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Tony Baldry comments on House of Bishops’ Report on Sexuality

9 February 2017

House of Bishops’ Report on Sexuality

For me, and indeed, I hope for everyone, there are a number of basic beliefs.

Firstly, each and every one of us is a child of God.

We are all created in God’s image, and all should be equally welcomed as members of the Church, in church, and at the Communion rail.

Our sexuality is part of our inherent identity.

Our sexuality is not some matter of “consumer choice”.

However, sexuality and sexual identity can clearly change over time.

So, one of my closest friends, when we were young, would I think have identified himself as being heterosexual; in mid-life, when he was married, I think he would have described himself as bi-sexual, and would now describe himself as gay.

I think we all have to recognise that there are many issues relating to sexuality and in particular same-sex relationships on which different people in the Church, and different groups of people have strongly held views. I don’t think it is a matter of trying to persuade people to “compromise” their views, rather, is it possible to find structures and practices which allow people with different views and different approaches to these issues to live and flourish within the Church and to feel welcomed and part of God’s family.

I think we should at the very least all seek to be as tolerant as possible about the use of language.

I am quite sure that many people would describe me as being “fat”, but that is not necessarily how I would choose to describe myself.

As it happens, I was not invited to be part of the “Shared Conversation” from the Diocese of Oxford, so have not taken part in that process, but I find it somewhat depressing that some 42 Shared Conversations having taken place across the Church of England, that there still appears to be no general agreement as to what is appropriate language and terminology and I cannot believe that two Archbishops and 26 Diocesan bishops would have used a phrase such as “people of same sex attraction” if they thought that such a phrase was going to in any way cause offence.

I also think that everyone involved has to recognise that these are issues on which attitudes and beliefs can change over time.

I strongly suspect that during my nearly a third of a century’s membership of the House of Commons people’s approach to the LGBT community is an issue on which there has probably been one of the greatest societal changes – as evidenced by the passing with sizeable majorities in both Houses of Parliament by the legislation that now provides for same sex marriage.

For me, as a workaday politician, there are three practical issues that the Church and Synod have to consider.

Firstly, should the Church support same sex marriage?

The legislation approved by Parliament to enable same sex marriage also put in place statutory provision for the Church of England and other faith groups as to whether they would support same sex marriage and indeed, one of the reasons that Parliament approved the legislation was because the legislation included the specific provision that it would be a matter for individual faith groups collectively to decide whether or not they would support same sex marriage and thus in due course allow their church buildings, temples or mosques, to be places where same sex marriages could be celebrated.

My impression is that a very large number of members of the Church of England believe that “marriage” is the union of one man and one woman, or put another way, the union of one man and one woman is described as “marriage”, and I don’t consider there is any prospect in the foreseeable future of getting two-thirds majority in any house in General Synod, indeed, even a simple majority in any house, to support the introduction of same sex marriage within the Church of England . That is a position that the House of Bishops have fairly recognised in their report.

But if there are friends and colleagues who think the House of Bishops’ assessment on where the Church of England stands on this specific issue is incorrect, it might be sensible at some point to test the mind of Synod specifically on this issue.

Ever since the introduction of Civil Partnerships in law, it has been legally possible, and lawful, for everyone to enter into Civil Partnerships, including clergy.

There has, however, been a proviso that Church of England clergy who enter into Civil Partnerships are expected to be “celibate”.

I am not sure how one defines “celibate” and however one defines celibate, it has always struck me as being cruel to say that people could enter into a Civil Partnership but could not behave as a couple within that partnership and I think the House of Bishops’ Report by trying to ensure that Bishops are not obliged to build windows into the souls of clergy in questioning them over their sexuality, or questioning any particular group of clergy over their sexuality, are establishing conditions in which it is possible for clergy to be in Civil Partnerships, similar to anybody else who is in a Civil Partnership.

Critics say that this will lead to a “postcode lottery”. I suppose that one could argue that any discretion at any time by anyone in authority is a “postcode lottery”, but for many, many years, clergy for example, have had discretion as to whether or not they will bless, or now even conduct second marriages, and it is a matter of fact that some clergy have been more willing to bless second marriages than others, but I don’t think anyone ever suggested that that change in church practice should have been dismissed because by giving clergy discretion it meant that whether or not one could have a second marriage blessed was a “postcode lottery”.

Also, I think it is worth noting that when that discretion was first introduced a number of years ago, one would probably in each Deanery have only found a single priest who would have been willing to bless a second marriage, so it was the exception rather than the norm.

Today, I think it would be very hard to find a Church of England priest who would not bless the commitment of a second marriage, and so the preparedness and willingness of priests and churches to bless second marriages is now the norm and not the exception, which takes me to the third practical point, which is that it appears to me that the Bishops’ Report is making provision for clergy at their own discretion to bless the commitment of a same sex couple and I am not sure in practical terms how blessing the commitment of a same sex couple is that different from blessing the commitment of a couple in church who have remarried.

My wife and I, prior to our marrying, were both divorced.

As a consequence , we were unable to marry in church – we were obliged to have our actual marriage service in a Registry Office. But it was that commitment to each other which was then subsequently blessed in a church service and the House of Bishops’ Report makes provision that will enable this practice to evolve in respect of couples who have made a commitment as a same sex couple.

Moreover, in my judgement, the House of Bishops have sought to nudge changes in practice which do not require the specific approval of General Synod, and I would suggest the risk of those who are urging that Synod does not take note of the Bishops’ Report is that in those circumstances we simply get stuck with the status quo, with no guarantee of the House of Bishops or General Synod bringing forward any other proposals, and certainly no guarantee of the House of Bishops bringing forward any new proposals that would command the necessary support in General Synod.

So I, for one, will be “taking note” of the House of Bishops’ Report and as a workaday politician, would seek to take the concessions offered, move on and I am also confident that time will continue to change attitudes and that there are issues here which I am sure can and will be revisited in due course.

As a former Second Church Estates Commissioner, I have been asked by a number of people what I think would be Parliament’s position if General Synod failed to “take note” of the House of Bishops’ Report, or put another way, if General Synod rejected the House of Bishops’ Report.

I think we have in those circumstances, to be mindful of two things.

Firstly, ever since the Prayer Book debacle of the early 1920’s, it has been a firm principle of Parliament that matters of worship and doctrine are matters primarily for the Church of England and General Synod and not for Parliament, and more specifically we have to remember that the legislation that established the main provision for same sex marriage, also, so far as the Church of England is concerned, introduced the Triple Lock, and made it very clear that it was for individual faith groups collectively to decide their approach to same sex marriage and I am sure that the Government and Parliament would not wish to unpick or reverse the provisions of that recently passed legislation.

Rt. Hon. Sir Tony Baldry
February 2017

 

To download a copy of Sir Tony Baldry’s comments please click on the following link: House of Bishops Report on Sexuality February 2017.