Many of you will be aware of the recent pastoral statement on civil partnerships released on 22nd January by the House of Bishops. It attracted significant press interest and it immediately became a source of considerable distress for many within and outside the Church. This was followed a week later by an apology from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York for the statement which had ‘jeopardised trust’. Our own Colin Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester and Acting Bishop of Oxford has offered his reflections on the matter while also announcing two major new developments in the Diocese of Oxford.
On 10th February, Bishop Colin wrote…
What was the purpose of the pastoral statement?
Commenting on the statement, the Revd Canon John Rees, Diocesan Registrar, explains:
“the pastoral statement was prompted by a significant change in the law brought in by the last Parliament, as one of its last acts before Dissolution. The legislation itself followed a Supreme Court decision in 2018, which sought to address the inadequacy of the legal rights and remedies available to committed cohabitants, bringing them essentially into line with the rights and remedies available to couples who go through a secular or religious ceremony of marriage. Many lawyers, myself included, consider this to be a welcome reform in place of the previous rag-bag of historic legal remedies.”
In short, the change in legislation meant that, for the first time, Civil Partnerships became legally possible for heterosexual couples. It seems clear that the reasons for the judgement were a matter of justice, and not because the State wished to change the legal position of marriage. However, it did, and does, raise technical questions for the Church that the statement responded to, though in a pastorally insensitive way.
How was the statement approved, and how did it come about?
The document came to the House of Bishops in December as a deemed paper; interpreted by bishops at the time as an “if needed” policy, should there be enquiries concerning the Civil Partnerships legislation outlined above. The House discussed the statement very briefly, but not its publication.
The first thing we knew about the publication of the pastoral statement was when the The Guardian got in touch with the national church towards the end of January. An open letter to the Archbishops quickly followed from three General Synod members, which garnered over 3,700 signatures from across a broad spectrum of the Church. Almost three weeks on, the pastoral statement continues to draw criticism.
How did you respond?
I wrote at the time to share my sorrow and that of my brother and sister bishops in Oxford for the upset that the pastoral statement caused:
“A number of you have written or commented on social media about the statement published by the House of Bishops last week. Yesterday’s piece by Libby Purves in The Times sums up the mood of many within and outside the Church. Together with Bishop Steven, Bishop Olivia and Bishop Alan, I am sorry for the distress that the statement has caused… there will be further discussion at the College of Bishops tomorrow and, we hope, something more fitting may emerge. The Oxford bishops’ pastoral letter, Clothe yourselves with love tried to strike a better note.”
Why did so many Bishops speak out?
Although the statement reiterated the legal and doctrinal position of the Church of England, I, together with many other bishops, felt that its release was wrong-headed and pastorally inept. Read through the eyes of anyone fostering/adopting children, single parents or those supporting LGBTI+ family and friends, the statement was, as Bishop Olivia said before the College of Bishops meeting, ‘cold, legalistic, and loveless’.
Bishop Steven, along with others, was keen that the statement should be withdrawn or sent back to the House of Bishops for further work, but that was not the will of the College of Bishops meeting.
In recent days, Professor Helen King and the Revd Canon Dr Judith Maltby have questioned the content of the statement as well as the tone, pointing out that it presents the teaching of the Church on these matters as static and immovable, despite the Church (I paraphrase) ‘…accepting clerical heterosexual marriage, accepting contraception, and allowing marriage in church of divorcees.’ I’m inclined to agree with that analysis.
But are you listening to other voices?
The responses of the bishops and many others have disturbed some people. We have had clergy in this Diocese, who are loved, respected and valued, write to say that they affirmed the pastoral statement. They are concerned to know that we will continue to honour and pastor to those who uphold the historic teaching of the Church of England on marriage.
We continue to listen carefully to voices from across the Church about these matters. As we stated in our December 2018 letter to members of ODEF, neither I nor my fellow bishops have any intention or desire to exclude in any way those who hold to the traditional teaching of the Church and our marriage discipline. As bishops, these are things we uphold. We do not permit uncanonical blessings, though we do seek to encourage priests who, in good conscience, want to pray for and with people at significant points of their lives in a spirit of generous hospitality. As bishops, we are always happy to advise clergy on these matters as issues arise.
Living in Love and Faith
As well as the pastoral insensitivity of the statement, the timing of it was problematic. The Church is now coming towards the end of a two-year national programme of listening, prayer and discernment led by the bishops.
Living in Love and Faith will help the Church to learn and explore questions of human identity, relationships, marriage and sexuality. Study guides and resources will be published following the July General Synod. We hope and pray that parishes and deaneries will fully engage with those resources when they are published.
For some, the resources will break new ground. For others, they won’t go far enough. But we must hold firm to that timetable and await what comes next while trusting and praying for the those most closely involved in the process. Do take time to explore the LLF website.
New initiatives in this Diocese
The Church is criticised, often with good cause, for fine words but little discernible action when it comes to matters of human sexuality. I am delighted that this letter comes with news of two substantial new initiatives in our Diocese.
LGBTI+ Chaplaincy Service
In October 2018 the four bishops of this Diocese issued Clothe yourselves with love: a pastoral letter on the inclusion of and care for LGBTI+ people and their families. We committed ourselves to explore the creation of a new LGBTI+ Chaplaincy Service, which launches today.
The new chaplaincy service seeks to provide the best possible care across the whole church in this Diocese and will respect the theological views that people who come to them hold. I ask for your prayers as this provision takes further shape and develops.
Full details about the chaplaincy service have been published on the Diocese of Oxford website www.oxford.anglican.lgbt
LGBTI+ friendly evangelical services
Last week, Christ Church announced that it would host a six-month series of LGBTI+ friendly evangelical services.
Conceived with the full support of Christ Church’s Chapter and College Officers, Sacred will run as a monthly Sunday evening service, with an opportunity to socialise afterwards.
Sacred is very much a grassroots initiative, but I commend it to you, and I hope that you will join me in giving it your prayerful support.
Looking forward and travelling together
It has been an uncomfortable start to the year, but a most valuable one. That people still care about what the Church thinks is important. It’s now up to us to ensure that they continue to do so.
I recognise that ours is a continuing journey in which many people are suffering. Let’s resolve to care for one another along the way. This letter is available online; please feel free to share it with others if that would be helpful.
May God bless you and your family, your parish, chaplaincy, and deanery in the coming months.
Yours in Christ,
The Rt Revd Colin Fletcher
Bishop of Dorchester and Acting Bishop of Oxford
Our vicar, Revd Karen Charman is available to talk to if this reflection, the initial statement on civil partnerships and subsequent apology made by the Archbishops has affected you or someone you love.