy in their diocese and their particular experiences and stress.
Some partnered lesbian and gay clergy are affirmed by their bishops and congregations. Others lose their licences and have great difficulty in being appointed to a new parish. Yet others hide themselves, keeping their head below the parapet and their relationship discreet.
There is no common policy about LGBT clergy among the bishops and dioceses of the Church of England, but a great variety of practice and considerable dishonesty. LGBT clergy are among those carrying the burden of this dishonesty.
In theory, the Church of England accepts for ordination LGBT people who are celibate. In practice, fewer LGBT people are offering themselves for ordained ministry because of the perceived prejudice of the Church and the intrusive questioning of sexuality by particular bishops and directors of ordinands.
The legal position
The Church of England’s legal position in relation to LGBT clergy and those who contract a civil partnership is not at all clear. The Church of England is governed by canon law which does not include the words homosexuality, homosexual or civil partnership. The policies adopted by the House of Bishops are confronted by this reality. General Synod has passed resolutions and the House of Bishops has published study documents and pastoral statements.
In theory the Church of England has a uniform policy based on Issues in Human Sexuality and the Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships from the House of Bishops. In practice individual bishops and directors of ordinands apply or ignore the policy in different ways. At one extreme, someone who is openly gay may be refused ordination and at the opposite extreme, priests in a relationship may be encouraged by their bishop to contract a civil partnership. Prospective ordinands and those seeking a title parish will gravitate towards dioceses which are known to be gay friendly and avoid those dioceses where the bishop is known to be conservative.
House of Bishops’ groups
Two groups of bishops, four in each, one more conservative, one more liberal, have been meeting in 2010 at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to review the House of Bishops’ stance on homosexuality. The two groups joined together for a meeting with the Archbishop in October. The House of Bishops (which, of course, has gay men among its members, but ‘discrete’) is once again discussing the church’s policy towards LGBT people in our absence.
The challenge for Changing Attitude is to find a way of holding the House of Bishops to account for their disparate and dishonest actions and policy and reframe teaching to grant equality to lesbian and gay ordinands and clergy in civil partnerships.
Issues in Human Sexuality
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ordinands and clergy are treated differently from heterosexual clergy and ordinands. The Ministry Division of the Archbishops’ Council uses the 1991 House of Bishops’ Statement ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ as the document which guides policy.
Paragraph 5.17, p45 of Issues, says: “We have, therefore, to say that in our considered judgement the clergy cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships.” It continues: “The Church cannot accept such parity [with marriage] and remain faithful to the insights which God has given it through Scripture, tradition and reasoned reflection on experience.”
The bishops also felt confident in writing in paragraph 5.11 on p43 that: “We believe that the great majority of [lesbian and gay] clergy are not in sexually active partnerships.” The bishops had no empirical evidence for making that statement in 1991. They have no empirical evidence now, but many bishops, in private, know some of their partnered lesbian and gay clergy, and affirm their relationships.
House of Bishops Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships
The statement reaffirms the Church’s teaching on both marriage and sexual intercourse. The statement says ‘Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively’ and ‘the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged.’
For clergy, it says: ‘The House of Bishops does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, 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.‘
Despite the wording of the Statement, the pastoral stance adopted by many bishops ranges from the pragmatic to the generously supportive. This discrepancy between the bishops’ teaching and their actions causes much anxiety and uncertainty for LGBT clergy and ordinands.
The statement says clergy and candidates for ordination who decide to enter into a civil partnership “must therefore expect to be asked for assurances that their relationship will be consistent with the teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality.” There is no legal obligation on clergy to answer the question which is why the bishops use the phrase “can expect to be asked” which is accurate but implies they are obliged to answer and answer in the negative.
If a priest says he or she is in an active sexual relationship the only action a bishop could take would be a charge of “conduct unbecoming” under the Clergy Discipline Measure. Such a charge is likely fail, given that civil partnerships are legal, recognised by the state and accepted by the majority of members of the Church of England. No bishop has brought a case. The failure to win would have the effect of making clear that the Church of England already legally accepts lesbian and gay clergy in sexually active partnerships.
Proposed revision to Canons
A resolution for the House of Bishops:
Canon C4 paragraph 1 (ordination) includes men and women whose sexual orientation is to persons of the same sex, whether or not they are in civil partnerships.
This would bring parity between gay and lesbian and heterosexual ordinands and clergy. Heterosexuals are currently considered for ordination, whether or not they are married. The resolution would be for clarification, and for the avoidance of doubt.