The Leicester Mercury is a valuable source of current local information on the developments associated with the reburial of Richard III . However, this week it carried a story more pertinent to mainstream “law and religion” issues – the headline “’It is not a gay wedding’ – unholy row erupts over parish priest’s civil partnership service at church”. The story concerns the planned service of blessing in St Peter’s, Market Bosworth, to celebrate the civil partnership of the Team Rector of the Market Bosworth Benefice, Revd Dominic McClean, and his partner. From the reported facts, this does not appear to raise any significant legal issues since it concerns the personal opinions of a parishioner which he has pursued in letters to the Bishop of Leicester and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Revd Mr McClean is reported as confirming: the service in question was “a service of thanksgiving and commitment” for the civil partnership that he had entered with his partner; the service would be celebrated with family and friends; and he had discussed the matter with the Bishop of Leicester. Services such as this are in line with the House of Bishops’ 2005 Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships which says,
“[it] does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is willing 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”,
although there is a degree of ambiguity in the House of Bishops’ 2014 Statement on Same Sex Marriage, which states at paragraphs 19 and 20 [our emphasis]:
19. As noted above, same sex weddings in church will not be possible. As with civil partnership, some same sex couples are, however, likely to seek some recognition of their new situation in the context of an act of worship.
20. The 2005 pastoral statement said that it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships and that clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who registered civil partnerships. The House did not wish, however, to interfere with the clergy’s pastoral discretion about when more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances. The College made clear on 27 January that, just as the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage remains the same, so its pastoral and liturgical practice also remains unchanged.
Against this, the parishioner is quoted as saying:
“As far as I am concerned, and there a lot of fellow parishioners in this benefice who agree with me, this flies in the face of the official policy of the Church of England who do not bless gay marriages”.
“What people do in their private life is their concern but this a very symbolic service in the church where the Rev McClean is based”.
“This should not be allowed to happen in this church. It is not right and parishioners are staying away from churches in the benefice because of this.”
One underlying problem, therefore, appears to be his assumption that the service in question is a) a service of blessing; and b) is a service open to everyone, in the manner of the “occasional offices”.
Coming shortly after Canon Jeremy Pemberton’s announcement of the intended action in relation to his employment as a hospital chaplain, and at the commencement of the “shared conversations” following the Pilling Report, the current issues raised by the proposed a “service of thanksgiving and commitment” raise more questions for the Church of England on its handling of human sexuality issues than they do for the Revd Mr McClean.
As we have noted earlier, the Church’s position regarding blessings after civil partnership is unclear, and there have been different views on its practical application, as explored in the Revd Gavin Foster’s guest post on the Fulcrum site Church Services after a Civil Partnership Registration: What is and is not permitted?
In view of this uncertainty, it would be beneficial if rather than leaving decisions on such cases to individual bishops, as here, further guidance were provided as it seem likely that the issue of blessings after civil partnership will be raised again during the period in which the “shared conversations” are taking place.
 On Thursday 26 March 2015, the mortal remains of Richard III will be re-interred in Leicester Cathedral, with an invited congregation and in the presence of the Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.