Bishops and Civil Partnerships II: Still More Questions Than Answers

Written by:
Friday, January 18th, 2013

Two weeks since the House of Bishops’ decision on civil partnerships finally hit the headlines, many questions (such as those raised in my earlier article, written before media interest in the story) remain unanswered. Some of the processes are, however, beginning to become clearer, though these in turn often provide more questions than answers. What follows attempts to map what has happened, read between the lines to highlight key questions that remain, and point to some of the contextual factors that may have shaped the decision. A further article may explore some of the lessons that need to be learned from what has undoubtedly been a presentational disaster, irrespective of one’s views on the decision itself. That disaster does not bode well for the handling of this contentious issue by the church’s leadership in the coming year.

The Path to the Decision

The House of Bishops announced a group to review the 2005 statement on civil partnerships in July 2011 and the identity of the three bishops serving on it was made public in December 2011 with the commitment that “the Group will start work in December and report to the House in time for the House to reach conclusions during 2012”. The Group asked for individuals and groups to offer comments on the 2005 statement by January 18th 2012 and highlighted that its terms of reference were such that they were working within the framework of the Church of England’s existing teaching on sexually active same-sex relationships which placed limits on the issues it could explore. A number of groups have published their submissions. The Group also met with representatives of a number of groups in early 2012.

Statements by the Group’s Chair, Robert Paterson, Bishop of Sodor and Man, and William Fittal, Secretary of General Synod, (to Colin Coward and to the Church Times) make clear that the group produced a 20 page report which was discussed at the House in May (no statement of decisions of that meeting appears to have been published) but left to be reconsidered in December. The report did make a proposal but both that proposal (which the Chair refused to divulge to the Church Times) and the report itself are confidential to the House although the Chair has declared he would be very happy for the Group’s report to be published. As I noted when the review was announced, there was never any commitment to publish the review by the end of 2012.

After May, the House of Bishops Standing Committee (apparently comprising the two Archbishops, Rochester, Dover, London, Coventry, Norwich and Gloucester, who is a member of the wider review group on sexuality) took over the review. It produced a shorter paper for the December meeting although the Review’s Chair had assumed the group would produce the final report. This may be the further paper which Archbishop Rowan asked to be circulated to the House or that may refer to yet another unpublished document, perhaps further legal advice.

The Decision

The initial announcement of the decision on December 20th began by noting the receipt of an interim report from Sir Joseph Pilling, the chair of the group undertaking a wider review of the Church of England’s approach to human sexuality but made no reference to any of these reports related to the Sodor and Man Review Group. It simply stated that “the House does not intend to issue a further pastoral statement on civil partnerships” and that the House had “confirmed that the requirements in the 2005 statement concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate”.

When The Church Times phoned Church House at the end of December to ask whether the Sodor and Man group was responsible for this and had finished its work and whether this was an announcement of a change of policy or teaching they apparently could not get an official answer, leading the reporter to ask Colin Coward.

A further announcement came on Friday January 4th, by Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, on behalf of the House of Bishop. This unleashed the media storm and negative reactions from across the Communion. The statement clarified that “following the work undertaken by the group chaired by the Bishop of Sodor and Man set up last year” the House had looked again at the question of whether clergy who entered civil partnerships should be considered for the episcopate, an issue not addressed in the 2005 statement. It then “confirmed that clergy in civil partnerships, and living in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality, can be considered as candidates for the episcopate” while noting that “there had been a moratorium on such candidates for the past year and a half while the working party completed its task”.

This statement also gave the rationale – “it would be unjust to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity with the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life and discipline” – and noted that “a searching examination of personal and family circumstances” always took place but was “for those responsible for the selection process to consider in each case”. The Bishop of Salisbury has since highlighted these requirements in a statement about the decision.

Reading between the Lines

It is clear that the Sodor and Man report – at twenty pages – was a substantial document which both made a proposal on this issue and “showed the working”. Its Chair has said that “It is fair to say that what came out at the end did not represent the fairly considerable amount of work by our group and the standing committee”.

Given its remit and commitments made to groups presenting evidence it is also likely to have addressed (and perhaps made proposals on) issues other than the eligibility of civil partnered clergy to be bishops. Changing Attitude notes, for example, the question of requirements for lay readers and there are also questions relating to whether the use of services of prayer and dedication after a civil partnership are permitted as they are distinct from blessings which are prohibited by the statement. These aspects of the report are, however, not being made public but fed into the wider Pilling Review which is due to report to the House at the end of 2013.

In relation to civil partnered bishops, the Church Times, in the context of reporting a conversation with the Chair, has made clear how the report set about addressing the question. It examined three questions:

  1. Should the moratorium be maintained or not?
  2. If not, should there be any additional requirements made of candidates for the episcopate that would not be made of those seeking a parish appointment?
  3. If so, what should those additional requirements be?

This suggests the three main possible outcomes considered by the Review Group were those I outlined when the review was announced:

There would appear to be broadly three options in relation to nomination of civil partnered clergy as bishops –

a. no further enquiry beyond that already made of them as clergy entering civil partnerships

b. additional enquiries and scrutiny above and beyond those applied to clergy

c. a total prohibition (as has been applied until the review reports).

The difficulty is that the House has answered the first question – the moratorium should not be maintained (i.e. it has rejected (c)) – but has not explicitly answered either of the subsequent two crucial questions which the report’s apparent structure set out as flowing from it. Given that the phrasing of the first question itself confirms that this represents a change from the existing situation there is a need for an explanation and for these further questions to be answered. This would be best done by issuing at least this part of the report so that “the working” can be shown.

There seem to be two main reasons – apart from the general culture of secrecy – why the House may not wish to make available the report’s line of thinking in addressing these questions. One is that it recommended additional requirements which have been agreed by the House but not announced (option (b) above). Another is that it has rejected the group’s proposal (meaning that the group sought to keep the moratorium or, more likely, recommended additional requirements – the outcomes sought by most conservatives) and hence publishing its workings would not actually help explain the final decision. There are signs that this may be the situation – the initial ignoring of the report in the December press release, the fact its report clearly did not win the instant support of the House in May and its work was then taken over by the Standing Committee, the failure of the Bishop of Norwich’s statement to claim the decision made is that proposed by the review group and the Chair’s unwillingness to divulge his group’s proposal.

Where are we now?

It seems, given the questions noted above, that the review group at least considered “additional requirements” on civil partnered clergy should the moratorium be lifted. What remains unclear is whether they or the House recommended these or not. It is also unclear if (as seems likely) the House has not, whether they are in any sense in place when it comes to episcopal appointments.

These additional criteria are most likely to be related to those listed in the Legal Office’s note on the Equality Act. This was issued in June 2011, before the moratorium on civil partnered bishops was in place. They related to criteria that could be considered in making a judgment as to whether a person in a civil partnership “can act as a focus for unity”. The legal advice stated that “relevant factors which can properly be taken into account include”:

  • whether the candidate had always complied with the Church’s teachings on same-sex sexual activity;
  • whether he was in a civil partnership;
  • whether he was in a continuing civil partnership with a person with whom he had had an earlier same-sex sexual relationship;
  • whether he had expressed repentance for any previous same-sex sexual activity; and
  • whether (and to what extent) the appointment of the candidate would cause division and disunity within the diocese in question, the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion.

The legal advice was not (as some thought) that these had to be considered and were requirements but that they could be and it was “a matter for each member of the CNC (or in the case of suffragan appointments, the diocesan bishop) to determine what weight to give to these matters” in considering whether a candidate could be a focus of unity.

It is now unclear what effect the House’s decision to lift the July moratorium has had on this situation. Assuming there are no additional unpublicised requirements such as the Review Group apparently considered, a number of options seem to be possible:

  • We have simply returned to the June 2011 legal advice position prior to the July moratorium and so, despite the December decision, being in a civil partnership can still be a factor to be considered, alongside the others listed here in regards to being a focus of unity
  • Being in a civil partnership can no longer be considered as relevant in any selection process given the House’s decision but other factors can, although they are not requirements
  • None of the factors listed here are now able to be applied to a candidate in a civil partnership but, in the words of the advice, it remains the case that “it is not open to a CNC or a bishop making a suffragan appointment to propose someone who is in a sexually active same-sex relationship”

Why this decision at this time?

A number of factors appear to have led to the situation and perhaps shaped the outcome:

  1. A belief that the House was committed to decide on this (but not other matters covered by the group) by December. The Chair has said, “something had to be said by the end of the year, because it had been promised” although in fact all that was promised when the review was announced was that the review would be completed by the end of 2012. Given the review has not been published and none of its other work has been announced this is not a sufficient explanation for making and announcing this decision now.
  2. Since the initial submission of the report in May, the church has taken a strong stand against same-sex marriage. Part of this has involved speaking more positively about civil partnerships in British society. In such a context to issue a report on civil partnerships which worked from existing Church of England teaching and would show (to some degree) that many Anglicans are unhappy with civil partnerships as quasi-marriages, or to maintain the moratorium or to add additional requirements on civil partnered clergy if they are to become bishops would all be difficult decisions to make. To announce the lifting of the moratorium might have been thought (despite the celibacy requirement) to be a sign of the church moving in a more affirming direction in relation to civil partnerships.
  3. The public opprobrium inflicted on the church in relation to the decision on women bishops would also make some bishops reticent about issuing any statement that would give ammunition to those arguing the church is out of touch with the nation.
  4. The need to address the issue of women bishops at some length meant that the House, on returning to the subject of civil partnerships after May’s discussion, had less time to consider it and its public presentation than it had originally planned. This perhaps explains some of the many failings in relation to the announcement.
  5. There are already four diocesan posts to be considered by CNC (Blackburn, Manchester, Durham, Bath and Wells) in 2013 with others in the pipeline, in addition to various suffragan and area vacancies. The continuation of the moratorium would prevent consideration of civil partnered clergy for any of these.
  6. There have been press reports for some time that the events in relation to Jeffrey John’s candidacy for Southwark could lead to a legal challenge. It may have been thought that the policy of a formal moratorium was less secure in law than the earlier legal advice in relation to civil partnerships and the Equality Act
  7. The decision was made in the context of an interim report from the Pilling Review Group but the Sodor and Man Review Group’s work presupposes the existing teaching and practice of the Church of England. It may have been thought better not to issue a report, revise the statement or make and explain a number of decisions if the basis for the review group’s work may be significantly revised within a year in the light of the wider review.

Conclusion

The House may have simply followed the Sodor and Man Review recommendations and put the Church back to where it was in June 2011 with the Equality Act advice but no formal policy of a moratorium. If so, then this minimum change needs to be clearly stated. In addition, given the bishops imposed a moratorium in order not to pre-empt the review’s work, there should be no problem in publishing at least those parts of the review’s work which “show the working” behind this decision and led to lifting the moratorium and making no additional requirements. It is however, possible that the Review’s proposal has been rejected by the House and/or we are not now back to where we were before the moratorium. If this is the case then the House needs to make clear what has happened and the details of the church’s new situation. In this scenario there is much more to explain to the church, including the wider Communion, and recent statements appealing to “natural justice” will not be sufficient.

January 18 2013 09:54 am | Articles