I have to confess to being slightly surprised at the recent Church of England announcement that the Bishop of Sodor and Man has been appointed to chair the review of Civil Partnerships.It’s not that there is anything wrong with Bishop Robert Paterson. I am sure that he is a fair and open person with a wealth of experience that can be brought to bear on the issues that the church needs to face.
My surprise came from the part of the UK where he serves as Bishop – The Isle of Man.The diocese of Sodor and Man is the smallest in the Church of England, covering the 28 parishes of this beautiful island in the Irish Sea. I first became aware of it when researching the implications of a proposed Clergy Discipline Measure on Doctrine. The measure would have enabled doctrinal complaints to be made against clergy and bishops, initiating a kind of Spanish Inquisition to investigate alleged doctrinal impurity! Under the terms of the proposed legislation, I discovered that a mere 10 people in the Isle of Man Synod could force a formal disciplinary investigation into the beliefs and practise of the Archbishop of Canterbury or York with all the ramifications that such formal proceedings entail! Thankfully, I was part of a group of clergy in General Synod who succeeded in getting the legislation thrown out, and to this day it has not returned.
But it is the reputation of the Isle of Man that raised my eyebrows when I learned that their Bishop would chair the review into Civil Partnerships, because historically, the Isle of Man is famous for 3 things – liberal tax laws, motorbike racing, and homophobia.Armed with its own parliament and legal system, it was the last part of the British Isles to de-criminalise same sex acts in 1992 – a full 25 years after the mainland. Its attitudes were so well known that actress Emma Thompson famously joked that it was a place that ‘stones gays’ – although she got it wrong and accused the Isle of Wight instead! When Civil Partnerships were introduced in the UK, the Isle of Man stood out against them, only changing its mind amidst much controversy in April of this year.
Then there are the jokes (which date from pre 1992) about homosexuality being illegal which is ironic when you can only get there by entering Douglas – jokes which are still repeated today. And finally there was a friend of mine who misheard when I said that the review of Civil Partnerships would be led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man – he thought I said the ‘Bishop of Sodomy’!So was this a wise choice on the part of the House of Bishops? Surely it would have been better to choose a bishop from a more neutral diocese, or at least one without the antigay reputation of the Isle of Man?
But then again, perhaps there is more than a little wisdom in this choice – after all, the Isle of Man has a lot in common with the Church of England.Both represent relatively small communities in the UK, enshrined in historic law, each with their own law making bodies. Both are instinctively conservative in outlook and slow to embrace change. Both have sections of their communities who would much prefer to pull up the drawbridge and keep themselves to themselves, rather than deal with the realities of a changing world.
And yet the Isle of Man has found a way to embrace change in the area of sexuality. Despite its history and the internal controversies which Civil Partnerships has brought, it has found a way to move forward and embrace new understandings and new ways of living. Despite its cultural instincts, it has and is making changes.Perhaps there is a parable here for the Church of England. Perhaps its leaders and its parliament can show the House of Bishops and the General Synod how to embrace a more open approach to people of all sexualities. Perhaps they can show us that when change comes, the sky does not fall in as a result.
So perhaps the Bishop of Sodor and Man is exactly the right person to chair the Church of England’s Civil Partnership review – and many same-sex couples in the Church of England will certainly be hoping he is.