by the Revd Andrew Forshew-Cain, Interim Chaplain at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford and former member of General Synod
Civil Partnerships have been in the news again, and it has got me reflecting on them, and their part in our journey towards a fully inclusive Church.
Personally, I had hoped that the government would decide to abolish Civil Partnerships entirely. Admittedly that was simply because I knew that it would force the Church of England into having some difficult discussions, but I happily acknowledge that if Civil Partnerships are going to exist then they have to be available to everyone, and an injustice has been removed by extending them to straight couples.
But I don’t think that the extension is going to do much for the struggle for full equality for those of us who are gay or lesbian within the Church. In my view, the only possible logical response for the Bishops is to issue a statement reiterating the position that the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage remains unchanged, and that any straight couple in a Civil Partnership considering ordination will be subject to the same rules as any co-habiting straight couple or gay and lesbian couple in a Civil Partnership. Marriage is for straights, and sex is for straight marriage. Those are the rules, even if many of us are fully aware that those rules aren’t evenly applied.
The other recent development, this time in the Church in Wales, is perhaps more concerning. It may be that I am misreading the signs there, even whilst being fairly sure of the problems ahead of us here in England.
The Governing Body of the Church in Wales has voted by a substantial majority to task their Bishops with looking at ways of making ‘formal provision’ for people who are in ‘committed same-gender relationships.’ The Archbishop of Wales has said that not to do so is “unsustainable and unjust”. He is not wrong and the Church in Wales is right to look at this. We have to be hopeful that their Bishops will come back in due course with a way forward that honours and respects the reality of so many gay and lesbian Christians’ lives, and at the same time protects the conscience of those for whom any change will be difficult. The Welsh Bishops deserve our prayers, and they are fortunate to have the model of the Scottish Episcopal Church to draw on.
In the Scottish Episcopal Church the decision was to amend the Canons and then to allow individual parishes and clergy to opt into the ability to offer marriage in their church to any couple approaching them, gay, lesbian or straight. Those who in conscience can’t do so can simply not register, although they have been asked to signpost gay and lesbian couples who approach them to other local Episcopal Churches which do. Both traditional and modern understandings of marriage are therefore officially recognized. It’s a simple solution and one that appears to be working.
Here in England we are waiting to see what will come out of the process of preparing the Bishops documents under the banner of ‘Living in Love and Faith’ in 2020. In my mind, it is inconceivable that the Bishops will not also conclude that it is ‘unsustainable and unjust’ to offer no provision for committed faithful gay and lesbian couples in Church.
But what I am expecting from the Church of England, and possibly also in the Church in Wales, is not the “full monty” of equality in terms of marriage, but some form of half-way house that extends the allowance of ‘informal prayers’ after marriage or Civil Partnerships – which is the current Church of England position. In Wales there have been specific prayers available for some time, issued a few years ago by Archbishop Barry, though they lack the official approval of the General Assembly.
However, if this does happen then I for one think we need to say “No. not good enough!”
In fact, I believe we in England will need to campaign vigorously to have any such proposal rejected if it comes to General Synod, and I would hope that Welsh activists might respond similarly in their own rather different situation.
It’s perhaps not widely known that LGBTI activists in the Scottish Episcopal Church actively campaigned with their conservative colleagues to defeat a proposal to provide services of blessing for Civil Partnerships in the Scottish Episcopal Church. They did so of course for different reasons. The LGBTI activists were absolutely clear that the goal, and the only goal in their mind, was marriage equality. Nothing less would suffice. Interestingly they did so whilst at the same time offering those very services, without official permission, in their parishes.
It is my strongly held conviction that the problem with the ‘any step on the journey helps’ approach is that some steps lead to dead ends, and that is the danger with any proposal that isn’t full equality.
I am not a member of the Church in Wales, and therefore my opinion on what that Church should do carries little weight. None the less I hope that those there who seek full equality will consider carefully how to respond if their bishops come back to the General Assembly with anything less than full equality.
Here in England we should also be prepared to say an official “no” to services of thanksgiving and blessing after civil marriages or partnerships even as an increasing number of us continue to do this unofficially in our parishes. We should say no to an official liturgy or prayers not to say that we are going to stop offering those services in the interim, but so that we do not get distracted from the ultimate goal which is full equality in marriage and ministry.
The struggle for that ultimate goal means being brave enough to refuse to accept anything less – however well intended. Refusing to accept a half-way house would send a powerful message. It would underline that we are seeking full and equal treatment for gay and lesbian couples in marriage and ministry and that a side step is not acceptable.
We would then have to continue the pressure for that equality of treatment, ensuring that in every conversation, in every debate, in every way possible we keep making our point that the current situation is ‘unsustainable and unjust’.
We must not rest until it is possible for any lesbian or gay couple, ordained or not, can walk down the aisle of their local parish with as little fuss, and as much joy and happiness, as any couple on their wedding day.