By John Martin
These are Jonah days for the Church of England. Echoes continue from November’s vote on admitting women to the episcopate. The chances of Parliament stepping in to insist on approval seem to have receded but fallout continues. On Jan. 18 General Synod’s House of Laity will meet to vote on a no confidence motion against its chairman, Philip Giddings, who spoke and voted against the measure and is accused of misusing his office.
Now the church also is enveloped in controversy over bishops and civil partnerships. On Dec. 18 staff at Church House posted a succinct summary of the Dec. 10-11 meeting of the House of Bishops. Neither the archbishops nor senior Synod staff seemed to have spotted the implications of a blandly written seven-line entry in the document. It effectively heralded that the bishops had adopted a new policy: people in civil partnerships would no longer be disqualified from appointment as bishops.
Ahead of Christmas there is not much newsgathering in the U.K. The story may have gone unnoticed save that the vigilant Church Times reporter Ed Thornton spotted it and managed a notable scoop. A policy change of this importance normally is accompanied by a statement explaining the reasons for it. There was no statement until after the Church Times story, and the attempt to elucidate by the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, only threw more fuel on the fire.
“The House has confirmed that clergy in civil partnerships, and living in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality, can be considered as candidates for the episcopate,” his statement said. “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.”
People from both sides of the sexuality divide attacked. Evangelical conservatives like the Rev. Canon Chris Sugden of Anglican Mainstream and the Rev. Rod Thomas of Reform wanted to know why the bishops had taken it on themselves to make a policy change of this magnitude without reference to General Synod. Critics of all persuasions wanted to know how the church could enforce a rule that accepted men in civil partnerships as bishops so long as they were celibate.
Reverberations extended throughout the Anglican Communion. “It is a great sadness that before the New Year has hardly begun, the life of the Anglican Communion has yet again been clouded by compromise with the secular preoccupations of the West,” said the Most Rev. Eliud Wabukala, Archbishop of Kenya and chairman of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans’ primates council. The bishops’ decision “will create further confusion about Anglican moral teaching and make restoring unity to the Communion an even greater challenge.”
Analysts are still trying to piece together how the church landed itself in this predicament of poor media relations. Was there a management hiatus in the last days of Archbishop Rowan Williams’s time in office? If so, why were no other senior staff members ready to ensure proper presentation? Or, more cynically, did an individual or group see this hiatus as an opportunity to enhance an agenda?
The other line of enquiry concerns the intentions of the bishops. The peg for the minute was that the House of Bishops had before it an interim report from a group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling on the Church of England’s approach to human sexuality. The Pilling final report was not due for some months. If the bishops had said they would await the final version no one would have asked questions.
In the process the bishops appeared to have alienated another working group led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, also in the pipeline, whose remit was to “include examination of whether priests in civil partnerships should be eligible for appointment as bishops.” The minutes published on Dec. 18 and the statement of the Bishop of Norwich, effectively trumped the Sodor and Man working group, and its content and recommendations remain unknown.
Perhaps the bishops thought that by signalling intention to accommodate same-sex civil partnerships they would be in a stronger position to oppose Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to legislate for same-sex marriage in the U.K.