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ENGLAND: Bishops call for church review of civil partnerships, same-sex relationships

[Episcopal News Service] The House of Bishops of the Church of England has asked for a review of the church's stance on civil partnerships and same-sex relationships in light of recent changes in the country's laws and because "the last substantive engagement with the issue was in 2005," said Bishop Graham James of the Diocese of Norwich in an introduction to the bishops' July 1 statement.

Part of the review will look into whether clergy who have registered their civil partnerships should be eligible for nomination to the episcopate, the bishops say.

Civil partnerships were legalized in the United Kingdom by the Civil Partnership Act of 2004, which became law in December 2005. The Church of England currently makes no provisions for civil partnership ceremonies in its churches, although some clergy are believed to perform blessings at their discretion and the bishops acknowledged in their July 1 statement that "a number of clergy are now in civil partnerships."

"Contrary to popular perception the House of Bishops has spent very little time over recent years discussing homosexuality," said James, noting that the review would include "examination of whether priests in civil partnerships should be eligible for appointment as bishops" because the House of Bishops' 2005 statement was silent on that issue.

James said that in order "to avoid pre-empting the outcome of the review the house has concluded that clergy in civil partnerships should not, at present, be nominated for episcopal appointment."

The review will be completed in 2012, he said.

The House of Bishops also "has committed itself to a wider look at the Church of England's approach to same-sex relationships more generally" in the light of the Anglican Communion's Listening Process, James said, adding that a consultation document should be expected in 2013. "The house's decision is motivated by a desire to help shape the continuing debate constructively and not by any view about what the outcome should be."

The U.K. Parliament agreed in 2010 to amend the Equality Act -- which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation -- so that religious organizations could decide to hold civil partnership ceremonies in places of worship.

"The review will need to take account of this changing scene," the bishops said. "We recognize that bishops and clergy have found ways of engaging pastorally with those in civil partnerships, both at the time of registration and subsequently. Within the Anglican tradition our theological thinking is formed by a reasoned interpretation of Scripture, within the living tradition of the Church informed by pastoral experience. The House believes there is a theological task to be done to clarify further our understanding of the nature and status of these partnerships."

The bishops' statement comes on the heels of a Church of England report, titled "Choosing Bishops," which includes proposed guidelines about church policy in light of the Equality Act and which say, in part, that "a person's sexual orientation is, in itself, irrelevant to their suitability for episcopal office or indeed ordained ministry more generally."

But the report also implies that a priest in a civil partnership who might be considered for appointment as bishop should remain celibate.

-- Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter of Episcopal News Service.

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