The vote by the Church of England’s General Synod to extend pension rights beyond the legal minimum for civil partners has been welcomed by the Inclusive Church network and by campaigners working for equality and fair treatment.
The motion was carried by a clear majority in the Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity. The debate was characterised by a desire to show that the church can act justly and generously in support of those in civil partnerships, says Inclusive Church.
The move gives gay civil partners the same rights as heterosexual widows or widowers. Previously, partners of gay clergy were allowed benefits, but only in respect of service since 2005 when civil partnerships were first instituted by statute.
Gay and lesbian clergy are accepted by the Church on the condition they are celibate. Those in active same-sex relationships are still banned in theory, though there are known to be many of them and the Church stands accused of double standards on the issue.
The Inclusive Church chair, the Rev Canon Giles Goddard, commented afterwards: “This vote underlines Archbishop’s Rowan Williams’ earlier comments and clearly demonstrates that the Church of England is opposed to all forms of homophobia. I hope this will be the beginning of a new openness towards LGBT people in the church.”
However, like the important but under-reported decision of the major evangelical service agency, Faithworks, to support the government's Sexual Orientation Regulations (SoRs), yesterday's decision does not betoken moral agreement on homosexuality or its further acceptance in ministry by the Church as a whole.
Unelected bishops in the House of Lords also helped to defeat the Government in the House of Lords on the Equality Bill - a development welcomed by the Archbishop of Canterbury - and in particular an amendment sponsored by three other faith communities which would have reversed a ban against couples who wish their civil partnership to be marked by a religious token of commitment.
Nevertheless, the pensions move will have a significant impact on a number of people who would otherwise be exposed to living in severely reduced circumstances.
Simon Baynes, a lay member from St Albans, said he had been particularly struck by the case of Canon Jeffrey John, who had been forced to step down as Bishop of Reading - despite insisting his gay relationship was now celibate.
"If Jeffrey died, his partner of over 30 years would receive £3,370 per annum," Baynes pointed out. "But if, instead of being in a partnership for 30 years, Jeffrey had been married for just a few days before he died, his widow would receive £7,550 per annum."
The synod rejected a proposed amendment to the motion, which would have seen pensions extended to siblings who had devoted their lives to caring for a brother or sister who was a member of the clergy.
The proposer of the successful motion, the Rev Mark Bratton, said of the decision about pensions and civil partnerships: “This unexpected result will encourage those who have given their lives to supporting those in ministry that the church values their commitment and sacrifice.”
The motion declared: “That this Synod request the Archbishops’ Council and the Church of England Pensions Board to bring forward changes to the rules governing the clergy pension scheme in order to go beyond the requirements of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and provide pension benefits to be paid to the surviving civil partners of deceased clergy on the same basis as they are currently paid to surviving spouses.”