Priests and same-sex marriage – further insights from Oxford

At the Oxford Diocesan Synod on 22 March, the Rt Rev John Pritchard was formally asked:

“Following his recent Ad clerum, can the Bishop of Oxford confirm that he and the Area Bishops of the Diocese will adhere to the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships, which stated that “The House of Bishops does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is will 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”,

to which he answered in the affirmative [1]. In addition, during his Presidential Address Bishop John explained the Statement and the role the Church of England is playing, [emphasis added]

“But lay people who enter into same sex marriages will continue to be welcome in our churches, to have full access to the sacraments, have children baptised and so on. Clergy, however, are not in the same position and are urged to honour their ordination promise to accept the discipline of the Church. But I’ve promised there will be no witch hunts in this diocese – we have a serious conversation about to begin and it’s no help to rush to judgement.

Comment

Since Bishop John acknowledged that his Statement of Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage “went viral”, it is probably fair to assume that his Presidential Address, which was published shortly after its delivery, was a very carefully worded document representing his current thinking.  The above statement is therefore important since it suggests a possible approach to clergy who enter same-sex marriage, and appears to be based upon the logic: at ordination all clergy are required to make certain promises regarding “the discipline of the church”; no changes have been made in the Church’s attitude to same-sex marriage; therefore clergy are “urged” to honour this promise. The use of exhortatory language – i.e. “urged” – rather than imperative or prohibitive language initially places the onus on the priest to conform rather than on the bishop to initiate action.  It does not, however, preclude the imposition of sanctions since this is a conversation “to begin with”.

The oath of obedience is also addressed in the Report from the House of Bishops, GS 1932, provided in support of the draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure and draft Amending Canon No 33.  Annex A to the Report deals with: issues of authority, theological conviction and the  exercise of ministry by a priest; and also certain legal issues. Paragraphs 34 to 36 [page 13] relate to the former [emphasis added],

Oaths

34. At ordination and on taking up any office in the Church of England priests and deacons are required under Canon C 14 to swear or affirm that they will “pay true and canonical obedience to the Lord Bishop of C and his successors in all things lawful and honest.” Bishops are similarly required to take an oath of due obedience to the archbishop of the province. Clergy and bishops also take an Oath of Allegiance to the Queen and make the Declaration of Assent.

35. These Oaths and the Declaration are important because they each involve recognition that a person does not exercise ministry in isolation or on their own authority but within a framework of relationship with others and within the tradition of faith as the Church of England has received it. The House acknowledges that the taking of the oath to the diocesan bishop or the oath of due obedience to the archbishop may, in future, raise issues for those who, for theological reasons, remain committed to a male episcopate and priesthood.

36. Nevertheless, the House believes that all ministers of the Church of England will be able, in good conscience, to take the oath. Doing so adds nothing legally to the duty of canonical obedience, which already exists in law. Rather, it is a recognition of the pattern of relationships which underpins the exercise of ministry by those who make and receive the oath. It follows from the guiding principles set out in paragraph 5 above, and the spectrum of Anglican teaching and tradition which they acknowledge, that the giving and receiving of the oath does not entail acting contrary to theological conviction,

and provide the background to Bishop John’s comments.

Certain legal aspects of complying with a bishop’s directions are covered in footnote 1 of the Annex [Page 8]:

“we are advised that, in the light of the decision of the Privy Council in Long v Bishop of Capetown (1863), the duty of obedience does not require the cleric to comply with any and every direction given by the bishop; rather, it requires the cleric to obey such directions as the diocesan bishop is authorised by law to give.”

However, it is clear from the context of Long [2] that the phrase “authorized by law” relates to the vires of the bishop to act on a specific issue, rather than the legality or otherwise of the issue itself.


[1] This approach contrasts with that of the Roman Catholic Church. On 24 March The Tablet reported that a priest in the Ordinariate has been suspended after it emerged that he had entered a civil partnershipIn this case, however, the circumstances appear to be far more complex than the priest simply entering a civil partnership. The matter came to light following an investigation by The Mail on Sunday.

[2] The Bishop of Capetown had been appointed (actually re-appointed) under Letters Patent, and these did not authorize him to take the action against the Rev Long and suspend him for disobedience.  Philip Jones notes “the bishop had no power to convene the diocesan synod or summon Mr Long to it. He therefore had no lawful cause to suspend Mr Long for refusing to attend, nor to revoke his licence for ignoring the illegal suspension”.

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