In the light of the debate within the Church of England about same-sex relationships as well as government laws related to discrimination in various contexts, the House of Bishops has decided to review the church’s policy on civil relationships and consider whether gay priests can be allowed to become bishops.
In a statement issued last Friday, the House said “there is a theological task to be done to clarify further our understanding of the nature and status of these partnerships,” even as it noted that it had been nearly six years since the church thought deeply over the issue.
The pastoral statement of 2005, which was made in the light of the U.K.’s Civil Partnership Act 2004, was the last time “when the House devoted substantial time to the issue of same sex relationships,” the statement said.
Several developments have taken place since then.
For instance, many among the clergy are now in civil partnership, the clergy pension scheme for the same-sex partner has been amended and, as per the U.K.’s Equality Act 2010, civil partnerships may be registered on religious premises where the relevant religious authority has consented, the statement titled Civil Partnerships and Human Sexuality: A Statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England, noted.
The 2010 legislation that also codifies and extends laws in relation to discrimination in various contexts including employment affects nominations and appointment of bishops as well. However, a note released by the legal office of the church on June 16 said that there was no statement “of the position of the Church of England that declares that a celibate person in a civil partnership cannot be considered for appointment as a bishop.”
Following this document, various reports had come out last month, claiming that the Church of England is on its way to allow openly gay clergy to be appointed as bishops, if they remain celibate.
However, a nearly two-year-long process of review will be followed before the church comes out with a comprehensive statement on the issue of homosexuality and the related ecclesiastical policy.
Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, said in the July 1 statement that the note by the legal office was analyzed and “the House acknowledges its responsibility to address the policy issue.”
He said that the exercise would focus on two new issues besides reviewing the 2005 statement: First, “the review will include examination of whether priests in civil partnerships should be eligible for appointment as bishops,” and second, to have a “wider look at the Church of England’s approach to same-sex relationships more generally in the light of the listening process launched by the Lambeth Conference in 1998.”
“The House’s decision is motivated by a desire to help shape the continuing debate constructively and not by any view about what the outcome should be.”
Meanwhile, priests in civil partnership will be barred from being appointed bishops until the review is over.
“To avoid pre-empting the outcome of the review the House has concluded that clergy in civil partnerships should not, at present, be nominated for Episcopal appointment,” said the Rt. Rev. James.
However, a liberal group, Accepting Evangelicals, condemned the temporary ban on gay clergy being nominated as bishops, The Guardian reported.
“While we welcome the announcement of a new initiative to think again about the church's teaching on same-sex relationships, we deplore the increasing discrimination against gay and lesbian clergy who have subjected themselves to the church's teaching and discipline,” said the Rev. Benny Hazlehurst, a member of the group.
"Clergy in civil partnerships in the Church of England have already made huge sacrifices to continue in ministry. They have to commit themselves to a non-sexual relationship and affirm that they will abide by the teaching of the church. As such there are no grounds on which they should be excluded from senior posts."
The gay clergy of the Church of England can enter civil partnerships if they remained celibate.
The House intends to complete the review by 2012 and by 2013 a broader consultation document will be prepared.