Tuesday 1 April 2014

Why the Bishops have got it wrong...

As the first same-sex marriages are conducted in England and Wales, much of the country is celebrating with the happy couples, but there are a significant group of LGB&T people who are being excluded from that joy by the Church of England.

Benny Hazlehurst critiques the Pastoral Guidance issued by the House of Bishops.

The Bishops’ Valentine’s Day guidance on same-sex marriage was a shock to the vast majority of LGB&T clergy in the Church of England.

While apparently being magnanimous to lay people who get married to someone of the same gender, offering ‘pastoral provision’ for informal prayers and full access to the sacraments,  the guidance also prohibited existing clergy in same-sex partnerships from getting married and said that it would not ordain anyone in a same-sex marriage.

At the stroke of a pen, it reintroduced a prohibition on marriage for some priests in the CofE, opened the gates to ecclesiastical guerrilla warfare in dioceses, and further distanced the House of Bishops from a substantial proportion of their clergy and people, not to mention the population at large.

There have been those in the church have said “What did you expect?” arguing that there was no other option available to the Bishops.  They argue that if the Church of England does not recognise same-sex marriage, then of course it can’t allow its clergy to enter into it. 

But as the first same-sex marriages take place, the implications of the Pastoral Guidance are looming large for both clergy and bishops as they realise the implications of this statement, and the land mines it has laid.

As I write this, I am mindful of that there is a variety of opinion in the church on same-sex marriage.  Accepting Evangelicals, of which I am a part, has called for prayerful reflection and theological discussion on the nature of marriage in the church before making pronouncements.  Nevertheless, whatever our individual views on marriage, the Pastoral Guidance issued by the Bishops is ill conceived and will not serve the church well in the months and years ahead.

1.       The re-introduction of marriage prohibition for some clergy.
It is 465 years since priests in the Church of England were last forbidden from entering into marriage.

As David Hope noted when he was Bishop of London, “The requirement for celibacy in the clergy was formally abolished in the Church of England in 1549.  Since that time… there is no requirement for celibacy even among single clergy within the Anglican Communion.”  That is, until now.

With same-sex marriage becoming a reality in England and Wales, clergy in same-sex partnerships like anyone else,  now have the opportunity to be married according to the law of the land.

The Bishops’ Guidance however is attempting to put a stop to that, stating “it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into same-sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives”.

This is then backed up with a thinly disguised threat of disciplinary action against clergy who might dare to rebel, by reminding them that at ordination they undertook to “accept and minister the discipline of this Church, and respect authority duly exercised within it”.  With the advent of the Clergy Discipline Measure of 2003 there is a clear avenue for potential action against clergy who break this prohibition.

Finally, just in case there might be any ambiguity, Tony Baldry MP (who is the Church of England’s spokesperson in the House of Commons) sent a very clear message this week when he said in Parliament, “The canons of the Church of England retain their legal status as part of the law of England and I would hope that no priest who has taken an oath of canonical obedience would wish to challenge canon law and the law of England.”

This requirement for LGB&T clergy is not only at odds with the Church’s own abolition of celibacy almost 500 years ago, it is also at odds with the way in which the Church of England has treated Civil Partnerships involving clergy.

Far from trying to enforce church discipline on clergy who have chosen to enter Civil Partnerships, the CofE has fully recognised both the reality of Civil Partnerships and the legal rights which they bring.  Since 2005, the recognition of pension rights for the Civil Partners of stipendiary clergy has been fully accepted by the Church of England and the House of Bishops has said that “it does not regard entering into Civil Partnerships as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders”.

So why is entering into same-sex marriage incompatible?

The answer, one can only assume, is because of the thorny issue of sex.  Civil Partnerships did not require sexual intimacy per sae, while traditionally, marriage does.  However the same-sex marriage act does not require or recognise the need for consummation of the marriage for same-sex couples either –so  the two are no different in their legal requirements for same-sex couples in relation to sex. 

So why do the House of Bishops treat one differently to the other?

Perhaps it is because the Church of England does not recognise same-sex marriage?   But if the church does not recognise it, then clergy who enter into it are not breaking church teaching, because you can’t break the rules by entering into something which church theology says does not exist!

Even if Equalities legislation has been amended to allow faith groups to determine their own rules on same-sex marriage, there is a clear inequality here.  For gay and lesbian clergy who want to marry their partner, selective celibacy in relation to marriage has been re-introduced into the Church of England’s discipline after discussion at just one meeting and behind closed doors.

2.       Pastoral insensitivity.
While the Bishops’ Guidance has made provision for clergy to ‘respond pastorally and sensitively’ to same-sex couples who come to them asking for a blessing, it seems little thought has been given to effect of that response on gay and lesbian clergy.  Clergy in same-sex relationships are much more likely than others to be approached by couples wanting a blessing or prayers for their marriage, and yet in placing a responsibility on clergy to respond pastorally and sensitively to these couples (ie have some kind of private ceremony to mark their marriage) the Bishops seem to have given little thought to the emotional price which LGBT clergy will pay in responding to that request.

Many lesbian and gay clergy have long experienced the pain of longing when they are asked to officiate at a wedding knowing that they could not enter into marriage.  Now when marriage is finally open to them (albeit in a Civil Ceremony rather than a church wedding) they have been forbidden from entering into it.  And yet they are being called to minister to and pray with others who have got married.

To most people this will sound unremittingly cruel.   Knowing that the law allows you to get married but that the church you are called to minister in is both denying you that right and requiring you to respond to others is both cruel and unjust.  For some it will feel akin to being a midwife who is prohibited by her employer from having children.

3.       The prohibition on ordination is tantamount to a process of same-sex cleansing.
Another clear and unequivocal statement of the Bishops is that those in a same-sex marriage will not be ordained.  I have already been told of one young person who was exploring ordination but has now withdrawn because he hopes to be married someday.

At present, there are estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,500 licensed LGB&T clergy in the Church of England.  It is a fair representation to say that some dioceses would collapse without their ministry.

Yet, it has been getting more and more difficult for LBG&T ordinands to get to ordination.  I was asked to talk with one such young man recently who said to me (with genuine fear) “But what do I say if they ask me?”

Now, however, the rule is quite clear when it comes to marriage, and the answer is ‘No’ even before you start the long process of vocational discernment.  The next generation of would-be ordinands will be growing up in a society where same-sex marriage is normal, and for those who are LGB&T, they are likely to aspire to marriage as naturally as anyone else.

From now on, however, they will know that the door is firmly locked and bolted to prevent them entering ministry in the church.  Faced with the choice of ordination or the potential married life, very few will choose ordination.

The Church of England is already experiencing a shortage of ordinands.  Not only will this policy reduce still further the numbers of people who want to explore a vocation to ordination, it also continues the process of reducing the ‘embarrassment’ created by having LGB&T clergy in their midst.  As time goes on LGB&T clergy will be ‘cleansed’ from the ranks of ordained ministry and the church will be the poorer for it.  Many of us will be able to think of the ministry of a gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender priest which has helped or inspired us, yet under these rules, many of them would not be even considered for ordination.

This ruling also flies in the face of the Church of England’s claim to welcome and value the ministry of LGB&T clergy.   While some on the conservative end of the church may rejoice in this, we will all feel the impact.

4.       Encouraging use of the Clergy Discipline Measure
According to the Church of England’s website, “The Clergy Discipline Measure… provides a structure for dealing efficiently and fairly with formal complaints of misconduct against members of the clergy.”

As a result of the Pastoral Guidance, some conservative groups are already sharpening their swords at last seeing the opportunity to force bishops to take action against LGB&T clergy – action which they believe is long overdue.  One group, EGGS (the Evangelical Group on the General Synod) has also called for the same rules to apply to those lay people who hold a Bishop’s licence or commission.

Bishops themselves appear to be increasingly frightened of the situation they have created for themselves.  I was told recently that while some bishops are saying “I don’t want any ‘martyrs’ in my diocese,” there are others who are considering their own position if a Clergy Discipline complaint is brought against them for not taking action against clergy who enter same-sex marriage.  As a result of the Pastoral Guidance both clergy and their bishops appear vulnerable to those who want to stir up trouble.

And yet it is the Guidance itself which has created this dilemma.  Linking words like ‘conduct’, ‘consequences’  and ‘discipline’ in the statement has given a green light to those who want to force a showdown.  It is far from the “distinctive and generous witness to Jesus Christ” which the Guidance says it seeks to model.

5.        Unwholesome contradiction.
Yet the saddest contradiction of the whole statement is to be found in paragraph 23 of the Guidance.
It says,
‘At ordination clergy make a declaration that they will endeavour to fashion their own life and that of their household 'according to the way of Christ' that they may be 'a pattern and example to Christ's people'. A requirement as to the manner of life of the clergy is also directly imposed on the clergy by Canon C 26, which says that 'at all times he shall be diligent to frame and fashion his life and that of his family according to the doctrine of Christ, and to make himself and them, as much as in him lies, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ.'

Given the rest of the Guidance which follows, this is clearly taken to mean that clergy in a same-sex marriage cannot be wholesome examples to the flock of Christ.

Furthermore, the acceptance of Civil Partnerships by the Church of England while at the same time prohibiting marriage strongly implies that the Bishops consider it to be a more wholesome example to your flock to be living with the person you love outside marriage, than within it!

In a society which often either dispenses with marriage as irrelevant, or enters into marriage without the commitment to make it work, how can it be that two people living together in a vicarage outside marriage is a more wholesome example than being married and demonstrating how to take wedding vows seriously?

Unfortunately, this kind of double-thinking betrays a deeper problem with the Pastoral Guidance.  Despite the quotation earlier in the Guidance from the 2005 Dromantine Communique which “affirmed the Anglican Communion’s opposition to any form of behaviour which ‘diminished’ homosexual people” the reality is that the House of Bishops has once again succeeded in ‘diminishing’ LGB&T people.

They have unwittingly joined in with the “diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of their own sex” (to quote the Dromantine statement) by failing to recognise the spiritual longing of those clergy who want to marry their same-sex partners and by devaluing their faith, love, and commitment.

They have said that it is a better example to be living together outside marriage than within it.  They have failed to value the contribution which LGB&T people make to church life and ministry by prohibiting clergy from same-sex marriage and excluding LGB&T ordinands, who would naturally yearn to be married, from any possibility of ordination.  And they have failed to see the emotional and spiritual price which they are asking their LGB&T clergy to pay for the sake of a church unity which does not exist.

This week, as same-sex couples celebrate their relationships in marriage for the first time in England and Wales, my prayer is that the Bishops who have approved this Guidance (as well as a rod for their own back) will quickly reconsider.

There is an alternative.

The Church of England, which only approved marriage in church after divorce in July 2002, also accepted before that date, that some of its clergy could enter into a second marriage at a Civil Ceremony, and have a thanksgiving in church, and remain in ministry.

If that could happen after marriage vows had been broken, why can’t clergy who have only just gained the right to be married for the first time be given that opportunity?

The Bishops have got it wrong – and it needs to be put right.


  1. Clearly argued - you've pointed out well the painful mess in which the C of E finds itself and in which we can't possibly persist much longer without further damage to people within and outside the church. I suppose all the Bishops really did was state the status quo in response to the Pilling Report - but so much more is needed including deeper theological reflection on the nature of marriage. Our understanding of marriage has always been changing over the centuries. I am so grateful for example that the law no longer considers me (as a woman) to be the property of my husband (father or other male relative or slave owner). I think one of the problems the C of E has is that open discussion of the issues surrounding LGB&T people have been ignored, discouraged or variously 'swept under the carpet' for centuries. I'm delighted that my Diocesan Bishop has stated that there will 'be no witch-hunts' in the diocese, but also troubled if this perpetuates the 'don't ask, don't tell' situation that has been the case across the country for so long. Congratulations on the brilliant work you are doing in your blog and 'Accepting Evangelicals'. Did you see the 2nd episode of series 2 of Rev? It painfully captured the dilemma that clergy are in.

  2. You know, the bishops are going to end up caving - perhaps not tomorrow, or next month, perhaps not next year, but they'll give in. Of course, they'll declare the change to be a victory for common sense and somehow (as usual) proclaim that they always thought that way and how could anyone have thought differently.

    And, of course, no one will believe them, and they will have taken yet another step toward irrelevancy.

    And they won't have "saved" the Communion (which didn't need saving, thank you very much).

    This is a classic mistake that many institutions make. They underestimate the power of the people in a democracy to force resistant leaders to change - or they walk away.

    But there those bishops are, manfully nailing their colors to the mast......of the Titanic.

    On another note....The Episcopal Church Welcomes You (no restrictions).

    Comfortably sitting on Whidbey Island WA and (with only a little regret) watching the demise of a church I loved and left.

    (The Rev.) Nigel Taber-Hamilton
    St. Augustine's in-the-Woods Episcopal Church
    Episcopal Diocese of Olympia

  3. An excellent analysis: thank you; and raises several similar points to those I made in my Open Letter to the House of Bishops on 1st March. Sadly, however, it seems that few members of the HoB are listening...

  4. Benny, I think this was your key point:

    "Given the rest of the Guidance which follows, this is clearly taken to mean that clergy in a same-sex marriage cannot be wholesome examples to the flock of Christ."

    Yes, this is precisely where we are at. This is the basic division in the church at the moment: can clergy in a same-sex marriage be wholesome examples to the flock of Christ. The official line remains a clear "no". It cannot be other than a "no" without a radical change to the Church's doctrinal position and formularies (as the Bishops' letter made clear). And this is why I think that the 'facilitated conversations' will get nowhere. Because it must be a "yes" or a "no" to this question. Those who think "yes", contrary to the clear position of their church, must either swallow their concerns and be obedient; or leave the church. Because the "yes" will never come. And I for one am proud that the Church of England has been so courageous in saying "no".

    1. Steve, you are right. This is precisely where we are at – but this is a place that is unjust, undermining of mission and, in the long term, untenable. We will need to move on from this place – hopefully to a new place where both lay people and clergy are allowed freedom of conscience on the issue of same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, we have a 'pastoral' position that threatens people with discipline if they wish to marry. This is demoralising not only to gay clergy, but also to the many supportive straight clergy and an increasing number of supportive lay people who already see the commitment-to-marriage in Christian civil partnerships. I’m afraid I’m hugely disappointed and disillusioned that the Church of England has been so self-serving (and short-sighted) in its decision to say “no”.

    2. Courageous, Steve? Pfffft! Utter tosh: this is moral cowardice by the House of Bishops — and it is the House of Bishops, not the Church of England, that has taken this flawed and hypocritical stance, sadly legitimised by a government that failed to think through the possible impact of it's "triple lock".

      No courage here, just fear, like that of those behind the so-called "Coalition for Marriage" with their blather about supposed consequences; and I have an epitaph for all of them:

      For fear of sailing off the edge of the world, they failed to put out to sea.

      They have a flat earth mentality and ultimately they have no faith in God, who is more than able to keep the Church from fatal compromise. They need to heed the words of Christ to his disciples when they were caught out in a storm: fear not, have faith in God!

      "Where will it all end?" they ask themselves. As I've said before elsewhere, it will end when we have circumnavigated the globe (not without adventure and danger along the way) and find ourselves back home, in safe harbour, with Jesus. He — not the House of Bishops — is the Lord of the Church, and he is able to keep his Church from falling.

    3. I am sick and tired of the unbiblical liberal bishops and their views on same sex marriage and of course Bennys also. Who cares what these people think they are merely men, the only voice on the subject is the Lords and He says that homosexuality is wrong and sinful. Old Testamnet and new. And yes I have heard all the foolish arguments from them claiming that scripture doesn't mean what it says. Esp. Lev. 18;22 which they claim is wrongly interpreted, out of date and doesn't apply, so by the same logic and reason verse 23 also doesn't apply either. So bring on the acceptance of bestiality. Woe to those who lead others astray as these men do - God is not mocked.

  5. I am particularly sorry about two aspects of this

    (1) the bishops have damaged their own authority by sabre rattling at clergy in a way that is legally questionable. If they really believed this was not a matter of doctrine and thus justiciable under CDM, they would have to instruct archdeacons to raise complaints (the same as we would for any other workplace misdemeanour). That in itself would be very strange behaviour when the bishops have stated throughout that they regard this as a doctrinal matter. So it seems to be a kind of Schrodinger's doctrinal matter. It is when you're talking to parliament and in your own internal papers. It isn't when you're prosecuting colleagues. This is a ridiculous position to put yourself in.

    (2) After 20 years of "listening" I would be much reassured by evidence that my colleagues had actually heard anything. Listening was made more difficult by moral cowardice and one-sidedness about the Anglican Communion. At some point in the past 30 years it would be good if bishops had taken seriously the theological case for change. We haven't. The remedy would be for the college of bishops to engage on an indaba level with the question, instead of having a hugely stage-managed day that misses the point and predetermines the outcome. If this were held under Quaker Meeting rules (you can only go as far as you can only go), it is possible the intelligence of the people in the room would be harnessed towards a genuine solution, rather than manipulated into a corner.

    1. More rubbish from the Bishop of Buckingham on same sex relationships. Frankly I am ashamed to admit that I belong to the C.O.E. these days. If the Bible is no longer considered to be the Word of God by them, then what on earth do these bishops and clerics preach, for if one passage is wrong and open to personal interpretation then so are they all and that leaves nothing but the cover. May I suggest that these heretics leave the Christian church and start their own cult where they can preach whatever they like, without deceiving true Christians. These false teachers have a lot to answer for, and they will be called to account one day. That's if the Bible is true of course and since they don't believe the Bible they won't be bothered by that thought will they. High time that the COE took stock and cleansed itself of these false teachers.

    2. Dear Anonymous - we do believe that the Bible is true but that we also need to take great care when reading it. Sadly many people over the centuries have taken parts of the Bible out of context to reinforce their own prejudices and oppress others. Perhaps you will find this video clip helpful in reconsidering your personal interpretation of Scripture... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1-ip47WYWc

  6. Hi I belong to the Scottish Episcopal Church and just wanted to say that while same sex marriage is not yet law in Scotland - its on its way - civil partnerships are blessed and we have many priests in same sex relationships and civil partnerships living with their partners in church rectories - including priests in civil partnerships - serving different churches but living together in same rectory. Not everyone may agree with this but we celebrate diversity and agree to differ.

  7. now that same sex marriage is now legal please tell me what are the grounds for divorce.