Fifteen months after Civil Partnerships became law, the first figures are out in the public domain. And we can answer the question: is the proportion of Church of England clergy in a CP higher or lower than that of the English population at large? After the tenor of the recent Synod debate, one might be surprised to learn that proportionally CPs are ten times more popular among CofE clergy than among the ordinary populace. Ten times. This is an impressive figure. And surprisingly encouraging.
That single clergy are taking advantage of the provision of the law to establish mutual support with a friend, in terms of pensions, inheritance tax, and so on, is a sign of care and responsibility. The 2004 Act says absolutely nothing explicitly about sexual activity in a civil partnership. There is no reason (other than interference by gay activists) for the church to be bothered about them one way or the other, so long as it maintains its adherence to scriptural teaching (for heterosexuals every bit as much as for homosexuals).
What the Act does instead is create a climate implicitly by the complexity of its provisions. It is this fundamental dishonesty that has been so consistently condemned by NEW DIRECTIONS. It is the government and not individuals who must receive the condemnation. Sadly too much of church discussion, in General Synod or among members of the House of Bishops, diverts attention towards the private life of individuals and thus colludes with the governments subterfuge.
A similar dishonesty with the Sexual Orientation Regulations also threatens the integrity of the church. There is no Christian foundation for discrimination against anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation, but this is not what these regulations are about. Without proper parliamentary debate, without a published Bill, without open consultation, a collection of implicitly dishonest regulations is being cobbled together by a Minister just in time to become the law of the land this month.
If tolerance is to be legislated out of existence, that is a serious step. In such a context, the present process of ill-thought-out fiat is utterly shabby and totally disgraceful. But we must remember that it is the government and not individuals who stand condemned.
As the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church began its meeting in Texas to discuss the Dar es Salaam Communique of the Primates of the Anglican Communion, it was revealed that Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori had accepted and
acted upon the advice of her Chancellor, to veto the election of the Revd Mark Lawrence as Bishop of South Carolina. The reason stated for this action – the first of its kind for over seventy years – was irregularity in the form of consents given, some of which had been received electronically and therefore without the signatures required by Canon.
Reaction to the veto has been predictably sharp. Fr Lawrence himself, in an interview for a Washington DC newspaper summed up the views of many: A curtain has been drawn back on the stage of the Episcopal Church,’ he said, ‘and everyone can now look into what I would call the theatre of the absurd – that those of us who uphold the trustworthiness of Scripture and the traditional teachings of the Church are repeatedly put in a position of having to justify our beliefs.’
In our view the course of action for the diocese of South Carolina is clear. They must re-elect Fr Lawrence and submit his name once again to the bishops and standing committees whose approval is required. One of the strongest arguments for the confirmation of the election of Gene Robinson to the diocese of New Hampshire was that the diocese had a right to the bishop it had chosen. If the polity of The Episcopal Church supports that argument (which effectively renders the process of gaining consents superfluous) then it must apply as well in South Carolina as in New Hampshire; as well for traditionalists as for revisionists.
Failure to confirm Fr Lawrence’s election a second time would surely be a significant moment for American Anglicanism. In the eyes of the Communion the determination of its liberal majority to persecute and outlaw those in disagreement with it would have been highlighted in a dramatic way. The House of Bishops has already rejected the proposals of the Primates for a Pastoral Council and Primatial Vicar to care for parishes and dioceses disaffected by prevailing attitudes on human sexuality – proposals which in essence originated in the American Church itself. To deny an orthodox diocese the right to the ministry of a bishop of its own choosing, sharing its own theological stance, would be to declare open war on all those who dissent from decisions of the General Convention.
The Episcopal Church is, in origins and constitution, a federation of dioceses, which are themselves federations of parishes. However unsatisfactory this maybe in terms of Catholic ecclesiology, it is an undeniable historical fact.
The Episcopal Church is much given to proclaiming its own graciousness’. It needs to demonstrate by its actions that those are not empty words.