Bishop of Worcester supports gay civil partnerships

By staff writers
August 20, 2005

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Bishop of Worcester supports gay civil partnerships

-20/08/05

The Anglican Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Rev Dr Peter Selby, has affirmed civil partnerships as ìsigns of commitment and responsibilityî and has publicly distanced himself from what he calls the ìgrudging and fearful responseî of the Church of Englandís House of Bishops to the UK Civil Partnerships Act, which comes into force on 5 December 2005.

Dr Selby is the first senior Anglican bishop overtly to question the House of Bishops statement, which says that civil unions (including those between same-sex couples) are only acceptable if they are non-sexual, and instructs clergy not to provide services of blessing for those who register under the Act. It also seeks assurances, in the case of clergy, that existing episcopal guidelines, set out in the 1991 document Issues in Human Sexuality, are not being broken.

The message being sent out by the Bishops is one of suspicion, says Dr Selby, and ì[t]his will not only affect those who are gay, but will also lead many who are not gay and who choose to share their lives to refrain from exercising their rights under the Act, for fear of the interpretation that would be put on their doing so.î

Writing in this weekís Church Times, he declares that ìpastoral sensitivity runs up against the dominant force that drives the bishops' response to the social reality of the increased public recognition of lesbian and gay relationships, and to the availability of civil partnerships in particular: what they fear is that marriages, and the institution of marriage, are somehow threatened by this development.î

ìI find this fear difficult to understand,î says the Bishop of Worcester, ìsince nobody has ever been prepared to tell me that their own marriage was threatened by the public recognition of gay relationships. My experience of lesbian and gay friends in relation to my own marriage is only of support and insight. There is room, surely, for a much more hopeful response.î

Echoing elements of the 1995 Church of England report on family life, Something to Celebrate, Dr Selby believes that civil partnerships should be a matter ìnot of fear, but of delightî, since they reflect the fact that people for whom marriage is not possible or appropriate nevertheless wish avail themselves of ìas many of the aspects of the married stateî as they can.

Referring to lesbian and gay couples, Bishop Selby says: ìI am aware that the decisions of such Christians represent a challenge to our received understanding, and I am personally committed to continuing to sustain respectful conversation about the biblical and interpretative issues involved.î

Among Christians who have said that they will make use of the Civil Partnerships Act to register a same-sex union is Labour MP for Exeter Ben Bradshaw, who is a government minister.

The Act enables people of the same gender to order many of the practical and financial aspects of their partnership along lines that follow automatically for those who are married. In the House of Lords the Bishops of Chelmsford, Manchester, Norwich, Oxford, Peterborough, St Albans, St Edmondsbury & Ipswich and Truro voted in favour of the measure.

In an article also published on his diocesan website, the Bishop of Worcester says: ìI remember meeting two priests, one of whom was having to nurse the other in the final stages of an AIDS-related illness. Had it been possible for them at that time, I imagine they might have considered entering a civil partnership. Whether they did so or not, they (like many I have known since, in less distressing circumstances) certainly threatened nobody, and offered an enriching inspiration of what it means to be in relationship - for better, for worse.î

Dr Selby adds: ìI dare to hope that bishops will find better ways of relating to such couples than seeking assurances, and I believe many of us will.î He also questions the decision of the House of Bishops not to consult those likely to be affected by the Civil Partnerships Act in drawing up their response to it.

Bishop Selby has also been outspoken on issues such as prison reform, racism, war, global debt and civil rights. A noted theologian, he rejects accusations of liberalism, saying that a shift in church thinking on sexuality should come from reflection on the wider Christian and biblical tradition. His position is similar to that of Dr Rowan Williams at the time he became Archbishop of Canterbury.

The House of Bishopsí statement has received criticism from all sides of the sexuality debate. The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement called it "unloving, unpastoral and unworkable." Affirming Catholicism said that it would make a positive response to civil partnerships by offering liturgical and pastoral resources.

Meanwhile conservative groups opposing church recognition of gay relationships, like the C of E Evangelical Council, Reform and Anglican Mainstream, have said that it is too much of a compromise with ìworldly valuesî. Archbishop Peter Akinola from Nigeria has even suggested that the Church of England might be "disciplined" over it within the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The Anglican Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Rev Dr Peter Selby, has affirmed civil partnerships as 'signs of commitment and responsibility' and has publicly distanced himself from what he calls the 'grudging and fearful response' of the Church of England's House of Bishops to the UK Civil Partnerships Act, which comes into force on 5 December 2005.

Dr Selby is the first senior Anglican bishop overtly to question the House of Bishops statement, which says that civil unions (including those between same-sex couples) are only acceptable if they are non-sexual, and instructs clergy not to provide services of blessing for those who register under the Act. It also seeks assurances, in the case of clergy, that existing episcopal guidelines, set out in the 1991 document Issues in Human Sexuality, are not being broken.

The message being sent out by the Bishops is one of suspicion, says Dr Selby, and '[t]his will not only affect those who are gay, but will also lead many who are not gay and who choose to share their lives to refrain from exercising their rights under the Act, for fear of the interpretation that would be put on their doing so.'

Writing in this week's Church Times, he declares that 'pastoral sensitivity runs up against the dominant force that drives the bishops' response to the social reality of the increased public recognition of lesbian and gay relationships, and to the availability of civil partnerships in particular: what they fear is that marriages, and the institution of marriage, are somehow threatened by this development.'

'I find this fear difficult to understand,' says the Bishop of Worcester, 'since nobody has ever been prepared to tell me that their own marriage was threatened by the public recognition of gay relationships. My experience of lesbian and gay friends in relation to my own marriage is only of support and insight. There is room, surely, for a much more hopeful response.'

Echoing elements of the 1995 Church of England report on family life, Something to Celebrate, Dr Selby believes that civil partnerships should be a matter 'not of fear, but of delight', since they reflect the fact that people for whom marriage is not possible or appropriate nevertheless wish avail themselves of 'as many of the aspects of the married state' as they can.

Referring to lesbian and gay couples, Bishop Selby says: 'I am aware that the decisions of such Christians represent a challenge to our received understanding, and I am personally committed to continuing to sustain respectful conversation about the biblical and interpretative issues involved.'

Among Christians who have said that they will make use of the Civil Partnerships Act to register a same-sex union is Labour MP for Exeter Ben Bradshaw, who is a government minister.

The Act enables people of the same gender to order many of the practical and financial aspects of their partnership along lines that follow automatically for those who are married. In the House of Lords the Bishops of Chelmsford, Manchester, Norwich, Oxford, Peterborough, St Albans, St Edmondsbury & Ipswich and Truro voted in favour of the measure.

In an article also published on his diocesan website, the Bishop of Worcester says: 'I remember meeting two priests, one of whom was having to nurse the other in the final stages of an AIDS-related illness. Had it been possible for them at that time, I imagine they might have considered entering a civil partnership. Whether they did so or not, they (like many I have known since, in less distressing circumstances) certainly threatened nobody, and offered an enriching inspiration of what it means to be in relationship - for better, for worse.'

Dr Selby adds: 'I dare to hope that bishops will find better ways of relating to such couples than seeking assurances, and I believe many of us will.' He also questions the decision of the House of Bishops not to consult those likely to be affected by the Civil Partnerships Act in drawing up their response to it.

Bishop Selby has also been outspoken on issues such as prison reform, racism, war, global debt and civil rights. A noted theologian, he rejects accusations of liberalism, saying that a shift in church thinking on sexuality should come from reflection on the wider Christian and biblical tradition. His position is similar to that of Dr Rowan Williams at the time he became Archbishop of Canterbury.

The House of Bishops' statement has received criticism from all sides of the sexuality debate. The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement called it "unloving, unpastoral and unworkable." Affirming Catholicism said that it would make a positive response to civil partnerships by offering liturgical and pastoral resources.

Meanwhile conservative groups opposing church recognition of gay relationships, like the C of E Evangelical Council, Reform and Anglican Mainstream, have said that it is too much of a compromise with 'worldly values'. Archbishop Peter Akinola from Nigeria has even suggested that the Church of England might be "disciplined" over it within the worldwide Anglican Communion.

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