Paul Perkin’s speech to General Synod on Civil Partnerships

Mar 2, 2007 by

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Members of Synod, the motion standing in my name is a single affirmation and request, but expresses four concerns to which I will speak at the outset of this debate

A The four Concerns

1. The first concern recognises the Civil Partnership Act’s desire to remedy injustice and remove discrimination – but regrets the expense of undermining marriage. Dr. Andrew Goddard of Oxford has drawn attention to “two indisputable facts: The Act radically alters family law and redefines family within UK law by allowing family ties to be established and widened by a means other than marriage. The Act redefines marriage in statute law by creating new legal impediments to marriage”. For example, entering a civil partnership creates bonds of affinity that may prevent other individuals from subsequently marrying due to the relationship established by a civil partnership. And an existing civil partnership is now a “just cause and impediment to marriage”. This is significant because the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement claims: “The new legislation makes no change to the law of the land in relation to marriage”. This is incorrect – and a serious flaw in its account.

More worrying still, the new legislation does necessitate a change to church law: Canon B31, recognising the new impediments, and Church Measures by Orders in Council, giving government ministers authority to add the phrase “or civil partners” wherever Measures refer to “spouse”. The statutory granting of authority to ministers to “amend, repeal or (as the case may be) revoke any church legislation’ represents an unprecedented surrender of the Church’s self-government, the right to define herself, if necessary, over and against the state. None of these amendments have been debated, let alone approved by Synod, whose government has been seriously undermined.

2. The second concern recognises the helpful reiteration in the Pastoral Statement of the church’s understanding of marriage. However, when it claims, “Civil partnerships are not a form of marriage”, with hindsight now it has clearly come to be recognised that civil partnership so mimics marriage in practice that it is inconsistent with Christian teaching. The initial Church of England response by the Archbishops’ Council to the legislation pointed this out in Sept 2003: “As they stand these proposals risk being seen as introducing a form of same-sex marriage with almost all of the same rights as marriage”. The House of Bishops, it seems, ignored the Archbishops’ Council’s warning.

There are at least six central ethical issues that render civil partnerships as at best unwise and perhaps an inappropriate way of life for a disciple of Christ: 1) They are exclusive to one person; 2) They are an impediment to marriage; 3) They create family ties; 4) They require the intention of a life-long bond with someone of the same sex; 5) They are viewed as same-sex marriages in wider society; 6) They at least imply a sexual relationship and suggest a bad witness, as for example an unmarried Christian man and an unmarried Christian woman living together, even if their relationship is chaste; so the reputation and witness of the church is at stake. The Pastoral Statement is unclear on all these vital points, and leaves pastoral guidance confused.

3. The third concern focuses on the bishops’ responsibility to ensure their clergy adhere to the church’s teaching. This is, according to the Nov.1987 General Synod motion still in force, that “homosexual genital acts… are to be met by a call to repentance”, and that “holiness of life is particularly required of Christian leaders”; it is according to the Dec.1991 House of Bishops report, that “the clergy cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships”; and it is, in the wider Anglican Communion, according to 1998 Lambeth 1.10, which rejects “legitimising or blessing of same sex unions, or ordaining those involved in same gender unions”.

All this the House of Bishops affirms, but it has made a rod for its own back. There is no clear statement as to how assurances are to be sought, or what is to happen if they are not forthcoming. It has been suggested that it is debatable whether the pastoral guidelines could have provided clear means to ensure its teaching was enforced – however, this should have been foreseen and addressed. As it stands, the bishops are left with the responsibility of clergy discipline. However, as the confidentiality of the confessional and the cumbersome unworkability of the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure may both irreparably hamper them, they are unable to do anything about it.

Moreover, the acceptance in principle of civil partnerships, albeit with certain unrealistic attempts at assurances, makes it much more uncertain as to the outcome of any legal challenge, appealing to Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, to the implementation of discipline if those assurances are not given. It has been claimed that had the Church of England not acknowledged civil partnerships in principle, we might have been open to legal challenge. Even if we had been, so what? We could have appealed to Article 13 which allows religious exemption on grounds of matters of faith, and the government would have accepted it. The Roman Catholic Church did not recognise civil partnerships, and have not been challenged. Even if the church were subject to legal challenge, since when was that an unthinkable option, in view of the enormously greater consequences for the church standing for truth against the state in other periods of history, and in most other parts of the world today?

4. The fourth concern focuses on the clergy’s pastoral responsibility at the local level. The Pastoral Statement is ambiguous. On the one hand it argues that “it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships”, indeed that “clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership”. On the other hand, clergy are urged “to respond pastorally and sensitively” to requests for prayer in relation to entering a civil partnership. While the distinction between public services and private prayers is real and valid, some will be encouraged to take advantage of the ambiguity in order effectively to bless civil partnerships. Similarly, the House of Bishops “considers that lay people who have registered civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and communion”. Despite a possible quibble over the difference between ‘asking about the nature of the relationship’ and ‘asking for assurances about the nature of the relationship’ – after all, why would one be asking at all, if not to ask for assurances? – the key issue is: if this, as it appears, prevents the exercise of church discipline in such cases, then it does represent a significant and dubious shift in what has been understood for centuries to be the Church of England’s pastoral practice. How can the sacramental discipline demanded by Canon B16 with regard to holy communion, and Canon C24 with regard to confirmation, be exercised if the nature of relationships cannot be raised? Even Canon B22 on baptism insists on the appropriateness of delay and on the necessity of “godly godparents”, in the event of pastoral concerns, and for the purpose of necessary instruction. This too is set aside. Is any sacramental discipline left?

B The Affirmation

The affirmation is uncontroversial, but important: that bishops, clergy and other ministers be supported in exercising the pastoral ministry required by the scriptures and canons. It is simply a statement of the status quo. But it would be beneficial to the church to re-state the principle because of the lack of clarity about the pastoral discipline and practice.
It reflects the many representations received from worried parochial clergy trying to see how in good conscience they can fulfil their canonical duty in the light of the Civil Partnership Act and the House of Bishops statement. The uncertainties created for both clergy and bishops on the ground make a reasonable case for a careful review of where we are and where we need to go on this sensitive subject. It equally reflects the new situation we find ourselves in, as a consequence of the government now presenting civil partnership as marriage, thus undermining a key foundation of the House of Bishops’ position. The bishops were so concerned, and rightly, in trying to discern whether the goal they were attempting to save was coming left or right, that it was only with hindsight they turned round to discover that between leaving the penalty spot and hitting the back of the net the goal-posts had been moved.

C The Request

The Request is to the House of Bishops to reconsider and report back to enable synod and the wider church to debate the issues involved in a pastoral outworking of their initial guidance. We could have held this debate on what is arguably one of the most dramatic social changes in society in many decades as early as 2003 when the Archbishops’ Council first responded to the government on its proposals. In fact there has been no discussion in Synod, no formal debate in the wider church. It has been left to a private members motion nearly four years later to open that debate. I don’t call that ‘obsessed with sex’ – rather it is a decided coyness even to mention the word, to the point of evasiveness.

I resist the Bishop of Liverpool’s amendment as it so radically alters the tenor of my motion and abruptly closes the debate at last begun, that I consider it to be a wrecking amendment. Not a single phrase of the original motion remains, and perhaps many who would have voted one way on the motion as it stands would vote in reverse on the motion as amended by the Bishop of Liverpool. That is of course the intention of the amendment – not to amend, but to reverse. It becomes in effect the Liverpool motion. Moreover, it is as unclear as the bishops’ pastoral statement on which the original motion requests clarification. What does kept under review mean? Active addressing of the issues, or long grass? It is tempting to say, ‘let’s not talk any further about this’; indeed few of us would have chosen to open the discussion and, as the Archbishop told us, we are wondering how we reached this point; but I believe it would be more honest to allow the conversation to take place, and I encourage synod to vote against this amendment.

What has prompted this debate has been uncertainty over the House of Bishops’ Statement offering pastoral guidelines to clergy and laity in response to the Civil Partnership Act. However, these three perhaps unintended consequences now need to be reflected upon and reviewed with the benefit of hindsight, and in the light of the subsequent history. 1) The House of Bishops offered their Pastoral Guidelines to the church, but there has been no opportunity in the year and a half since then, to discuss their meaning or explore their consequences; 2) It has come to light, once the House of Bishops’ guidelines have filtered down through the bishops to individual dioceses, that the bishops themselves are offering variant interpretations and indeed differing advice to the clergy of their dioceses – the pastoral practice the clergy are being expected to follow has become a post-code lottery; 3) Reflection on the Pastoral Statement has thrown up certain ambiguities, and perhaps even inconsistencies, either within the statement itself or between the statement and other responsibilities laid upon the clergy.

Paul Perkin
28 February 2007

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