Saturday, 5 January 2013

Charity, moral imagination and discipleship: some reflections on the CofE House of Bishops statement

The media headlines following yesterday's statement from the CofE House of Bishops on priests in civil partnerships and candidacy for the episcopate was unfortunately predictable.  Equally predictable, and equally unfortunate, was the outcry from conservatives and progressives alike.  Thus, Anglican Mainstream:

A bishop known to be in a civil partnership could hardly be a focus of unity nor be a bishop for the whole church. Such an appointment would be a very divisive move both within the Church of England and in the wider Anglican Communion.

And the Church of England Evangelical Council:

At the very least, the House of Bishops’ “Statement Regarding Clergy in a Civil Partnership as Candidates for the Episcopate”, will spread confusion and at worst will be taken as an effort to conform to the spirit of the age. 

From progressives there has also been strident criticism. Colin Coward of Changing Attitude has stated that "the bishops are wrong and misguided, of course".  On Twitter, Giles Fraser has described the move as "immoral" and an example of "wickedness".

To those hoping for further development in the CofE's understanding of human sexuality, the lifting of the moratorium on the consecration to the episcopate of those in abstinent civil partnerships obviously is a disappointment, but it can hardly be a surprise.  It removes an anomalous practice inconsistent with the Bishops' 2005 statement on civil partnerships:

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.

In the absence of further development of the teaching contained within Issues in Human Sexuality, yesterday's statement reaffirms the 2005 statement and would prevent a re-run of the pain and failure associated with the 2003 nomination of Jeffrey John to Reading. 

But what then of criticisms from conservatives?  The view that a bishop in a civil partnership in accordance with Issues in Human Sexuality could not be a focus unity is quite simply a rejection of the CofE's stated teaching on civil partnerships.  The 2005 statement noted "the positive value of committed friendships in the Christian tradition".  This is where the critique voiced by conservatives needs to be particularly challenged. 

Within the parameters of the current teaching in Issues in Human Sexuality, discipleship for those with same-sex orientation can be expressed in a number of ways.  For laity this can be celibacy, abstinence in a committed friendship (including a civil partnership), or "a faithful, committed relationship" for those "who, in conscience, were unable to accept that a life of sexual abstinence was required of them".  For those in holy orders, the teaching expressed in Issues in Human Sexuality is judged to be compatible with either celibacy or abstinence in a committed friendship (including civil partnerships). 

The response from some conservatives suggests a desire to significantly narrow patterns of discipleship for those with same-sex orientation, reducing them to one - celibacy alone, with no possibility of abstinence in a committed friendship in a civil partnership.  One can only assume that the same criticisms voiced about such a committed friendship in a civil partnership would also apply to a committed friendship outside a civil partnership - "profoundly out of touch with the reality", "most people assume that [such friendships] are sexual relationships".

It is difficult to know which is the greater failure here - a failure of charity or of imagination.  Amidst the brokeness of our own sexuality, and our own failures as disciples, the Church's teaching needs to be a source of moral imagination, calling us to discern what our discipleship could look like as we follow on the Way.  As Anglican Christians with same-sex orientation seek to discern their vocation, and the pattern of discipleship to which they are called, a rejection of "the positive value of committed friendships in the Christian tradition" (2005 statement) is both disturbing and disappointing.

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