‘The Church of England recommends civil partnerships for gay clergy…the Church of England has ALWAYS recommended civil partnerships for gay clergy…’
Ok, so perhaps it’s a wee bit naughty to suggest there's something Orwellian in the House of Bishops' thinking around civil partnerships and equal marriage. I’ve been involved in the C of E long enough to presume my senior colleagues adopt a hand-wringing bimbling through issues rather than an overthought Soviet-diktat approach.
However, the emergent events surrounding Canon Jeremy Pemberton (see Church Times story here) should give all of us cause to pause and think. When I say ‘all of us’ I don’t just mean church people, but that wider group of people, of faith and none, who hold an interest in civil society and the pursuit of a compassionate, intelligent and generous society and public square.
Earlier this week Jeremy’s husband, Lawrence, signaled that Jeremy’s promotion to a new NHS Chaplaincy job had been de facto blocked by the acting Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Richard Inwood. Lawrence asked that people write to the bishop and Archbishop John Sentamu indicating support for Jeremy. (Further info here.)
For those not on the inside of the machinations of the C of E – which frankly is basically most people – Pemberton’s role as a chaplain/Head of Spiritual Care in a hospital is a job paid for and contracted under the auspices of NHS, an organization committed to equal opportunities. However, it is standard practice for the NHS to request a Bishop’s Licence for that chaplain. This enables the chaplain to serve specifically as an Anglican priest in the Diocese in which a hospital is set. Licensing is something which is part of the habitus or warp and weft of being a serving Anglican priest in any setting in England.
Bishop Inwood has denied this license. This means that Pemberton cannot take up his new job.
It is the prerogative of the bishop to issue or withhold licences. The withholding of licenses is - as I understand it - a practice which happens under circumstances in which a priest has been disciplined, or has broken Canon Law in specific ways.
What particular transgression of discipline or behaviour has Pemberton committed in the estimation of the bishop? He has legally married.
That’s right. He has married. He has exercised his legal right, contracted using laws signed under the assent of the Head of State, the Queen (who also happens to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England).
The point of contention for the bishop is that Pemberton has married a man. From the point of view of law, that matter is incidental; that is, the gender of the person is no longer of any significance as a bar to the contracting of a marriage. Yet, despite Pemberton exercising his legal right and entering into a relationship which (whether undertaken in a church or not ) the Church has considered a social and human good, Pemberton has had his capacity to work as a cleric in a secular setting effectively denied.
In the eyes of the acting Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham Pemberton has seemingly – in getting married – engaged in conduct unbecoming to a (gay) Clerk in Holy Orders. What he should have done is contract a Civil Partnership (or remain in one if already contracted.)
Let’s be clear here. If I understand the House of Bishops’ advice and Inwood's reading of it aright, the ethically correct behavior for those gay clergy who wish to place their committed, faithful and stable monogamous relationships on a legal footing is to contract a civil partnership rather than get married. That is, there is a moral imperative on gay people not to engage in the kind of relationships which the church has said is the right kind of relationship for those who wish to make a lifelong commitment to each other.
What will bewilder non-religious people who read this blog is how on earth the State church of England has got itself into such a horrible mess. The mess runs as follows: when an ordained person exercises their legal right to commit to another human being in love and faithfulness, and this person happens to be of the same gender, this leads to them being denied work in a setting subject to the Equalities Act 2010. It rather bewilders me and I’m ‘of the church.’
I am gutted for Jeremy (and Lawrence) at a human level. However I am also gutted that the prospects for an institution that can offer so much seem so bleak. I want people to know God. I also still dream that people switched off by an institution that has worse LGBT policies than an organisation as crummy as McDonalds might come to recognise the C of E as a beacon of hope. That seems a pretty forlorn prospect.