48 Hours

After two days of listening to leading members of CEEC and Reform talk about the “change” in policy (which is no real change at all) on clergy in Civil Partnerships being allowed to be considered for episcopal nominations, it strikes me that some political considerations have been made in the Conservative Evangelical camp. Let me explain.

Thinking ManThe main criticism made in 2005 when the House of Bishops first produced their policy on clergy and Civil Partnerships was that such relationships would be assumed by everyone to be sexual in nature. This was contested by the House of Bishops by the very nature of the pastoral statement saying that such celibate relationships were possible. The criticism then moved back to the “Jeffrey John” argument, that bishops should not only be seen to be celibate but also to be repentant of previous sexual sin. Indeed, these very arguments were used by the Church House lawyers at the time of the Southwark controversy when Jeffrey John’s nomination for that See was blocked on those very same grounds.

Now however Conservatives seem to be moving back to the old, “Ephesians 5:3” argument, that it is what the perception of such Civil Partnerships are that matters, not what they actually are. There are two possible grounds for this.

  1. Those making the argument genuinely feel there is a powerful case to be made for this way of opposing partnered gay clergy being made Bishops. I am not so convinced that it is powerful.
  2. More interestingly, it could be that those making this argument have got wind of the notion that the “Jeffrey John” argument (repentant of previous sexual activity) will no longer work (whether because of further legal advice or because of a subtle change in the House of Bishops’ position) and therefore they have to move onto new ground.


On this morning’s BBC Sunday there was a useful interchange between Bishop Harries (former Bishop of Oxford) and Archdeacon Michael Lawson (Chair of CEEC). The final part of the conversation went like this.

Lord Harries : Surely if a couple are in a committed relationship but because of the discipline of the Church they commit to celibacy, that is a witness to the transforming power of Christ in their lives?
Michael Lawson : I agree with that, but it’s what the watching world make of it that is the issue.

Now, if I’d been on the programme my response to the Bishop would have been, “Yes, but true transformation is not just change in outward behaviour but change in inward belief – that’s why someone truly transformed would have no problem being repentant for previous sinful behaviour”.

What do we think?

29 Comments on “48 Hours

  1. Pretty sure you’re not talking about me, but FWIW, my reference to Eph 5:3 in your previous post should not be construed as “a shift in conservative evangelicalism”! :-)

    Genuine question: what is the difference in day-to-day lived out practice between a very close friendship and a CP? If the answer isn’t “sex” (or “sharing a bed”), what is it?

    • People have friends, people may indeed even have a best friend, but that’s not the same thing as having a partner? Gore Vidal,say, spent half a century with a man. The relationship was not sexual. They were still same-sex partners (admittedly, Gore Vidal was bumming thousands of randoms on the side, whereas your average clergyperson is not, but still)

      I know of no straight men who would refer to a close male friend as their partner. Does anyone?

      • I personally agree with you that the language of “partner” in C21 Britain does connotate a sexual relationship and it would be best if it were avoided. What I am conceptualising is a deep friendship for companionship’s sake that explicitly attempts to avoid sexual engagement. This would in some senses be a *very* Christian thing to do. It means of course that most clergy in celibate civil partnerships aren’t actually trying to model this moral ideal.

        • But it’s not just a question of sex is it – you’d agree that a man in a same-sex relationship has an affective bond with his ‘partner’ that, irrespective both of what you call it, and how much (if any) sex they’re having, is quite distinct from friendship? I don’t think it’s accurate to conceptualise a desexualised ‘partnership’ as being merely a very close friendship.

          • But that’s the very thing I’m saying. Two lovers who decide not to have sex because one of them wants to have a job but who would have sex if they could are still lovers. The House of Bishops’ guidelines on appointments move towards recognising this issue.

        • Could you give a reference explaining/engaging with this model of committed relationship in more detail?

          Ideally something from an Ev perspective to simplify the issues.

            • That would be helpful. At first sight, it seems to require distinctions which might be clear in the lecture hall, but would be unworkable in practice.

              It reminds me of part of Martin Luther’s tirade against clerical celibacy:
              “It is not every priest that can do without a woman, not only on account of human
              frailty, but still more for his household. If, therefore, he takes a woman, and the Pope allows this, but will not let them marry, what is this but expecting a man and a woman to live together and not to fall? Just as if one were to set fire to straw, and command it should neither smoke nor burn.”
              (To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, III.14)

              Of course, Luther’s wider argument also shows that sometimes church tradition makes it unnecessarily hard to live a holy life.

  2. The Council of Nicea, Canon 3: “The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.
    Ancient Epitome of Canon III: No one shall have a woman in his house except his mother, and sister, and persons altogether beyond suspicion.”

    A “subintroducta” was a virgin who lived with a Bishop, Priest or Deacon and was not married to him. It was not supposed to be a sexual relationship, but nevertheless was a source of scandal. What the canon actually forbids was a woman who was not a clergyman’s wife from living with him.
    Has the Church of England never heard of what Catholic pastoral theology calls ‘avoiding the occasions of sin’?

      • I think you’ll find Henry VIII is ahead of you on this one.
        I don’t think there were any monasteries in AD 325, in any case.
        Moreover, the new secular invention of “civil partnerships” has no place in the new life in Christ any more than polygamy. ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no’ is the standard of the Lord of the Church. Studied ambiguity is not a Christian virtue.

        • There are two issues here.

          i) If you agree with Jesus then if we ask clergy a question we should accept their answer. The problem is not with the answers but with the lack of questions

          ii) The kind of relationship I am envisioning is non-sexual not desexualised. Two people commit to provide friendship and support but not as “partners” – think of permanent flat-mates. Such a Christian companionship should be able to utilise CPs for tax avoidance purposes (and other benefits).

          • i) ‘we should accept their answer’ – sancta simplicitas! When I was young, I believed policemen were always right, too!
            If I lived with a ‘permanant flatmate’ I was sexually attracted to, I think the only person I would fool would be myself.
            ii) in that case, brothers and sisters sharing a house, and parent and child likewise should be able to have CPs to avoid tax, like Starbucks etc. But as you know, thay are forbidden by law from entering CPs.
            No, Peter, CPs are not part of life in the New Creation of Christ. Eliud Wakula called this one correctly.

            • “If I lived with a ‘permanant flatmate’ I was sexually attracted to, I think the only person I would fool would be myself.”

              But that’s the whole point. I’m suggesting people don’t do that. Read what I said not what you think I said.

                • I’m saying that the House of Bishops’ guidelines envision a non-sexual relationship which can best be understood as two people who are *not* romantically involved. These two people in C21 UK could take advantage of the tax and other advantages of CPs.

                  The reality is on the ground is that most celibate priests in CPs are in de-sexualised romantic relationships. This set-up brings with it all the tensions that have been described before and is a *very* hard way to live your life.

                  The problem of course is how do you tell the difference? So we let our priests in situation (ii) carry on because technically they are doing nothing wrong.

            • ii) Maybe brothers and sisters etc should be allowed to enter into CPs. The fact they can’t currently isn’t much of an argument for other people, cutting off their nose to spite their face, to abstain from reaping the tax etc benefits of CPs!

              • No ‘maybe’ about it at all – of course they should, if any two adults can form a household for mutual support! Why discriminate against siblings or against parent and child? (Well, I’ll tell you why – there’d be a big loss in taxation revenue. But since when is being allowed to keep your own money wrong?)
                But why stop at two? Why discriminate against polygamous and polyamorous households? Who is defending the rights of traditional Muslims today?

                • Traditional muslims in the UK are, er, in the UK. When in Rome. I’d have thought that treating sibling and parental relationships as potential partnerships would have been problematic for the conservative too… ;-)

                  • I don’t understand your reply. Muslim doctrine allowing polygamy is forbidden by UK law. This discriminates against their assumed ‘religious rights’ which the HRA claims to defend.
                    If a CP is meant to encourage mutual support and burden-sharing in life, it is hard to see why siblings or parent-child relationships – or a man and a woman! – should be prohibited from CPs.

          • Pro: tax avoidance. Con: the rest of the world thinks your sexual practice doesn’t match what you and your church are preaching. An even trade? I don’t think so…

            There must be a reason that God says that even though the sexual ethics of the pagan world is going to be screwed up, their opinions of what you seem to be doing _matter_. “We’re OK before God; who cares what anyone else thinks” runs up against Eph 5:3, Titus 2:8 and other similar passages.

        • Come on Brian, there’s still lots of RC monasteries! Do you regard them as hot-beds of same-sex temptation/sin?

          • I’m not a Catholic and can’t speak for that church. I imagine that temptation does exist for some, but I don’t know any monks. But in any case, AFAIK, RC monks are not supposed to form exclusive emotional pairings. Furthermore, men with SSA are not supposed now to be accepted for ordination training in the RC Church. This is no doubt impossible to enforce, that as I understand it, that is the current RC policy, in the wake of the ‘pedophile’ scandals.

  3. (Apologies if this appears twice – I think it failed to post first time)
    To my mind, and picking up on the comments of Brian and others, it is hard to see how entering into a CP could be consistent with genuine repentance – fleeing from sin, and desiring not to sin any longer. ‘Partnership’ (in the sense of co-habitation with someone to whom one is not married where there is mutual attraction) doesn’t seem compatible with this, IMHO.

    The big difference between a CP and ‘companionship’ is that a CP is both (a) exclusive (even preventing the possibility of a future marriage to someone of the opposite sex) and (b) permanent. While friendship is obviously a Good Thing, I’d suggest that friendship on those terms (outside marriage, which is designed precisely for those conditions) is unwise for any Christian. All of us, whatever our situations, need to be careful where we look for companionship.

    Finally, an analogy: would a married man who frequented dating websites (looking purely for ‘friendship’, you understand) be suitable for episcopacy?

  4. Aren’t we back to the same questions that are on the eternal CU “what is OK or not between girl- and boy-friend” merry go round, translated to Anglican semantics of relationships.

    Come back Joyce Huggett; all is forgiven.

    What happens if the Govt come to their senses and broaden CPs as was originally suggested back when they came in to, for example, two friends sharing, pensioner parent and adult child sharing, and all the rest.

    *Then* CPs will become acceptable eg for a Vicar and retired parent.

    What that means is that to use the existence of a Civil Partnership can be no valid part of a criteria used by the Church.

    Civil Partnerships *should* be extended beyond ‘not marriages but really marriages’ as a matter of social welfare/justice in an atomised society where couples are incentivised to live apart, purely because we have many single person households when homelessness is spiraling.

    On the ‘not to put each other in the way of temptation’ thing, I can recall two peeps who started dating from in a shared house at Uni – this was 1980s, and one of them swapped with someone from another house to preserve distance.

    Perhaps we need internal radars in same sex ‘couple’ vicarages with a red light in the Bishop’s Palace when they are within 30cm for more than 10 minutes at a time.

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