Conservative Evangelical leaders have charged the Church of England’s House of Bishops with hypocrisy, denouncing the 20 Dec 2012 announcement that gay clergy in civil partnerships, who remain celibate, may be appointed as bishops.
"A bishop known to be in a civil partnership could hardly be a focus of unity nor be a bishop for the whole church," the leaders of Anglican Mainstream said over the weekend, while the Archbishops of Uganda and Kenya have warned that appointment of a partnered gay bishop would be a grievous blow to the wider Anglican Communion.
“Our grief and sense of betrayal are beyond words,” Archbishop Stanley Ntagali of Uganda said on 7 January 2013.
In a press release summarizing the work of the December House of Bishops meeting, the Church of England announced on 20 Dec 2012 the bishops received an interim report from a committee chaired by Sir Joseph Pillings looking at the church’s pronouncements on human sexuality. Buried in the seventh paragraph of the press report, the bishops said that “pending the conclusion of]the Sir Joseph Pilling] group’s work next year the House does not intend to issue a further pastoral statement on civil partnerships. It confirmed that the requirements in the 2005 statement concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate.”
On 2 Jan 2013, Dr. Andrew Goddard, writing on the website of Anglican Mainstream questioned the bishops’ actions, noting this appeared to be a reversal of policy taken without consultation of the wider church. Two days later the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt. Rev. Graham James, speaking on behalf of the bishops, stated there had been no reversal of policy.
The bishops had received an interim report from the Pillings committee and a final report from a committee chaired by the Bishop of Sodor and Man that had been charged in 2011 with reviewing the issue of civil partnerships.
When the Sodor and Man committee was formed, Bishop James said, a moratorium on the appointment to the episcopate of clergy in gay civil partnerships had been imposed so as not to prejudice the outcome of the committee’s work. The moratorium had ended now that the committee had made its report.
He added the bishops believed it would be “unjust to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity with the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life and discipline. All candidates for the episcopate undergo a searching examination of personal and family circumstances, given the level of public scrutiny associated with being a bishop in the Church of England. But these, along with the candidate’s suitability for any particular role for which he is being considered, are for those responsible for the selection process to consider in each case,” Bishop James said.
A spokesman for the Church of England told Anglican Ink the decision to end the moratorium was not a reversal of policy, but an extension of the policy adopted in 2005 for the ordination of deacons and priests to now include episcopal appointments.
Liberal activists welcomed the announcement, seeing in the end of the moratorium a step forward towards the full inclusion of gays and lesbians into the life of the Church of England. The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement’s chief executive the Rev Sharon Ferguson noted that “removing the ban on bishops in civil partnerships is a positive measure but we must now see it come to fruition.”
However Dr. Philip Giddings and Canon Chris Sugden of Anglican Mainstream argued a “decision to move from the current position would be a grave departure from the Church's doctrine and discipline it should be made by Bishops in Synod not by Bishops alone."
The “ambiguous nature of civil partnerships,” they argued, would cause further confusion about church teaching. “Most people assume that civil partnerships are sexual relationships. It is casuistical to claim that they are not.”
The Ven. Michael Lawson, chairman of the Church of England Evangelical Council added that it was well known that “some bishops” turned a blind eye towards their gay clergy and did not inquire too closely into their sexual lives. The Church of England “has a poor record already” in upholding the “requirement of celibacy” amongst its clergy, he warned.
“At the very least” the announcement will “spread confusion and at worst will be taken as an effort to conform to the spirit of the age,” Archdeacon Lawson said.
However, commentator the Rev. Peter Ould has argued that liberals and conservatives have been too quick in responding to the announcement.
The “problem” with civil partnerships and the clergy has not been “clergy not being truthful, it’s bishops who haven’t asked them to be truthful,” he said. Evangelicals would be better served by concentrating “on those responsible for enforcing discipline and Biblical pastoral care rather than those caught in the cross-fire over this issue," he said.
But to the African church, the decision was a violation of the 1998 Lambeth Conference statement on human sexuality and mere sophistry. Archbishop Ntagali said the announcement was “very discouraging.”
The distinction between chaste and sexually active gay partnerships appeared false to African eyes. “The recent decision of the House of Bishops to allow clergy in civil partnerships to be eligible to become Bishops is really no different from allowing gay Bishops. This decision violates our Biblical faith and agreements within the Anglican Communion.”
He added that “when the American Church made this decision in 2003 it tore the fabric of the Anglican Communion at its deepest level.” The decision to permit partnered gay clergy to serve as bishops “only makes the brokenness of the Communion worse and is particularly disheartening coming from the Mother Church.”
The Archbishop of Kenya, Dr. Eliud Wabukala concurred, saying the announcement “will create further confusion about Anglican moral teaching and make restoring unity to the Communion an even greater challenge.”
The “proviso” that clergy in civil partnerships remain celibate is “clearly unworkable. It is common knowledge that active homosexuality on the part of Church of England clergy is invariably overlooked and in such circumstances it is very difficult to imagine anyone being brought to book,” the archbishop said on 6 Jan.
However, “the heart of the matter is not enforceability, but that bishops have a particular responsibility to be examples of godly living,” he argued. “It cannot be right that they are able to enter into legally recognised relationships which institutionalise and condone behaviour that is completely contrary to the clear and historic teaching of Scripture” and the teaching of the church.
“The weight of this moral teaching cannot be supported by a flimsy proviso,” Archbishop Wabukala said.