Peter Ould writes: The Sunday Times yesterday highlighted a service that took place on Saturday at St Agnes’ Church in North Reddish, Manchester. This was a service of “blessing” (as described on the church website) for the same-sex marriage of the now former vicar, Clive Larsen, one of the trustees of Changing Attitude.
The piece in the Sunday Times had the following section.
[Larsen] celebrated his forthcoming marriage to his partner, known only as John, in a ceremony yesterday at St Agnes Church in North Reddish, Stockport, where until Friday he had been priest in charge. A notice on a church website, which was removed after the Sunday Time began making inquiries, read: “A ceremony of commitment and blessing … Clive will be resigning his post in the church from the day before.” The service included a blessing from a liturgy originally intended for civil partnerships, beginning: “God the giver of life, God the bearer of pain, God the maker of love, bless, preserve and keep you.” Larsen said he did not want to embarrass either the Church of England or David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester, by discussing the details of his departure but he authorised the Reverend Colin Coward, who conducted yesterday’s ceremony, to speak on his behalf.
It is a fact that such services take place up and down the length of England in Church of England churches every year, but this service is significant because of the high profile people involved. Until very recently Colin Coward was the national director of Changing Attitude and the service was attended by other trustees. The current director of Changing Attitude, Jeremy Timms, resigned his position as a Reader in York Diocese when he entered a same-sex marriage. In the light of these facts, the service had a political dimension to it.
Since the Bishop of Manchester was fully aware of the service, a number of questions arise that need answering.
(i) Did the Bishop of Manchester ask for a copy of the liturgy for the service? If yes, can he share it? If he did not ask for one, why not?
(ii) Was the Bishop of Manchester aware of who was going to conduct the service before it happened?
(iii) If the Rev Clive Larsen had resigned prior to the service taking place, who, in the view of the Bishop of Manchester, had legal responsibility for St Agnes after the resignation (legally known as “the sequesters”)? The Churchwardens and the Area Dean, or someone else? Specifically, in the light of the resignation of the Rev Clive Larsen on Friday, who on Saturday had legal responsibility for the service in St Agnes?
Harry Farley reports in Christian Today that:
A spokesperson for the diocese of Manchester said: “Clive does not have permission to officiate as a priest in the diocese, nor has he sought to apply for it.”
This raises another two questions for the Bishop of Manchester.
(iv) Given that the Rev Colin Coward conducted a service in Manchester without holding a licence or permission to officiate, what action does the Bishop of Manchester intend to take against him?
(v) Given that the sequesters of St Agnes allowed the Rev Colin Coward to conduct a service without ensuring that he had a licence or permission to officiate, what action does the Bishop of Manchester intend to take in this regard towards the sequesters?
Questions should also be asked of Nick Holtam, the Bishop of Salisbury.
(vi) Did the Bishop of Salisbury know, before the event, that the Rev Colin Coward was going to conduct this service in Manchester Diocese?
(vii) Does the Rev Colin Coward hold a licence or permission to officiate in Salisbury Diocese?
(viii) Now that the Bishop of Salisbury is aware of the apparently illegal service in Manchester Diocese that the Rev Colin Coward conducted without permission to officiate, what action does he intend to take against the Rev Colin Coward?
The particular political dynamics of this service mean that any failure by these two members of the House of Bishops to respond appropriately and in line with the official position of the Church of England and the pastoral guidance issued by the House of Bishops cannot be interpreted as anything but a deliberate decision to allow “facts on the ground” to over-rule due process and order. A failure by the Bishops of Manchester and Salisbury to deal robustly with this apparently illegal service, which was deliberately publicised by the participants as a challenge to the Bishops’ authority, would torpedo the good efforts of the Shared Conversations process in trying to build trust and confidence that the Church of England will handle this issue fairly as it moves forward in dealing with it.
It is now over to the Bishops of Manchester and Salisbury. Like it or not, these questions cannot be swept under the carpet because a failure to answer them will indicate that they are willing to let such direct challenges to their authority and to the Doctrine of the Church of England go completely unchallenged and unimpeded.
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