Church of England Pension Parity for Civil Partnerships

An interesting motion is going to be discussed at next month’s General Synod. The motion reads as follows:

“That this Synod request the Archbishops’ Council and the Church of England Pensions Board to bring forward changes to the rules governing the clergy pension scheme in order to go beyond the requirements of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and provide for pension benefits to be paid to the surviving civil partners of deceased clergy on the same basis as they are currently paid to surviving spouses.‟

The motion stems from the complicated way in which pensions for surviving spouses of clergy are calculated. At present civil partners are only entitled to 50% of the “Guaranteed Minimum Pension” for service after the 6th of April 1988. Any service before this time is not counted when working out pension entitlement for civil partners of deceased clergy. For service after the 6th of April 1997, the figure is 50% of the “Reference Scheme” pension entitlement, which is about 1.25% of 90% of earnings between the upper and lower National Insurance Bands for each year of service between 1997 and the 5th of December 2005 (the date of introduction of Civil Partnerships). All service after that date gets equal pension rights with married spouses.

Confused as to what that all means? Well the bottom line is, as Mark Bratton points out in his paper to accompany his motion:

Survivors of civil partnerships contracted since the legislation came into force but preceded by long standing relationships, and who have themselves limited occupational pensions, either through illness or the way they have decided to organise their domestic life, find themselves at a particular disadvantage, compared to widows and widowers, who generally receive a pension equivalent to 2/3rds of that their retired clergy spouse had been receiving.

Basically,civil Pprtners get less money when compared to wives and husbands of deceased clergy. As Bratton claims in his paper, that’s just unjust. The official response from the Church of England has come from Bishop Packer of Leeds and Ripon who is the Chair of the Deployment Remuneration and Conditions of Service Committee of the
Archbishops’ Council (DRACSC for short, and no wonder) who makes the case against Bratton’s proposals largely on financial grounds.

The Committee felt that the argument that the rights of all surviving partners should be on an equal basis was a powerful one. Equally, it was conscious that the context was very different from that in which the 1988 decision was made. In an environment of limited resources the financial costs of extending rights retrospectively beyond what the law required had to be weighed carefully against the need for prudence, the risk of precedent-setting, and the  reasonable expectations of all the scheme funders and scheme members.

On balance DRACSC concluded that it could not recommend a change to the scheme rules to create additional benefits. It informed the Archbishops’ Council of its discussion and the view it had reached.

However, behind that diplomatic “in principle it’s a nice idea, but we can’t afford it” response lies a deeper conflict. One Bishop I spoke to this afternoon said:

It’s a bridge too far and not acceptable. We only conceded what we had to on Civil Partnerships [permitting clergy to enter them if they stayed celibate] because of the law.

Behind that sentiment appears to be a concern from many in the House of Bishops and the wider Synod that the Church of England is in real danger of having its doctrine of marriage changed “by the back door” by not thinking through clearly the effect of motions like this. That makes the vote on this motion less an issue of financial probity and justice and more a clarification of the Church’s teaching. If the Church goes further than the law demands and actively equalises pension rights for civil partners and married spouses, will it be de facto recognising them as theologically identical?

Interesting times next month in Church House…

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