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The Church and Civil Partnerships

The UK Civil Partnership Act which will be enacted on the 5th December 2005 presents the clergy of the Church of Ireland and the House of Bishops in particular with an unenviable task in responding to morally flawed and societally confusing legislation. The Act will enable people of the same gender in Northern Ireland to order many of the practical and financial aspects of their life together along lines that follow automatically for those who are married. The language of the Act makes it plain that a 'civil partnership' is in fact 'gay-marriage' in all but name, and it is naïve of anyone to pretend otherwise. Clearly this Act confronts the Church with a challenge to its teaching, practice and discipline to do with matters of human sexuality.

We are concerned at some of the implications of the Septmeber 2003 Pastoral Statement issued by the House of Bishops which outlined four views held within the House of Bishops on human sexuality and homosexuality in particular. The letter was confused and confusing and we feel that in light of this new legislation clarity is required.

Some questions need unambiguous answers:

  • Will a minister within the Church of Ireland be disciplined if he registers a civil partnership?
     
  • Will clergy have the support of their diocesan bishop if they refuse a blessing for a civil partnership?
     
  • Will clergy have the support of their bishop if they refuse the sacraments of the Church to people who are living in such a same gender partnerships?
     
  • What is the legal position of the Church of Ireland if clergy refuse to recognise such partnerships, especially in light of the European Human Rights Legislation?

Some people may accuse Reform Ireland of stirring a hornet's nest, but here is the reality for clergy within Northern Ireland. We understand that a same gender civil partnership is to be registered in Belfast as soon as the Act becomes law. If that couple were to attend a parish church and wished to register as a civil partnership what could the rector do? Would he be breaking the law by not recognising the partnership? Can he refuse to register them as a partnership? Can he refuse them the sacraments of the Church? What is the pastoral response if those in such a partnership are asked to be godparents? These are the pastoral issues that will be created by this new legislation.

Unfortunately the Church of Ireland bishops have been silent on this issue and their Pastoral Letter on Human Sexuality only adds to the confusion. In sexual matters, as in other areas, our culture is in moral decline. All Christians are called not to compromise in their behaviour but to counter-cultural living. In this, and in the current crisis affecting the Anglican Communion, it is essential that our bishops give a clear lead in upholding traditional, orthodox and biblical teaching and its application to life.

Church of Ireland clergy and members, especially within Northern Ireland, need their diocesan bishops to publicly state their response to this new legislation and to give guidance on a pastoral response to it.

05th Sep 2005
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