The Civil Partnership Act, which will allow same sex couples to register a civil partnership, will come into force at the end of this year. The House of Bishops of the Church of England has issued this statement on the subject.
The tone of the statement, and the speed with which it was issued, suggests that the bishops were fearful of the growing rift with some parts of the Anglican Communion about the issue of homosexual relationships.
Peter Selby, the Bishop of Worcester, has distanced himself from the statement, saying that a previous commitment to ‘listen to the experience of lesbian and gay people’ has not been honoured. He maintains that the new Civil Partnership Act should be regarded as ‘A source of delight, not fear’. He notes that although the General Synod in 1997 urged ‘deanery synods, clergy chapters and congregations to find time for prayerful study and reflection on the issues’ about homosexual relationships, in fact little discussion has taken place. We have been very shy of raising the issues at all.
Our local deanery synod and clergy chapter in Cambridge recently shared in some most fruitful discussions on the subject led by the vicar of St. Mark’s, the Revd Dr. Sam Wells. (He is now Dean of Chapel at Duke University) For many people this provided the first opportunity to discuss issues about homosexuality in a Christian context. For the clergy it opened the door to further preaching and discussion and this has been widely welcomed.
The Bishops, in making their statement, had been anxious to preserve what they saw as a world wide Anglican consensus on an issue which is proving divisive. But no worldwide consensus exists. Whilst in Europe the rights of homosexual people are increasingly defended by law, in many other parts of the world, notably in parts of Africa and South East Asia, the opposite situation prevails. We have a responsibility to work within the laws of our own nations as far as conscience allows. The Anglican Church does not make the law, either here, or in any other country.
In Britain the Civil Partnership Act could not have been passed unless those framing the law were convinced that what was being offered was right, good and proper. It has been done after listening to the experience of lesbian and gay people, and coming to an appreciation of their place in society. The government has clearly gone ahead of public opinion, but that is not unusual. All of society, not just homosexual people, has suffered in the past because people felt afraid to be open about their relationships. A dozen years ago even MPs were taunted just for being gay, and the Church remained silent and afraid to discuss the issue.
The Church is not being asked to allow such partnerships to be registered in church in the way that a marriage can be registered by a priest. However, these partnerships will be ‘legal, decent, honest, truthful’, to quote the line used by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Since heterosexual couples, dedicating the rest of their lives to each other, may do so with prayer in church, even if they are not married in church, then we might consider giving the same opportunity to same-sex couples.
We shall need time to appreciate the significance of the act. Some analogy with marriage has to be made, particularly in the way that the public declaration of a partnership means it should be respected by all. The partners promise to be faithful to each other, and society, represented by the witnesses, promises to respect the exclusivity of their relationship. Surely this ‘strengthens society’ as we affirm in the marriage service. More than this, as Peter Selby says, it should be ‘a source of delight’.
It is worth noting that he is not the only senior churchman to welcome the new legislation. When it came to the House of Lords eight of the Bishops who are members, Chelmsford, Manchester, Norwich, Oxford, Peterborough, St Albans, St Edmondsbury & Ipswich and Truro, took the trouble to be present and vote in favour of the measure.
It is encouraging that they felt able to do so. Perhaps the statement subsequently made by the Bishops was hasty. We might need to do some more listening, and see how the new act works out in practice.