Tougher sanctions against clergy who marry same-sex partner?

The on-going controversy following the publication of the House of Bishops Statement of Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage continued with the publication of two pieces in the Church Times: Bishops’ same-sex-marriage statement provokes anger and defiance; and Disobedient clergy risk rebuke. In addition to these, the CT posed as its “Question of the Week”: Should there be tougher sanctions against clergy who marry their same-sex partner?


One suspects that many readers will view this question in the light of the latter article which suggests that

“The maximum penalty for a first offence … is a rebuke[1]. Since a priest is unlikely to enter a gay marriage more than once, he or she might have relatively little to fear.”

However, the article also states

“the consequences for clergy who defy the guidance on same-sex marriage are unlikely to become clear until a test case is brought”,

echoing our own thoughts.  The Archbishop Cranmer blog suggests

“it is not what Canon Law prohibits in theory but how the bishops handle disobedience in practice which will determine and define the Church’s theology on same-sex marriage”.

But how will the bishops handle this? It is worthwhile reiterating the comments of the Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft when interviewed by William Crawley on Radio 4’s Sunday programme on 16th February. The interview concluded:


SC  We said the House of Bishops considers it would not be appropriate conduct for somebody in holy orders to enter into a same-sex marriage given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives and to live by that and we would hope that clergy would respect that advice and guidance. I would strongly suggest and all the bishops would prefer to have conversations with people initially if they are contemplating going further than that and we would not want to …

WC  You’re hoping not to have a standoff but Colin Coward says there are some challenges coming down the pipeline.

SC  We’ll need to meet those as we meet them. And it’s really hard to predict exactly what they will be and how they will be shaped because it’s hard to predict the particular circumstances …

Since then, there have been a number of public statements by bishops and these are being followed on Peter Ould’s blog. To date  they have included Norwich, Guildford, Oxford and Lincoln It would be unusual if these had been any more specific than Steven Croft, but Changing Attitude reports that the Bishop of Blackburn has approached clergy in his Diocese who have been open about having civil partnerships. Madeleine Davies’ article in the Church Times lists some of the potential challenges to the Bishop’s Statement, both in relation to same-sex marriage within the clergy and churches which are openly offering blessings after same-sex marriage and civil partnership ceremonies.

Our views of the legal issues involved appear to be in accord with those of the Revd Will Adam, editor or the Ecclesiastical Law Journal, reported in the Church Times article, i.e. the Church appears to be on “pretty safe ground” with regard to equality legislation; although clergy are subject to canonical obedience, the term is ill-defined and would be difficult to enforce; doctrinal offences fall within the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 although recourse to the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved is seldom pursued; and, a case might be brought under the Clergy Disciplinary Measure.  These last two options provide a range of possible sanctions.

Given the range of options potentially open to the CofE and the uncertainties involved in each, our answer to “Should there be tougher sanctions against clergy who marry their same-sex partner?” would be “tougher than what?”. In the meantime we will be re-reading the CDM, the Code of Practice and Other Guidance, and Adrian Iles’ article in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal, [2007] 9 Ecc LJ 10–23.


A detailed consideration of the application of the Clergy Discipline Measure to same-sex marriage within the clergy is given in Philip Jones’ post Clergy Discipline and Same Sex Marriage: Inappropriate Conduct?

[1] The wording of the CT article is “The maximum penalty for a first offence under this measure is a rebuke”, which from the subsequent text we assumed to refer to the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003, as amended, (CDM). However, it could apply to the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963.