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Bishops ignite firestorm over gay bishop ban: The Church of England Newspaper, January 13, 2013 p 7. January 10, 2013

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The House of Bishops has ended the moratorium that banned clergy in same-sex civil partnerships from being appointed as bishops. The announcement, buried in the seventh paragraph of a 20 Dec 2012 report, has sparked protests and praise from across the church and wider Anglican Communion – and handed the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate Justin Welby with his first international crisis eight weeks before he takes office.

A spokesman for the Church of England told CEN the announcement and subsequent clarification of 4 January 2013 was not a reversal of policy, as no changes had been made to the church’s underlying teachings on human sexuality or its standards of moral conduct expected of clergy.  But “given the moratorium imposed by the House in 2011, It would however be true to say that the moratorium has been lifted” on clergy in civil partnerships being appointed as bishops, he said.

However, the distinction drawn by the House of Bishops has been overwhelmed by the reactions from left and right. Liberal pressure groups have hailed the announcement as a step forward for gay rights within the Church of England, with one commentator stating the announcement paves the way for Dr. Jeffrey John to be appointed Bishop of Durham.

Conservatives are aghast by what they see as a unilateral reversal by the bishops of church policy, while the leader of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, Dr. Eliud Wabukala the Archbishop of Kenya, warned that the policy served to institutionalize hypocrisy in the Church of England.  The appointment of a partnered gay bishop, he warned, would devastate an already crippled Anglican Communion.

In 2011 the House of Bishops formed a working group led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man  to the review of the 2005 pastoral statement on Civil Partnerships.

At its 2011 launch, the Bishop of Norwich said this committee’s work “will include examination of whether priests in civil partnerships should be eligible for appointment as bishops. The 2005 statement was silent on this issue.”

While the committee was studying the issue the “House has concluded that clergy in civil partnerships should not, at present, be nominated for episcopal appointment.  The review will be completed in 2012.”

The bishops also formed a second committee chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling to revisit the church’s pronouncements on human sexuality. In their December announcement, the bishops said they head presentations from Sir Joseph’s committee — but were silent as to the progress of the Sodor and Man committee.

The bishops stated 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 22 Dec the gay pressure group Changing Attitude published an article on its website drawing attention to the announcement, and on 2 Jan Dr. Andrew Goddard, writing on the website of the Anglican Communion Institute, published an appreciation of the bishops’ statement and concluded their “decision is, therefore, a reversal not a confirmation of the existing policy” on civil partnerships.

Stories in the church and secular press soon followed leading to a statement of clarification issued by Bishop Graham James on behalf of the House of Bishops released late on 4 Jan.  Bishop James stated the bishops had heard reports from both committees and had lifted the moratorium as the Sodor and Man working party on Civil Partnerships had issued its report.

“The House 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 explained 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.

The Bishop of Carlisle said the bishops’ decision was a matter of justice. “The situation now is no different to the situation in 2005 which referred to clergy. What we’re saying for Bishops is exactly what we said for clergy.”

“It would seem wrong to set a different bar for Bishops than clergy,” said Bishop James Newcome on 5 Jan.

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement welcomed the announcement, but offered a different interpretation from the bishops. The LGCM’s chief executive the Rev Sharon Ferguson said the church’s “discrimination” against gay and lesbian clergy had “undermined the church’s credibility in sharing the good news of God’s love for all. Removing the ban on bishops in civil partnerships is a positive measure but we must now see it come to fruition.”

Guardian columnist, the Rev Giles Fraser also hailed the news of the announcement, telling The Sunday Times that in light of the relaxation of the ban, “Jeffery John would be the perfect person to be Bishop of Durham because he has all the right skills.’

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.”

“A bishop known to be in a civil partnership could hardly be a focus of unity nor be a bishop for the whole church,” they said, adding that “such an appointment would be a very divisive move both within the Church of England and in the wider Anglican Communion.”

Part of the problem was the “ambiguous nature of civil partnerships,” they argued. “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 stated the current system was not working.  “Some bishops are known to be lax about questioning civil-partnership clergy about their sex lives,” he said, noting the “church has a poor record already” in upholding the “requirement of celibacy and traditional teaching.”

“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,” he said.

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.

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.

First printed in The Church of England Newspaper.

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