Is the Bishops’ Policy on Civil Partnerships Sustainable?

The House of Bishops’ position on civil partnerships and same-sex sexual relationships is defined by three statements.

The first is Issues in Human Sexuality, published in 1991 as a ‘discussion document’. When it was published, it had very mixed reactions, and I remember very clearly our whole-college debate about it in the college chapel when I was in training. It makes slightly awkward reading now, not least in its frequent use of the term ‘homophile’ which has fallen out of use, but for me the main issue in terms of pastoral policy was the separation of expectations between laity and clergy. The report made clear that same-sex sexual relationships were not consonant with the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage and sexuality; that failure to conform to the Church’s teaching should not be a bar to communion and participation in the life of the Church; but that clergy were expected to live to a different standard as part of their calling ‘not only to preach but to live the Gospel’ (para 5.13). When first reading the report, I struggled with the idea that there should appear to be two standards of behaviour, one for lay people and one for clergy, but then came to the view that it was realistic, in this as in other areas, that the expectations of clergy should be exemplary in the way that threshold expectations for lay membership of the Church need not. This was not in fact presenting two standards, but two expectations in relation to a single standard.

On further reflection, though, whilst this might be a good principle in many areas, in this area it is difficult to see it might work in practice. To take what might be an analogous situation: suppose an unmarried other-sex couple come to church. Should they be refused full participation in the church’s life because they are not living in line with the Church’s teaching? It might be argued that, if they are coming from an unchurched culture, there is no reason to expect understanding of Christian teaching. But as they grow in maturity, we could expect that they will come to realise the issue, and ‘regularise’ their relationship by getting married. But what if a same-sex couple come to church? What could ‘regularising’ their relationship mean, in the light of current teaching, except in some sense to bring it to an end? I am not here arguing for the rights or wrongs of the current teaching position—but highlighting that the ‘two standard’ pattern in Issues has a basic incoherence to it, and one which makes for a real pastoral problem.

It is worth noting that Issues did envisage the possibility that same-sex attracted clergy might be in some sort of committed relationship with another person, even cohabiting, but that that relationship could be celibate (‘We believe that the great majority of such clergy are not in sexually active relationships’ 5.11). But many in the Church are deeply unhappy that what was presented as a ‘discussion document’ quickly became fixed policy, which even now is not expected to change during or after the current phase of debate. The 2017 Guidance to DDOs on preparing candidates for selection to ordination training notes this:

The House of Bishops’ Statement does not claim to be the last word on the subject, but it was commended by Synod for discussion and response by the Church. Nevertheless, it expresses the theological standpoint and pastoral practice of the House of Bishops and reflects the position on human sexuality of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion as a whole as stated in the General Synod motion of November 1987 and Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, augmented by Some Issues in Human Sexuality (GS Misc 722, 2003).

I think that the reason why Issues has become so fixed is that the following report, creatively named Some Issues in Human Sexuality, set out the options, but they were options that those seeking change in the Church did not like (and the report is not even linked on the C of E page on marriage and sexuality!). It was presented to Synod in 2003 (during my first stint as a member) and introduced by Richard Harries, then Bishop of Oxford, with an explanation that the Church does not believe in a three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition and reason, but is shaped by the single authority of Scripture, mediated to us interpretatively by tradition (the interpretation of previous generations) and reason (how we make sense of Scripture in our context). The report set out five possible options of making sense of Scriptural teaching, pointed out that these were mutually contradictory, and urged that the Church needed to settle its mind. It turned out that, in 2003, minds did not want to be settled.

The second statement from the House of Bishops came in 2005 when the Government introduced Civil Partnerships. This required a specific response, since Issues had set up the expectation that gay clergy might be in a committed but celibate relationship, and there was real ambiguity as to whether Civil Partnerships were envisaged by the Government as sexual quasi-marital relationships, or some other sort of committed legal arrangement. There was no explicit reference to the sexual nature of such a partnership and, in contrast to other-sex marriage, there could be no legal or practical definition of ‘consummation’ of such a relationship— but siblings were, controversially, prohibited from entering CPs. Andrew Goddard wrote a perceptive assessment of what was happening at the time in his Grove Ethics booklet Friends, Partners or Spouses? The Civil Partnership Act and Christian Witness. He notes this ambiguity and highlights the warning lights for Christian teaching.

The government could have made UK marriage law ‘gender-blind’ so that two people of the same sex could marry. Not only did they not follow this course, they have created a very few—but not insignificant—differences between civil partnership and marriage. In particular, there is no requirement that civil partners be in a sexual relationship although the presumption that a sexual relationship would exist between civil partners is probably the basis for applying the principles of consanguinity. There can be little doubt that most civil partnerships will be sexual and that civil partners will be generally viewed as in such a relationship.

In short, the government claims that although it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is not really a duck. A few details in relation to the creature’s plumage give technical justification to those experts who make this distinction and deny it is a duck. This means that care must be taken in simply insisting that it is a duck. Nevertheless, to the untrained eye—which includes most of the media and popular opinion—it remains a duck.

It becomes easy to see how this ambiguity presents very real practical problems for any policy which wants to make a hard and fast distinction between a (possibly celibate) Civil Partnership and a (sexually active) marriage relationship. In 2005 this problem was present, but not explicit, but that all changed with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, and subsequent recognition that CPs from 2005 could be retrospectively recognised as marriages, and could be legally converted from one to the other by simple registration. It seems as though the Government had intended to create a duck all the time. The problems with distinguishing the two in practice can be seen in examples like the rather marriage-like non-marriage between two Westcott ordinands last week, reported in the Sunday Times.

Whilst the Archbishops’ Council expressed real concerns about the advent of CPs, the House of Bishops’ 2005 statement has serious weaknesses in the way it simply carries through the logic of Issues without considering the impact of the new context. Goddard concludes:

The bishops note that in response to civil partnerships there has been ‘a range of reactions within the Church’ (26). Some have welcomed the remedying of injustice. Others are concerned about fresh anomalies and believe that civil partnerships ‘in practice—even though not in law—erode the unique position which marriage has previously occupied’ (26). This claim again reflects a failure by the bishops to recognize just how much—in law as well as in practice—the advent of civil partnerships clearly reconfigures the position of marriage and redefines the family, as the Church’s response to the initial consultation warned would happen.

As a result, although there is the strong and largely defensible claim that ‘the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged’ (27) the House of Bishops has failed to recognize the seriousness of the challenge presented to this teaching by the new legislation. It has also failed to present a clearly articulated distinctive and prophetic Christian witness in relation to society’s changing attitude to same-sex relationships.

The third major statement came from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York ‘on behalf of’ the House of Bishops in February 2014, and tried hard not to have itself ironically published on St Valentine’s Day. The main statement it quite short, but the longer appendix sets out in summary the Church’s position on marriage and sexuality, reiterating existing canon law and the marriage liturgy, and emphasising the distinctives drawn up in Issues.

24. The implications of this particular responsibility of clergy to teach and exemplify in their life the teachings of the Church have been explained as follows; ‘The Church is also bound to take care that the ideal is not misrepresented or obscured; and to this end the example of its ordained ministers is of crucial significance. This means that certain possibilities are not open to the clergy by comparison with the laity, something that in principle has always been accepted ‘(Issues in Human Sexuality, 1991, Section 5.13)…

27. The House is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry. In addition it considers that it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives.

28. The Church of England has a long tradition of tolerating conscientious dissent and of seeking to avoid drawing lines too firmly, not least when an issue is one where the people of God are seeking to discern the mind of Christ in a fast changing context. Neverthless at ordination clergy undertake to ‘accept and minister the discipline of this Church, and respect authority duly exercised within it.’ We urge all clergy to act consistently with that undertaking.

In the light of all this, it is fair to say that the House of Bishops’ current policy rests on three things:

  1. A clear distinction in law and practice between Civil Partnerships and marriage.
  2. A presumption of integrity of those who enter into Civil Partnerships, that they are indeed abiding by the teaching of the Church.
  3. A consistent application of this standard across the Church.

The loss of any one of these principles would undermine the coherence of current practice. But in fact each one of these is seriously compromised. On the first, the retrospective recognition of same-sex CPs as same-sex marriage erodes any sense of distinction; on the third, there is evidence that different dioceses do have different practices in relation to clergy, though the guidance to DDOs is clear. But what of the second?

Last month, Richard Peers published a forthright and honest reflection on this question. Richard is Diocesan Director of Education in Liverpool Diocese, having previously been both in parish ministry and a head teacher of a secondary school. Richard is a fascinating person—energetic, creative, and well read, and I have really enjoyed getting to know him over the last couple of years. He has attended the Tyndale NT Study Group for the last couple of years, as well as New Wine, and has written guests posts on this blog about his experiences. In his post, he begins with recounting some personal experience:

Late one evening four or five years ago, after a hospitable dinner, the twelve guests at a London clergy house began discussing some current development in the Church of England’s sexuality war. Quite quickly the question of obedience and how those present understood it became the topic of conversation. The twelve well represented possible applications of the infamous document Issues in Human Sexuality (IHS). Each of the couples included one ordained person and one lay. We were made up of one opposite and four same-sex (two male, two female) couples and two people, a man and a woman, who would describe themselves as friends, not a couple. One male gay couple present initiated the conversation when the non-ordained partner referred angrily to the requirement of him and his partner to refrain from sex. Their relationship had begun as a sexual one, and still was, but now, for reasons of obedience to IHS, they refrained from sex.

Of the other same sex couples present one had tried to refrain from sex, sometimes succeeding for several months at a time. One (lay) partner had suffered mental health issues and been offered medication as a result, as well as advice from his doctor to either “stop being so ridiculous” or get out of the relationship. The other same-sex couples regarded the requirement of IHS to be beyond ‘what is lawful and just’ and therefore not requiring obedience. There was general recognition of the collusion and obfuscation of this. The married, heterosexual couple present expressed their horror at being in such a church but also their own collusion by having to agree, at ordination, that they “understood” the church’s current teaching.

Soon, conversation moved on to what bishops, Directors of Ordinands, and archdeacons actually ask of candidates for ordination or new posts. The pattern seems to vary significantly across dioceses and individuals. IHS has to be “understood” in some places. “Do you understand and observe the requirements of …” in others. In some cases there had been intrusive questioning.

Richard then goes on to locate these ambiguities, inconsistencies and dishonesties in the context of theological reflection by the Catholic James Alison and communal vows of celibacy.

Sister Eileen Mary refers to the three vows of Religious, the “evangelical counsels”: Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, and how St Thérèse lived them as: Obedience and authenticity; Chastity and community; Poverty and ordinariness. Our current teaching on same-sex relationships fails each of these evangelical tests. By making liars of some (perhaps most) in the church we are perceived as inauthentic (“hypocritical”); by rejecting those who live chaste, faithful, sexual lives in same-sex relationships we are perceived as destroying community; by making such a big deal of sexuality we are perceived as labelling and magnifying an identity above the ordinariness of the very many LGBT people that everyone knows. There is no school where there are not LGBT people. This is heaven in ordinary. Young people know that we are not truth tellers in this area.

Richard is quite frank about the damage that he sees is being done by this dishonesty, and I think many who believe in the Church’s current teaching on the nature of marriage and sexuality can see this and agree with him in believing current practice to be harmful. Apart from anything else, it looks to many of us to be quite unrealistic: how can you expect someone to be cohabiting with someone that they are sexually attracted to, and expect that, in the privacy of their own home, that relationship would not become sexual? How is that possibly realistic? I can’t imagine the House of Bishops expecting that of an other-sex couple—though that might yet be tested by the opening of Civil Partnerships to other-sex couples in due course.

Amongst other things, Richard’s article raises for me three slightly awkward questions. The first is the personal one: I wonder what Richard is trying to tell me about himself? Is part of the article an oblique exercise in self-disclosure, much like Giles Goddard’s recent Via Media post, in which he comments:

I entered the priesthood shortly after ‘Issues’ was published but before it had morphed into policy. There was never any secret about my sexual orientation. I was fortunate to be in a widely known relationship when I was ordained both deacon and priest, and I was never required to give such a guarantee.  I’m bemused and surprised, but very relieved, that others have not been put off by the question.

The reason I don’t know is that I have never asked ‘intrusive personal questions’ of others, and in fact had no idea that Richard was either gay or partnered until this summer, when he used the plural ‘we’ in a Facebook post about a burglary. Though there are examples of the kind of dishonesty that Richard mentions amongst evangelicals, more often I think our ‘besetting sin’ is our naivety.

The second awkward question is what exactly Richard means when he says ‘As a Catholic Anglican the call of the universal church is strong, and our Catholicity is diminished when we are out of fellowship with other Christians.’ I would love to explore with him what this means in practice and in relation to the Church’s teaching in this area. I think there is ample evidence that the question of teaching on sexuality is a church-dividing issue; I cannot think of a single example of a denomination which has successfully managing to hold ‘two integrities’ on this issue, and there are obvious reasons why this is not the case. When push comes to shove, I think Richard will have to choose which matters more to him: catholicity or sexuality.

The third awkward question is around honesty and dishonesty. I completely agree with Richard, for practical, pastoral and theological reasons on the importance of honesty. I think I agree with him that the current policy is, if not inherently dishonest, at the very least opens the door to systematic dishonesty—though it is worth considering whether any policy which leans so heavily on a presumption of personal integrity is not similarly at fault. And I will have to take his word when he accuses bishops of knowing dishonesty in particular cases and in particular dioceses. But, given all this, where does the heart of the dishonesty lie, when people are prepared to make commitments for the sake of being ordained that they know either they are not keeping, or that they have no intention of keeping, or that in all likelihood they will not be able to keep? Collusion in dishonesty needs more that one party to be dishonest.

Finally, what then are the options for the House of Bishops? It seems to me there are only three possibilities. One would be to follow Richard’s suggestion, and accept and bless monogamous same-sex relationships. This might be what some hope the Pastoral Advisory Group would do, and it was also the hope behind the Hereford Diocesan Motion passed last year. But to do this would be to drive a coach and horses through any connection between pastoral practice and doctrine; it would short-circuit and so destroy all the other discussion; and I think it would face insuperable legal and liturgical obstacles because of its incoherence.

The second option would be to stay as we are. But, in the light of Richard’s comments, this would surely be a decision to collude with ongoing dishonesty and damage; it would continue to lack credibility; and it would be ever more vulnerable to the ‘guerrilla’ actions of flags flying on cathedrals, ‘rainbow eucharists’ and non-marriage marriages.

The third option would be to revisit Issues and the other teaching documents, be honest about the impossibility of the differentiations made, and stay with the current teaching on marriage and sexuality until after the whole process of Living in Love and Faith concludes. It would be to extend the prohibition for clergy of same-sex marriage to Civil Partnerships given that they are now being identified as marriage in all but name. Of course, that is likely to enrage those seeking change in the Church’s teaching. But, given that we cannot have our Civil Partnership cake and eat it, is there any other responsible way to respond to the real concerns that Richard raises?

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610 thoughts on “Is the Bishops’ Policy on Civil Partnerships Sustainable?”

  1. Is the Oxford Bishops action (Church Times Nov 2) a further contribution to this or, in truth, a bypassing of any discussion? Surely the trajectory is unsurprising, obvious and deliberate.

  2. On the Sunday programme (4/11/2018) there was an interview with someone who had been born with what was described as ‘ambiguous genitalia’ and had undergone various medical procedures from an early age.
    The other day someone pointed out that ‘gay’ could be a three latter mnemonic for ‘Good As You’.
    Both of these prompted a reflection of the doctrine of Original Sin and the Fall of Man.
    Did the Fall happen and what were the results of it?
    The Bible is clear that one result is that we all face the wrath and condemnation of God from birth onwards and we are all born with a nature inclined to evil.
    But did the Fall also affect the physical world, including the physical and psychological make-up of the bodies and minds and desires of all those ‘naturally ingendered of the offspring of Adam’, as Article 9 puts it?
    As I see it the right answer to this question is ‘Yes’. All such human beings have physically died or will physically die (apart from those who are alive when Christ returns). That is a physical result of the Fall and part of the condemnation (katakrima – includes punishment) of Adam’s sin imputed to his descendants (Romans 5:12-21) and implemented by banishment which denies access to the Tree of Life resulting in the ageing process that leads to physical death. (The Christian’s life is hid with Christ in God and that life never ends). In my view the physical and psychological results of the Fall also include birth abnormalities and same-sex attraction.
    In his Churchman Spring 2016 Editorial Professor Gerald Bray wrote:

    ‘We cannot say that homosexual orientation is the result of the fall any more than other human disorders are. When Jesus was confronted with the man who was born blind, he specifically stated that this handicap was not due to anybody’s sin, but was given so that the glory of God might be revealed. What this means is that God has chosen us in our weaknesses and has transformed us by his grace. We do not have to like the limitations that have been placed upon us-the Apostle Paul prayed three times that the thorn in his flesh might be removed. But God told that he must live with it and triumph over it, a lesson that applies to us all. Homosexuality is no different in this respect from alcoholism, gluttony or sloth. Those who struggle with it must be helped to overcome it, not allowed to indulge it on the ground that there is nothing they can do to change it. All of us have a thorn in the side that we have to deal with, and all of us have the promise of God that his grace is sufficient for us in our fight against it’.

    I comment on ‘We…to…revealed’:
    If homosexual attraction is a sin how can it not be a result of the Fall?
    Jesus’ reply points us to the glorification of God by the consummation of his great work of salvation when God ‘shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself’, which transformation is prefigured by Christ’s miracles of healing. Jesus is not giving a view on the results of the Fall.
    I heartily agree with the rest of the quote except to point out that alcoholism, gluttony and sloth are also sins. As a result of the Fall we all have besetting sins to fight against and overcome by God’s grace and many of us have physical abnormalities and disabilities to bear. Not ‘Good As You’ but, because of the Fall, ‘We are All as Bad as Each Other’

    Tom Schreiner’s otherwise favourable review of Bray’s ‘God is Love’ includes the following
    ‘If I understand Bray, he seems to argue that death and natural disasters would have taken place even if human beings hadn’t sinned (pp. 275, 385). But don’t Rom 8:18–25 and Gen 3 suggest that the created order fell when human beings sinned? And hence such natural disasters should be explained as a consequence of the fall.’

    I think Schreiner’s point could be extended to support my view expressed above on the results of the Fall.

    Because of the Fall we are all fundamentally in the same boat, whatever our less fundamental differences – our health or ill-health, sexual orientation, disabilities or lack of disabilities, birth defects or lack of birth defects. This is the terrible truth of the human condition.
    And, wonderfully, God and Christ sincerely and genuinely invite, command, exhort us all to embrace Christ in his atoning death and life-giving resurrection and submit to him in repentance, faith, love and obedience and thus to be delivered from God’s wrath and condemnation which is our greatest need, more important than all our other needs, harrowing though many of those are.

    Phil Almond

    • Philip
      If you think being fearfully and wonderfully made as an intersex person is a result of the Fall, I suggest, respectfully, that you re-examine your theology.

      • Penelope
        When professing Christians disagree about the truths and untruths of Christianity the way forward is for the strongest arguments for all sides and the strongest counter-arguments to be candidly debated on the web. I am willing to do this with you and anybody else who wants to join in (if Ian does not object) on this thread on the topic of what are the results of the Fall of Man – where do we disagree (wholly or with qualifications) and where do we agree (wholly or with qualifications). I have made my assertions in the previous post about what I believe those results are. If you want to have this debate perhaps you could say whether you agree or disagree with those assertions (excluding my assertion about intersex birth abnormalities which you have already said you don’t agree with, but including other non-sex related birth abnormalities).
        Phil Almond

  3. “I think there is ample evidence that the question of teaching on sexuality is a church-dividing issue; I cannot think of a single example of a denomination which has successfully managing to hold ‘two integrities’ on this issue, and there are obvious reasons why this is not the case.” I agree. After all the shared conversations and teaching documents and heated debates, the truth is that harmony on this issue will never be achieved. It’s a bit like Mrs May trying to keep everyone happy with her plans for Brexit; it can’t be done and it is unworkable but no-deal will be disastrous for everyone. However, I think that is where we are ultimately heading….a division of the Anglican Communion, of the Church of England and of other member churches. It will be very painful but necessary. I hope we will still be able to look at each other after it is all over and still see Christ in our neighbour with opposing views, recognising that what we hold in common is far greater than what we strongly disagree about, but I rather fear that even that will not happen. 🙁

    • John
      As I have said before (I think): I may be wrong, and would be humbled but glad to be proved wrong, but I think that there is a more fundamental disagreement among Church of England ordained persons: only a minority believe that we all face the wrath and condemnation of God from birth onwards and are committed to teach and preach that dreadful truth. If there is to be division it should not be on the sole grounds of the same-sex disagreement. But before such division is seriously considered those who do believe and preach that dreadful truth and warning should challenge all those who have made the Declaration of Assent to say whether they too believe and preach it.

      Phil Almond

  4. It is good to read all the different comments here.
    One last thought : Our Lord is a lover of justice, and it seems to me that the scales of justice are about balance.
    There has been negative discrimination against gay people*, and that was unjust.
    An extreme swing towards positive discrimination in favour of Pride, as demonstrated in the flag on the altar in Reading is, I believe, also unjust and unbalanced.
    I hope and pray that someone in a position of authority will be able to stand at the fulcrum of the rocking scales in the CofE , and begin to restore some balance.
    * I am aware that there is still severe discrimination against gay poeple in some parts of the world


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