Friday, September 29, 2006

The Bishop of London on Civil Partnerships

The Bishop of London has written to a number of churches in his Diocese about Civil Partnerships.

Dear xxx

I appreciate your concern about the statement on Civil Partnerships and am glad to reflect with you on some of the issues raised by your letter.

The Church of England has not always been clear about the relative weight and authority of the documents it produces and the contexts in which they should be construed. Under the leadership of the present Archbishop I believe that we should be able to clarify the situation.

Our ultimate authority is of course the Word made flesh as he is “uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures”. We read the scriptures in company with the church throughout the ages and most particularly we attend to the witness of the undivided church, distilled in the catholic creeds.

This inheritance of faith is expressed in our liturgy. The Book of Common Prayer as you know is so intimately related to scripture that you could almost describe it as a biblical mosaic.

Canon Law also flows from this inheritance of faith and solemnly declares the mind of the church, not least in relation to the way in which the church is ordered and discipline is applied.

From time to time controversies arise which are resolved by the promulgation of Articles of Faith. The Church has regarded the XXXIX Articles for example not as the last word in a systematic theology but as a Spirit filled and authoritative response to the context in which they were composed.

These weighty pronouncements are followed by formal resolutions adopted by General Synod. The 1987 Synod motions are the most recent and most authoritative statements in the area which concerns us.

Lambeth resolutions have a considerable moral authority but they are strictly advisory in the polity of the Anglican Communion as we actually have it.

There is another set of statements which arise in the context of our formal ecumenical relations. Again such statements only become authoritative when received and ratified by General Synod.

At last we arrive at the glosses on these authoritative statements including documents like the House of Bishops paper “Issues in Human Sexuality” and the recent “Pastoral Statement”.

The Statement was of course drafted at a time when the Government was officially giving assurances that they did not intend to introduce same sex marriage by another name. I would have been more convinced by this argument if the legislation had embraced those who suffer from the injustice that, despite their commitment over many years to a particular relationship of care, perhaps for a parent or a sibling, they are excluded from the legal and financial privileges attaching to other committed relationships.

Subsequently the situation has changed and Government spokespersons have undermined the official line and one minister has even erroneously suggested that the legislation permits the dissolution of a civil partnership on the basis of non-consummation. This is untrue but it has of course further clouded the picture.

That said, the Pastoral Statement contains valuable material which I hope you have discussed with the community at _______. Paragraphs 1-7 in particular are a helpful summary of recent church teaching on the subject. I must say that I was influenced in my own attitude to the statement by the opposition of those who saw it as an excessively conservative presentation of the teaching of the church. The points subsequently raised about paragraph 23 in particular were not made at the time.

Editorial addition: 23.The House 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. Issues in Human Sexuality made it clear that, while the same standards apply to all, the Church did not want to exclude from its fellowship those lay people of gay or lesbian orientation who, in conscience, were unable to accept that a life of sexual abstinence was required of them and instead chose to enter into a faithful, committed relationship.

My own position stated over and over again is unequivocal and I believe fully in accord with the hierarchy of authoritative teaching which I have described above.

The first time in Holy Scripture when God declares that something is “not good” is the spectacle of a human being living alone. Human beings were not created for isolation and the Church has always taught that we should honour life in community and that our identity as Christians is derived from our life together in Christ. Friendship has been blessed by Christ himself who calls us friends in St John’s Gospel but sexual relations are to be channelled through the exclusive lifelong union of a man and a woman. The Book of Common Prayer, in the preface to the Marriage Service and in the vows provided for bride and groom, expounds the teaching of the Church in its classic form. Within the bond of marriage sexual relations can express a depth of mutual love and commitment which establishes the optimum conditions for procreation and the nurture of our next generation.

I know that one controversial point has been the suggestion that “Issues in Human Sexuality” set up one moral standard for the laity and another for the clergy. This is clearly an incoherent position which is demeaning to the laity. The same standards apply to all but it is true that the clergy are called to be “exemplary” in the sense which is set out in the Pastoral Epistles and especially in 1 Timothy. The discipline which follows from the call to an “exemplary ministry” is necessarily distinct.

Since its publication I have found the St Andrew’s Day Statement in which Professor Oliver O’Donovan’s hand is so obvious, to be a good summary of orthodox teaching. I hope this important contribution to the debate is well known at ______ and I cannot do better than to quote it:

The Church “ assists all its members to a life of faithful witness in chastity and holiness, recognising two forms or vocations in which that life can be lived: marriage and singleness - Gen II:24; Matt XIX: 4-6; I Cor. VII passim. There is no place for the Church to confer legitimacy upon alternatives to these.

Pastoral care however needs a certain flexibility taking note of the circumstances which make each individual case different from every other and discerning ways in which the Gospel touches people in different situations. The Church then will give constant encouragement in following Christ not only to those who conform to one of these two vocations but to all who seriously intend discipleship in fellowship with the body of the church.” I do hope that if you have not already done so you will make the St Andrew’s Day Statement available for study in your church.

All are welcome but this cannot mean that there should be no guidance or discipline for the sake of fellowship. The Baptismal liturgy itself makes a specific demand for repentance. It should be possible to set out the church’s teaching clearly and to guide those for whom we have pastoral care into the ways of holiness and compassion without setting ourselves up as their judges.

I am wary of making further negative statements on the pastoral letter for a number of reasons. There is much that is sound and good in the document. It is vital to read it in context and in conformity with the hierarchy of other more authoritative statements and to avoid giving it an undue symbolic significance which it cannot bear. At the same time to suggest a greater disunity among bishops than really exists is to play into the hands of those who are seeking a radical revision of orthodox teaching.

I conclude with the wise words of the St Andrew’s Day Statement , “that the issue should have become so highly dramatised calls for repentance on the part of all members of the church.” That was written in 1995 and the situation has become even more highly dramatised and politicised since then. My hope and prayer for the Diocese of London is that we may attend to the “weightier matters of the law” and be conspicuously a community of hope and love attractive to all our neighbours. I am sure from my knowledge of__________ that this is your hope and prayer also.

With thanks for our partnership in the Gospel

The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Richard Chartres DD FSA


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