One or two challenges coming up

I’ve been intrigued by two blog posts in the past week, both of which are highlighting some challenges for the Church of England over the next few months.

The first is by John Richardson who writes

This, however, brings us to the most significant statement of all, for having acknowledged that threats of separation may turn into reality, and having indicated that this might be not only necessary but helpful, the Dean states quite clearly his own conviction:

I believe the Chapter and congregation of this church will walk the same path as the Episcopal Church of America, the links are deep in our history, especially here.

Thus, according to the Dean, the Chapter and congregation of Southwark Cathedral are ready, when the time comes, to separate from others in the Anglican Communion, and to do so in line with TEC.

And here we come to the crisis.

The Diocese of Southwark is currently without a bishop. When that bishop is chosen, however, he will either have to align himself with the public position of his Dean (which the Dean claims is the position of the cathedral Chapter and congregation), or align himself against it.

It should also be remembered that, although it is a mere formality, the Chapter of a cathedral is still required by congé d’elire to ‘elect’ the bishop chosen by the Crown, so that, at least on paper, the bishop has the Chapter’s ‘approval’. Thus if the bishop decides against his cathedral Chapter, there will be a difficult conflict for him at the top of the diocese. If the bishop decides for his Chapter, however, the situation within the diocese may become impossible, for there are others in Southwark who would undoubtedly find the ministry of a bishop committed to the position put forward by Dean Slee simply unacceptable — not least, one presumes, those who put their names to a recent letter criticizing the visit of TEC’s Presiding Bishop.

Something close to open warfare between either the bishop and the Chapter, the bishop and sections of the diocese thus seems inevitable.

Yet what if the incoming bishop, by some diplomatic ingenuity, manages to put off the immediate confrontation? Even then we must remember that Dean Slee cannot be acting alone — indeed, he says he is not. On the contrary, he is confident of the support of his Chapter and the cathedral congregation, and undoubtedly he can also be sure of support from many of the Southwark clergy. But if my own experience is anything to go by, Dean Slee will also be networking (whether formally or informally) with others around the country. If he feels confident to say what he has done, and explicitly to align his cathedral with TEC as he has chosen to, we may wonder how many others are in the same position.

Indeed, we may actually be at the ‘tipping point’ where numbers of senior clergy, who can call upon a considerable degree of support, are similarly ready to declare their hand and to call the institutional bluff.

I think this notion that some will try to “call the institutional bluff” is an interesting one and I’ve written on it before. A year ago I said

Essentially, the revisionists .. have looked across the Atlantic, seen the effect that “facts on the ground” and a weak and impotent House of Bishops have produced and fancy their chances here. They are quite blatantly preparing to take on the church hierarchy, to challenge them to either do something about their gross misconduct (for that is what a clergyman living in a sexual relationship outside of marriage is doing) and to get them to either “martyr” them or cave in. They will literally out themselves (and others) and then wait to see what happens.

And this brings me to my second interesting challenge implicit in a blog post. Earlier this week Colin Coward wrote

My partner and I are planning to contract our Civil Partnership in October (dependent on approval from the Home Office). Our focus will not be the legal ceremony in the registry office but a service of holy communion in church using material from Jim Cotter’s The Service of my Love. We met our Rector this week to talk about planning the service. He is totally positive about our desire to commit ourselves to each other in church in the presence of God and our friends.

Let me be the first to offer my congratulations to Colin on wanting to enter into a Civil Partnership. More power to him. For those who don’t know, Colin is the Director of Changing Attitude, the leading Anglican pro-gay lobby group in the Church of England. He’s also a priest in the Church of England, which means that his entering into a Civil Partnership raises one or two questions for the Bishop of Salisbury. Firstly, has the Bishop, the Rt Rev David Stancliffe, asked and received assurances from Colin that his relationship is not sexual. That after all is the agreed practice of the House of Bishops as declared in their July 2005 letter on the subject.

19. The House of Bishops does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality. The wording of the Act means that civil partnerships will be likely to include some whose relationships are faithful to the declared position of the Church on sexual relationships (see paragraphs 2-7).

20. The Church should not collude with the present assumptions of society that all close relationships necessarily include sexual activity. The House of Bishops considers it would be a matter of social injustice to exclude from ministry those who are faithful to the teaching of the Church, and who decide to register a civil partnership.  There can be no grounds for terminating the ministry of those who are loyal to the discipline of the Church.

21. Nevertheless, it would be inconsistent with the teaching of the Church for the public character of the commitment expressed in a civil partnership to be regarded as of no consequence in relation to someone in- or seeking to enter- the ordained ministry. Partnerships will be widely seen as being predominantly between gay and lesbian people in sexually active relationships. Members of the clergy and candidates for ordination who decide to enter into partnerships must therefore expect to be asked for assurances that their relationship will be consistent with the teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality.

22. While clergy are fully entitled to argue, in the continuing debate, for a change in that teaching, they are not entitled to claim the liberty to set it aside, simply because of the passage of the Civil Partnerships Act.  Because of the ambiguities surrounding the character and public nature of civil partnerships, the House of Bishops would advise clergy to weigh carefully the perceptions and assumptions which would inevitably accompany a decision to register such a relationship.

I’m sure Colin (who I know reads my blog) will be happy to tell us all that his sexual practice is in line with the agreed practice of the Church of England.

The second question relates to the Service of Holy Communion that will take place after the Civil ceremony. As the Bishops’ letter points out (emphasis added):

16. It is likely that some who register civil partnerships will seek some recognition of their new situation and pastoral support by asking members of the clergy to provide a blessing for them in the context of an act of worship. The House believes that the practice of the Church of England needs to reflect the pastoral letter from the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Pentecost 2003 which said:

‘The question of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites’.

17. One consequence of the ambiguity contained within the new legislation is that people in a variety of relationships will be eligible to register as civil partners, some living consistently with the teaching of the Church, others not. In these circumstances it would not be right to produce an authorised public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships. In addition, the House of Bishops affirms that clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.

18. It will be important, however, to bear in mind that registered partnerships do allow for a range of different situations- including those where the relationship is simply one of friendship. Hence, clergy need to have regard to the teaching of the church on sexual morality, celibacy, and the positive value of committed friendships in the Christian tradition. Where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.

I’m sure, given that Colin says the service will be based on items in Jim Cotter’s “The Service of my Love”, he’ll be quite happy to point out to us which bits are being used so we can be assured that nothing in the service will in any way constitute a blessing of the civil partnership.

Now I know that a number of you might take exception to these two questions being asked, but unfortunately we are slowly moving from a cold war to a shooting war on the issue of human sexuality in the Church of England. Whilst I really like Colin Coward as a person (and who couldn’t like a chap who builds a whole model railway in his back garden) I can’t believe that I’m the only person who recognises the political dimension to what he is doing here. Just like Martin Dudley before him, the attempt to create liturgy that revises the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage which is then accepted (and it will de facto be accepted if it is not prevented) is a deliberate attempt to create facts on the ground that alter our core beliefs. The reason why Anglicans take liturgy so seriously is exactly because our theology works in such a way that it is defined by it. For example, our doctrine of ordination and episcopal authority is dependent chiefly on the Ordinal. To permit liturgy to be celebrated that in any way blesses a same sex sexual relationship is to accept a redefinition of our doctrine of marriage.

Of course all this assumes that the service will including a blessing of the relationship. If it doesn’t then there should be no problem with sharing the liturgy that’s being planned should there?

Anybody got the Bishop of Salisbury’s email address?

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