Changing Attitude’s Rough Guide to the Civil Partnership Law

Changing Attitude resources available

If you would like to hold a service in church following your Civil Partnership registration and would like help in finding a priest willing to conduct a service or a church willing to hold one, we may be able to help you. Please email Colin Coward, the Director.

The Changing Attitude Rough Guide

The HoB advice 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.

Registering a partnership is a public act, and it isn’t possible to do so secretly, but it is possible to do so discreetly (or even indiscreetly! Changing Attitude does not recommend indiscretion!).

Of the bishops Changing Attitude has talked with none are going to ask their clergy any questions about their sex lives, or even whether their relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues. They know it would be inappropriate, intrusive, and put them at risk of European Civil Rights’ law. They are more worried about obsessive conservatives from neighbouring parishes who discover that a clergy person has registered their partnership, and wages a public campaign either against the clergyperson or against the bishop. They will also be deterred by the potential negative publicity, which would make them look foolish.

Perhaps 50% of bishops are privately very supportive of their lesbian and gay clergy and will do all they can to protect and support them.

Other bishops are not as committed to supporting lesbian and gay clergy relationships but have the wisdom to be generous in their knowledge and will exercise latitude in their application of the House of Bishops guidelines.

There are two bishops, one Northern, one Southern Province, with whom we haven’t talked because their views are predictable and dangerous for gay clergy. You will know who they are and you would be advised not to register a partnership if you serve in either of their dioceses.

Legally, you are entitled to register a partnership. You are not in contravention of any Church rule or law if you do. It is better to be discreet. If you find yourself having a conversation about it with your bishop, he is very likely to encourage you to tell him the minimum necessary, and in the first months of the new law, you would be wise to offer the minimum.

Will you be breaking church law if you conduct a blessing in church following the registration of a Civil Partnership?

 

The answer is that you may fall foul of a complex matrix of legalities, but we suspect that none of them are definitive. The House of Bishops base their teaching on Issues in Human Sexuality, Lambeth resolution 1.10 and the Windsor Report. Issues is a document issued for discussion. Lambeth 1.10 and the Windsor Report have no legal standing in any Province of the Anglican Communion. These reports may express the teaching of the Church as currently held, but they are not legally binding and therefore not definitive.

So what might be definitive?

 

There is, of course, the oath of allegiance you swear to your bishop to use only those services which are lawful. A bishop could use this to initiate proceedings against you, but given the cost and the legal uncertainty, we think it highly unlikely that any bishop is going to do so.

It used to be easy to define what was lawful, even though people disobeyed, using the Missal, for example, to which most bishops turned a blind eye. Common Worship is permissive and enables many churches which use forms of worship which bear only a passing resemblance to anything formal, to remain free from criticism by the diocesan bishop. If they can do it, anyone can do it, is one argument. In respect of gay blessings, we come back to the words used, and the accepted doctrine of the Church, as expressed in documents which carry no legal weight.

We think that any bishop who tried to take legal action would be told that he would be likely to incur huge legal costs in trying to take action against a priest, and would have great difficulty proving a legal case. The potential for negative publicity and the risk of appearing to be foolish applies here as well.

The risk you are left with is the ability of your bishop to punish you by removing your licence, refusing to offer you another job when you wish to move, and the difficulty of gaining preferment, if that’s what you’re looking for in the future. To set against this, unless you created a lot of public attention or created what the bishops might describe as a scandal, other bishops will be happy to act as servants of the counter-revolution and offer you a job in another diocese.

 

Lay people wanting a blessing

 

Parallel with a service following a civil marriage

 

When you conduct a service in church following the remarriage of a divorced couple in a registry office, you use An Order for Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage.

The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships says “it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy” and “affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.”

In para 18, they add “…clergy need to have regard to the teaching of the church on sexual morality, celibacy, and the positive value of committed friendships in the Christian tradition. Where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.”

The House of Bishops are not prohibiting all forms of prayer in church for those who have entered into a Civil Partnership. Prayer and dedication are words not specifically prohibited by the House of Bishops’ statement.

We suggest that as Anglicans who are used to words meaning what we want them to mean, it is possible to hold a service in church following the registration of a Civil Partnership. Just be careful what you call it and what you bless during the service!

In the same way that the House of Bishops are not advised to ask direct questions about the sexual activities of their clergy, lesbian, gay or heterosexual, there is no need for clergy to enquire into the sexual activity of those asking for prayer in church, and indeed it would be inappropriate and intrusive to do so.

You may want to follow the example of Jeffrey Heskins, Vicar of St Luke’s Charlton, and involve your PCC and congregation in a process which incorporates the affirming of lesbian and gay relationships as part of parish policy. Jeff Heskins’ book Unheard Voices, is published by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd (ISBN: 0232524270). It is the story of the impact on the parish over several years of their policy of offering services of blessing for gay and lesbian couples.

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