Michael Nazir-Ali Bishop of Rochester has issued an Ad Clerum letter which is reproduced in full below the fold.
This was first reported on in the Church of England Newspaper (online yesterday, issue datelined Friday) by Jonathan Wynne-Jones in Civil partnership row erupts.
It is also reported today in The Times by Ruth Gledhill as Bishop attacks civil partnerships.
And in the Telegraph by Jonathan Petre and Jonathan Wynne-Jones as Gay weddings for priests ‘unbiblical’.
There has also been a Statement from Anglican Mainstream and the Church of England Evangelical Council and others in Support of Bishop Michael Nazir Ali’s Statement Ad Clerum. The signatories to this statement include Archbishop Peter Jensen, Sydney.
An Answer to some Questions about the Civil Partnership Act 2004
In recent weeks, I have been asked by more and more people, clergy and lay, about my views on the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 and the Church of England’s response to this by way of the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement but also in other ways.
It is widely recognised, on all sides, that people living together, for one reason or another, can face significant hardship and discrimination. For those in heterosexual relationships, one way to resolve these difficulties is to get married but this is not possible where the co-habitees are of the same-sex or closely related to one another. While some rights may belong to the married state in virtue of its nature, there are others, such as security of tenancy or rights of visitation, which need not be so restricted. The government’s proposals to remedy injustice and to remove unjust discrimination were, therefore, welcomed by many.
It was, however, the nature of the Civil Partnerships Bill, which was to become the Act, which has caused concern in several quarters. The Bill replicated for same-sex couples nearly all the provisions for marriage which are to be found in existing law. In particular, the prohibition on consanguinity reads very like the provision for marriage. Attempts in Parliament to widen the scope of the legislation so that siblings and other relatives living together might also benefit were fiercely resisted and were unacceptable to the government.
On the one hand, then, the Bill was portrayed as being about the removal of injustices and, on the other, as something as near to ‘marriage’ for same-sex couples as we could get. It has been noted that it is in its careful mimicking of marriage that the Bill can be said to undermine the distinctiveness and fundamental importance to society of the relationship of marriage. There is, then, at the very least, a studied ambiguity both in the text of the legislation and in the way it has been presented and promoted.
In such circumstances, what should have been the Church’s response? It was, I believe, open to the Church, in terms of the Human Rights Act, to derogate from the legislation on the grounds that its ambiguity was not consistent with fundamental Christian teaching on marriage. Also, it could have derogated on the grounds that the ‘marriage-like’ character of the Act would be unacceptable to a substantial number of its members.
In fact, the Church chose not to take either of these courses of action. Instead, first of all, it allowed the government to change church legislation by order so that the term ‘civil partner’ was added wherever the term the ‘spouse’ of a cleric occurred. Secondly, the House of Bishops was asked to agree to a statement prepared on its behalf by a group of bishops and others.
There is much in this statement that is good and entirely acceptable to a biblically-minded Christian. It reiterates basic Christian teaching on marriage and it sets out the Church’s position on issues of human sexuality by referring to authoritative resolutions or texts. It shows a proper pastoral concern for those facing difficult moral and spiritual dilemmas; so far so good. What then is the problem?
I have been somewhat uneasy about some of these actions and some aspects of this statement from the very beginning and have said so in the appropriate bodies and to appropriate people. I fear that the change in church law will have the effect of undermining that very teaching on marriage which the bishops are wishing to uphold and that it introduces another category of ‘partner’ covertly without any public or synodical discussion.
Secondly, inspite of the ambiguity in the legislation and the declared intention of the government, the House has been unable to say that civil partnerships entered into under this legislation would be inconsistent with Christian teaching. This is, and will continue to be, a recipe for confusion.
Thirdly, the Statement has given bishops the task of ensuring that clergy who enter into these partnerships adhere to church teaching in the area of sexuality without giving the bishops the clear means to do so. In the days to come, this step will both severely test the Church’s discipline and stretch pastoral relationships to breaking point.
Finally, by declaring that lay people who enter such partnerships should not be asked about the nature of their relationship, in the context of preparation for baptism and confirmation, as well as for the purposes of receiving Holy Communion, it has compromised pastoral discipline at the local level and pre-empted the relevant canons. In doing this, the House believes that it is adhering to the teaching in Issues in Human Sexuality. It interprets ‘not wanting to exclude from the fellowship of the Church’ as equivalent to there being no discipline in terms of access to the sacraments. Such an interpretation, however, flies in the face of clear biblical teaching and the unanimous practice of the Church down the ages. All are welcome, of course, but this does not mean there is no guidance and discipline for the sake of the fellowship.
The statement leans towards a ‘folk’ understanding of the sacraments as rites of passage rather than as an entry into states of holiness and of discipleship. Bishops have a particular responsibility for holiness and I cannot see how this aspect of the statement will promote it. It should be perfectly possible, without undue intrusion, to set out the Church’s faith clearly and to guide those for whom we have pastoral care with compassion and understanding as to the future course of their discipleship.
As before, I will continue to support clergy and other ministers who seek to bring the fullness of the faith to bear on the pastoral situations they encounter. I know they do this with the greatest sensitivity and care. It is part of their ministry and mine to ‘declare the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27) to the best of our ability and in complete reliance on the grace of God which has appeared with healing for all (Tit 2:11).
In Christ’s service