Ad Clerum, December 2005

By the Bishop of Durham, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Tom Wright

12. xii. 05

Dear Friends

Warm greetings to you all on a chilly December day. I have been sparing with the Ad Clerum genre over the last two years, but I think it’s time to start making amends. And there is a pressing matter about which you need to know how things are shaping up.

Last week the Civil Partnerships Act came into force, and couples of the same sex are now able to apply to register as Partners, with various tax and inheritance benefits very similar to those applying to married couples. After a short waiting period, registrations will take place, beginning on December 21.

The government has insisted that this is not ‘gay marriage’. It is open to people who intend a long-term friendship and sharing of life with no romantic or sexual element. The church has always valued and celebrated friendship and personal commitment and loyalty, and it would be wrong to collude with the over-sexualisation of our society by supposing that all such friendships are ‘really’ sexual. That is why the House of Bishops, in the Guidelines issued last summer, agreed that it might well be acceptable for clergy to enter such partnerships.

However, the press and general public have already referred to this new institution as ‘gay marriage’ – which is hardly surprising, since the new law borrows heavily from existing marriage legislation (including, bizarrely, a ban on partnerships within the prohibited family degrees). The relevant minister has stated that refusal of sexual relations might constitute grounds for dissolution of a Civil Partnership. ‘Gay marriage’ is of course now explicitly on offer, in very similar legislation, in other parts of the world such as Canada and Spain. The media are already gearing up for the first ‘gay weddings’. Such notional distinction as there may be is entirely lost on most people.

The Church of England has not altered its stance on the underlying moral questions. There has not been a Synodical debate directly on the subject since 1987, when Synod clearly and unambiguously reaffirmed the biblical and traditional teaching of not only the Anglican Communion but almost all Christians worldwide, namely that sexual relations are to be celebrated within, and only within, the marriage of a man and a woman. This is not the kind of teaching which the Church of England could alter without reference to the rest of the Communion. Nor could a diocese, parish or individual change this stance without a major and wide-ranging synodical discussion. Whatever one’s views of the underlying issue, you simply can’t side-step the proper process in a matter as serious as this.

At the same time, as every pastor knows, there are many cases where people in various situations need, not a book of rules waved over their heads, but sensitive and wise pastoral care if they are to know the welcoming, healing and transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ. The House of Bishops is anxious, as I am, not to pre-empt the wise and prayerful pastoral discernment necessary to help those who seek the church’s support and guidance.

Because of the ambiguity of the Act and of public perception (and despite our reluctance because of our awareness of those pastoral situations), the House of Bishops was obliged to issue last summer’s Guidelines, in what for many today is a very confused area, to make it clear that the civil legislation, and the need for pastoral discernment in particular situations, can not and must not be used as the thin end of a wedge aimed at changing the long-standing and clearly-articulated position of the church. We all know that there are several different positions held, in good conscience, on the underlying questions, and we should be aware that we urgently need clear teaching and wise debate on the subject. We cannot simply say that this is all something to be left up to the individual or the parish. There are plenty of things which come into that category (flowers on the altar, different kinds of robes, and so on), but the church as a whole is clear that this is not one of those ‘things indifferent’. We can’t simply say that we must learn to ‘live with difference’ or ‘accept diversity’; a moment’s thought will reveal that the key question has to do with discerning which differences make a difference and which ones don’t. That point was near the heart of the Windsor Report, which both General Synod and the Primates strongly endorsed last February.

The House of Bishops’ Guidelines therefore said that:

It is likely that some who register civil partnerships will seek some recognition of their new situation and pastoral support by asking members of the clergy to provide a blessing for them in the context of an act of worship. The House believes that the practice of the Church of England needs to reflect the pastoral letter from the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Pentecost 2003 which said:

‘The question of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites’.

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.

It is no doubt possible to devise a service which isn’t, technically and legally, a ‘service of blessing’, but which is so in all but name, and which the wider world will see straightforwardly as a ‘gay wedding’. I am bound to say that I regard the creation of such services as exhibiting a serious lack of integrity. Equally, though the Bishops do not wish to legislate for what happens in private pastoral situations, the intent of the Guidelines (to avoid any appearance of sanctioning ‘gay weddings’) should not be flouted in spirit any more than in letter. I shall be very sorry if members of the clergy, by holding ‘services of blessing’ or near equivalent, force me to make disciplinary enquiries.

In addition, though as I said the House of Bishops does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders (because the wording of the Act means that civil partnerships may include some whose relationships are faithful to the Church’s teaching on sexual relationships), the Guidelines go on to say that

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 [which reaffirmed the church’s traditional teaching and stressed its application to clergy in particular].

Like most bishops, I have not up to now thought it my business to ask such questions of the clergy in my care. But if clergy decide to enter a Civil Partnership they are thereby putting me in a new situation in which my own integrity as diocesan bishop, and my collegial position within the House of Bishops, strongly suggest that I should follow the process thus recommended. This would not (as is sometimes suggested) be ‘intrusive’ or ‘invasive’, but the proper exercise of pastoral oversight. I fully understand that some people feel bound in conscience to disobey the clear and official teaching of the Church on these matters. I trust that the Diocese will respect my own conscience as its bishop, acting as its chief pastor and teacher of the faith (and as someone who has had to exercise international responsibilities in related matters), if with reluctance I am forced, by those who decide to go this route, to change my practice to meet the new situation.

Let me stress that this is not about being ‘pro-gay’ or ‘anti-gay’. It is about the due and proper process of living together as a Church and Communion. If people want to change the rules about this or anything else, there are ways of doing so. We have voted as a Communion and a Church to have women priests, to admit children to Communion before Confirmation, and so on. Change can and does happen. But it can’t happen by people creating ‘facts on the ground’, deliberately flouting the church’s well-known teaching, and then requiring that the teaching be adjusted to fit. As Archbishop Rowan has stressed, we are being called to grow up to a new maturity as a Church, and part of that is that we learn how to discuss contentious issues and live within a common discipline as we do so. Like all growth to maturity, this is difficult and demanding. My prayer is that we shall be given grace to meet this demand and, on the way, to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.

Please be assured of my prayers as together we move through Advent towards the light of God’s new day which has already begun to shine in Jesus. And please pray for me, for my colleagues in the House of Bishops and elsewhere, and for our whole church, that we and all Christian people may shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father.

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