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.