Gerry O’Brien was not happy with the House of Bishops’ statement on Civil Partnerships, viewing it as too subtle and convoluted by half. He preferred the more forthright response of Archbishop Akinola

At the end of July the House of Bishops issued a pastoral statement on Civil Partnerships. It had all the hallmarks of a carefully crafted essay, such as one might expect to emanate from the ivory towers of one’s alma mater. It seemed to accept at face value everything that was written in the Civil Partnerships Act. Its analysis and its arguments were impeccable, reasoned and generous. Who could possibly take exception to its gentle and pastoral tone?

There was just one shortcoming, if that is not too strong a word. The statement seemed to be blithely oblivious to the environment into which it was issued. Sadly the context was not an academic, ethical discussion in a theological college. It was a response to a duplicitous piece of government legislation which claimed not to be gay marriage, even though that is exactly what the man on the Clapham omnibus would easily recognize it to be.

Worse to come

It ignored another piece of legislation in the pipeline (the Gender Recognition Act) which will take the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ into the realms of Alice in Wonderland, where a word means what I want it to mean. It ignored present day society’s preoccupation with sex and touchingly believed that if two gentlemen share their home together and protest that their relationship is purely platonic, then of course it is. It might well be, but would the man on the Clapham omnibus believe them?

During the Lords debates several speeches were made by different bishops. They were, however, often found in opposing lobbies. This voting pattern reflected in part their different theological attitudes to gay relationships, and in part differing assessments of the significance of the proposed legislation.

Andrew Goddard produced an incisive critique of the Act on the Fulcrum website. He pointed out that traditional Christian teaching has been that we are called firstly to a state of singleness and chastity, and possibly then to the state of marriage. He asserted that there is no place for the church to confer legitimacy upon alternatives to these.

Not marriage as we know it

However, a civil partnership offers exactly such a possibility – a form of relationship which is an alternative to marriage, and one that precludes a participant from marriage.

It may be that many within the Church of England, and indeed within the House of Bishops, have not grasped the full reality of what is going on. If so, the Bishop of Winchester is not among them, as his article in the August edition of New Directions clearly demonstrated.

He saw all too clearly the links between the Civil Partnerships Act and the Gender Recognition Act. He shrewdly observed that ‘many (of us) are simply not equipped to withstand the prevailing attitudes around them. We are a church many of whose members, and indeed lay leaders, do not regularly and expectantly read Scripture.’

The House of Bishops have clearly tried to wrestle with the question of how a church should respond to secular legislation which impacts on the Christian understanding of marriage. They will have taken into account the implications of the Church of England being an established church, whose legislation is ultimately enacted by Parliament. They will be well aware that such a church cannot withhold from its members rights which Parliament has granted them.

They will understand exactly why the Civil Partnerships Act contains provisions (sections 255 and 259) enabling the Government to amend and even repeal other legislation in order to give full effect to the purposes of the Act. This includes even amending and repealing church law, the power in relation to which is exercised by statutory instrument approved by both Houses of Parliament. In fact, four Measures are to be amended so that references to spouses are changed to read ‘spouses or civil partners.’

On the other hand

Archbishop Peter Akinola, on the other hand, spoke for the man on the Clapham omnibus when he responded to the House of Bishops statement thus: ‘The language of the Civil Partnerships Act makes it plain that what is being proposed is same-sex marriage in everything but name. This is even acknowledged in the statement [10]. I find it incomprehensible therefore that the House of Bishops would not find open participation in such ‘marriages’ to be repugnant to Holy Scriptures and incompatible with Holy Orders.

‘The proposal that the bishops will extract a promise from clergy who register that there will be no sexual intimacy in these relationships is the height of hypocrisy. It is totally unworkable and it invites deception and ridicule. How on earth can this be honoured? For the Church of England to promote such a departure from historic teaching is outrageous.’

It is easy to criticize the Archbishop’s blunt approach and argue that he is not sufficiently familiar with the legislative framework within which the Church of England operates. Other Anglican provinces are simply not encumbered with the intimate relationship with the state that we have.

On the other hand his riposte has the unmistakeable hallmark of the little boy in the story of the emperor’s new clothes. He had no truck with the carefully fabricated web of deceit which the courtiers had spun around the emperor. His words articulated the unspoken thought that was on everybody’s mind. The emperor has no clothes on.

Tell it like it is

I gladly joined colleagues on the Church of England Evangelical Council in sending the Archbishop our thanks for his strong and vigorous statement. We expressed the hope that our House of Bishops might have the grace to rethink what they have said, once the implications and likely consequences of their statement have dawned on them.

I dare to hope that there will be many within the Church who will echo our sentiments, but whether or not that is so, Archbishop Peter is clear about what lies ahead. His view is that if the Church of England has chosen to follow America in this contentious issue, the choice before other Anglican provinces is clear: join them in their new religion or be proud to be different, fervently upholding the historic faith once delivered to the saints. ‘Our choice,’ he says, ‘in Nigeria and much of Africa and Asia is of course the latter. God be praised.’

The House of Bishops’ statement is too long to be reproduced here – it can be found on . It is not our intention to be unfair by selective quotation, but with the proviso that these are only highlights, below are some of the sections relevant to these two articles:

2. It has always been the position of the Church of England that marriage is a creation ordinance, a gift of God in creation and a means of his grace. Marriage, defined as a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman, is central to the stability and health of human society. It continues to provide the best context for the raising of children.

10. Many provisions in the new legislation are, however, similar to or identical with those in marriage law. In particular, couples may not register if they are under 16 (or under 18 and do not have parental consent), are within one of the prohibited degrees of relationship, or already have a civil partnership or are married.

14. In accordance with the preferences expressed by the Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops, the Government has included certain enabling provisions in the legislation. These enable the Government, with the consent of the Church, to amend any provisions in ecclesiastical legislation (for example in relation to pensions) that would fall foul of the new law.

17. One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the new legislation is that people in a variety of relationships will be eligible to register as civil partners, some living consistently with the teaching of the Church, others not. In these circumstances it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships. In addition, the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.

19. 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. The wording of the Act means that civil partnerships will be likely to include some whose relationships are faithful to the declared position of the Church on sexual relationships (see paragraphs 2–7).

20. The Church should not collude with the present assumptions of society that all close relationships necessarily include sexual activity. The House of Bishops considers it would be a matter of social injustice to exclude from ministry those who are faithful to the teaching of the Church, and who decide to register a civil partnership. There can be no grounds for terminating the ministry of those who are loyal to the discipline of the Church.

21. Nevertheless, it would be inconsistent with the teaching of the Church for the public character of the commitment expressed in a civil partnership to be regarded as of no consequence in relation to someone in – or seeking to enter – the ordained ministry. Partnerships will be widely seen as being predominantly between gay and lesbian people in sexually active relationships. Members of the clergy and candidates for ordination who decide to enter into partnerships must therefore expect to be asked for assurances that their relationship will be consistent with the teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality.