Is the Bishops’ policy on civil partnerships sustainable?

Oct 9, 2018 by

By Ian Paul, Psephizo.

The House of Bishops’ position on civil partnerships and same-sex sexual relationships is defined by three statements.

The first is Issues in Human Sexuality, published in 1991 as a ‘discussion document’. When it was published, it had very mixed reactions, and I remember very clearly our whole-college debate about it in the college chapel when I was in training. It makes slightly awkward reading now, not least in its frequent use of the term ‘homophile’ which has fallen out of use, but for me the main issue in terms of pastoral policy was the separation of expectations between laity and clergy. The report made clear that same-sex sexual relationships were not consonant with the Church’s understanding of Christian marriage and sexuality; that failure to conform to the Church’s teaching should not be a bar to communion and participation in the life of the Church; but that clergy were expected to live to a different standard as part of their calling ‘not only to preach but to live the Gospel’ (para 5.13). When first reading the report, I struggled with the idea that there should appear to be two standards of behaviour, one for lay people and one for clergy, but then came to the view that it was realistic, in this as in other areas, that the expectations of clergy should be exemplary in the way that threshold expectations for lay membership of the Church need not. This was not in fact presenting two standards, but two expectations in relation to a single standard.

On further reflection, though, whilst this might be a good principle in many areas, in this area it is difficult to see it might work in practice. To take what might be an analogous situation: suppose an unmarried other-sex couple come to church. Should they be refused full participation in the church’s life because they are not living in line with the Church’s teaching? It might be argued that, if they are coming from an unchurched culture, there is no reason to expect understanding of Christian teaching. But as they grow in maturity, we could expect that they will come to realise the issue, and ‘regularise’ their relationship by getting married. But what if a same-sex couple come to church? What could ‘regularising’ their relationship mean, in the light of current teaching, except in some sense to bring it to an end? I am not here arguing for the rights or wrongs of the current teaching position—but highlighting that the ‘two standard’ pattern in Issues has a basic incoherence to it, and one which makes for a real pastoral problem.

Read here

See also: “I didn’t”: trainee priests deny getting married, by Nicholas Hellen, Sunday Times


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