Affirming Catholics challenge C of E on same-sex unions
The Church of England's Bishops yesterday issued a delicately worded 'pastoral statement' on the implications of the Civil Partnerships Act, which comes into force on 5 December 2005 - giving legal recognition for the first time to lesbian and gay relationships.
But critics from all sides of the argument about Christianity and sexuality are already saying that it is a messy compromise and a missed opportunity. And one influential network in the Church, Affirming Catholicism, has vowed to equip clergy with prayers and resources to support same-sex couples
The House of Bishops' statement reaffirms the Church's traditional teaching on marriage and sex, but it also says that it "does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders", provided the person concerned is willing to assurance his or her bishop that "the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in [the earlier statement] Issues in Human Sexuality." This means that it must be non-sexual.
The new document notes approvingly that the new legislation makes no change to the law in relation to marriage and that the Government has stated that it has no intention of introducing same-sex marriage.
In what will be seen by some as a coy evasion, the bishops also say that the Act leaves "entirely open the nature of the commitment that members of a couple choose to make to each other when forming a civil partnership. In particular, it is not predicated on the intention to engage in a sexual relationship."
Nevertheless, they proclaim: "[I]t 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."
The Rev Richard Jenkins, Director of Affirming Catholicism, a progressive network within the Catholic wing of the Church of England, responded to the document by saying that "the Bishops have missed a terrific opportunity ¬ the statement reflects the Church's own politics instead of the good news of the Gospel."
He continued: "This was a chance to reach out to lesbian and gay people in a way which would reflect Jesus' care and affirmation. Instead the advice falls short of genuine pastoral care and reflects the contradictions at the heart of the Church¬s current position."
Affirming Catholicism says that acceptance of same-sex relationships is consistent with the Christian Gospel and that the time is right for the Church to develop its theology and practice so that faithful lesbian and gay Christians are fully welcomed into its life. The group's book 'Permanent, Faithful, Stable', written by Jeffrey John, Dean of St Alban's, the most senior openly gay priest in the Church of England, continues to be a top seller.
Dr John stepped down from an appointment to the bishopriReadingdaing some time ago, after massive pressure from conservatives in the Church.
"The issue is about honesty", declared Mr Jenkins. "The Church's teaching already states that 'the conscientious decision of those who enter into (same-sex) relationships must be respected.' The question many will ask is 'how are you going to demonstrate that respect?'"
Affirming Catholicism says it will seek to equip clergy with prayers and resources to support same-sex couples "whose relationships are already a blessing to those around them. It is deeply disappointing that the Church is not meeting that need itself."
The Rev Richard Kirker of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement bluntly described the bishops' statement as "unloving, unpastoral and unworkable."
At its annual conference in June, the Methodist Church in Great Britain decided to research guidelines for ministers on how to respond to requests to conduct prayers or services for blessing same-sex couples.