Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria is greeted byArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams at a meeting of Primates last year at Lambeth Palace, Williams’ official residence. (Anglican Communion News Service photo)

In one of his most provocative statements to date, Archbishop Peter Akinola, Primate of Nigeria, lambasted a recent Pastoral Statement issued by the Church of England House of Bishops on the British Civil Partnership Act scheduled to come into force on December 5.

According to the terms of the new act, people of the same gender would remain unable to get married, but would have the opportunity to acquire a new legal status by registering a civil partnership with each other that would entitle them to many of the same rights and privileges as married couples.

In their July 25 statement, the English bishops re-affirmed traditional church teaching that “marriage, defined as a faithful, committed, permanent and legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman, is central to the stability and health of human society” and that “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively”.

The bishops accordingly made clear that “clergy of the Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership.” However, on the grounds that “the legislation does…leave entirely open the nature of the commitment that members of a couple choose to make to each other when forming a civil partnership” and that “it is not predicated on the intention to engage in a sexual relationship.” They also stated that:

  •  “where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case”;
  •  “entering into a civil partnership” was not “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, [1991],” which states that clergy in England do not have “the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships”;
  •  “lay people who have registered civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and communion”.

It was these last provisions that apparently most angered Archbishop Akinola, according to his statement of August 8. “The language of the Civil Partnership Act makes it plain that what is being proposed is same-sex marriage in everything but name....,” he said.

“I find it incomprehensible, therefore, that the House of Bishops would not find open participation in such ‘marriages’ to be repugnant to Holy Scriptures and incompatible with Holy Orders...,” said Akinola.

“I also note with alarm,” the archbishop continued, “that the statement encourages the church to ask nothing of lay people who become registered same-sex partners before they are admitted to baptism, confirmation and communion. This...makes it obvious that the bishops...are proposing a deliberate change in the discipline of the church....I call on the House of Bishops of the Church of England to renounce their statement and declare their unqualified commitment to the historic faith, teaching and practice of the Church. Failure to do so will only add to our current crisis.”

The overall impact of the British Civil Partnership Act obviously remained unclear, as did that of the Canadian legislation (Bill C38) authorizing same-sex marriages that was passed June 29. The British government estimated, however, that by 2010 between 11,000 and 22,000 partnerships might have been registered - a development that only seemed likely to add to pressures on churches to become more accommodationist in their response to such a shift in social mores.

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