The Church of England Responds to the Church of Sweden’s statements concerning same-sex partnerships:

A Response from the Faith and Order Advisory Group to the decisions of the Swedish Church Assembly concerning homosexual partnerships


In 2002 the Theological Committee of the Church of Sweden produced a discussion document entitled Homosexuals in the Church. As part of our relationship with the Church of Sweden under the Porvoo agreement, the Faith and Order Advisory Group (FOAG) was invited to comment on this document and a response by the Revd Canon Professor Oliver O’Donovan and The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris was sent to Sweden in 2004 on behalf of FOAG.

In October 2005 the Church Board of the Church of Sweden submitted to the Swedish Church Assembly a further document entitled Life Together and on the basis of this further document the Church of Sweden adopted a new official policy on homosexual partnerships. This new policy and the document underlying it raise important issues for our relationship with the Church of Sweden. Once again FOAG was invited by the Church of Sweden to respond and Professor O’Donovan and Dr Morris produced a further document which was sent to Sweden in January. The text of this second response is given below. It is hoped that this exchange will take its place in an ongoing dialogue between the Church of England and the Church of Sweden on the issues that it raises.

These recent developments in the Church of Sweden are part of a wider pattern of developments in relation to homosexuality, in a number of churches, that have raised serious issues for the Church of England’s ecumenical relationships. In order to think about these issues in their proper theological context, FOAG has initiated a major piece of work. This will look at the questions of what it means for the Church of England to be in communion with another church and how that communion might be affected by different approaches to ethical issues.

In addition to be being made available to members of the General Synod and sent to all the Anglican and Lutheran Churches of the Porvoo Agreement, the document below has been placed on the Council for Christian Unity’s section of the Church of England’s website www.cofe.anglican.org/info/ccu

The Revd Prebendary Dr Paul Avis

General Secretary: Council for Christian Unity

Church House

London SW1P 3NZ

27 January 2006
The Swedish Church Assembly decisions on homosexual partnerships

1. The nature of the decisions:

Two decisions were taken by the Swedish Church Assembly on October 27th 2005 on the recommendation of their Governing Board. They were: (a) the approval of four “statements”; (b) the insertion of a new paragraph in the Church Order conferring on the Church Board power to issue rules on the wording and use for an order of service for the blessing of registered partnerships.

(a) The four statements were as follows:-

It is not permissible to condemn the homosexual individual or place a burden of guilt on homosexual orientation;
The Church shall actively work to counteract discrimination of individuals on the grounds of sexual orientation;
The Church of Sweden should not sanction or run organised activities with the aim of “curing” homosexuals of their sexual orientation;
Homosexual orientation, or a life in partnership, does not constitute grounds for refusing ordination for service in the Church.
The first two of these are statements of principle, aimed at setting standards for pastoral care of homosexual persons, their scope limited to orientation (not practice) and to individuals (not couples). The second two are concrete decisions, one forbidding church involvement in adjustment-therapy, the other forbidding the church to treat homosexual orientation as an obstacle to ordination, and adding, as in parenthesis, “or a life in partnership”. All the material in these statements derives from the Theological Committee’s discussion document, Homosexuals in the Church (2002), which was circulated for discussion in parishes and dioceses. The fourth statement, however, taken out of its explanatory context in Homosexuals in the Church, assumes a more decisive sense than the Theological Committee gave it, which was simply that homosexual orientation or involvement in partnership should not imply exclusion a limine from ordination, but that “the homosexual person should be tested in the same way as other candidates”, leaving open the question of what kind of tests might be appropriate. The documentation of the Assembly’s decision never qualifies the position in this way, and leaves it to be supposed that a partnership will be sexually active.

(b) The second decision goes beyond the conclusions reached in Homosexuals in the Church, which found too wide a disagreement on the subject to be able to make a recommendation. In the document submitted by the Church Board to accompany its recommendations to the Assembly, Life Together (2005), a “well founded” disagreement was acknowledged, but it was argued that a “common ethical basis” could make such a disagreement tolerable. The blessing of partnerships was thus “compatible with the faith, creed and doctrine of the Church of Sweden”. No priest should be obliged to perform such a service of blessing, but it would be the duty of the Rector of a parish to ensure that a priest was available to conduct it, extending existing “right to marriage” provisions to include registered partnerships. The Church Board will now determine the order for the blessing of a partnership, having sought an “opinion”, which it is required to consider, from the House of Bishops. There will be a process of “evaluation” of the rite while it is in use. The new rite will supersede an existing form, authorised in 1995 as a pastoral office of prayer with registered partners and extended in 1999 to allow the attendance of a congregation. It will not have the effect of constituting the partnership, as a marriage service in the Church of Sweden may, but of blessing a partnership made by civil procedures, analogous to the blessing of a civil marriage.

Life Together acknowledged that “critical views” had been presented by “various ecumenical partners”, referring in particular to other Swedish churches, but argued that to wait for ecumenical consensus must mean “paralysis”. The reaction to the decision from the Church of Sweden’s ecumenical partners, including other Porvoo churches, has been stormy.

2. Moral-Ecclesiological issues:

In its reply to Homosexuals in the Church the Faith and Order Advisory Group of the Church of England expressed two anxieties among others: that there was insufficient clarity about how homosexuality was to be understood; and, that with too little acknowledgment of the role of the church as a moral community, the formula of “reconciled diversity” was invoked too quickly, and without the necessary ecumenical qualifications, to justify persisting in a course which put the integrity and unity of the Swedish church at risk. A course of action taken on the basis of such disagreements could hardly, it seemed, command the authority of an act undertaken in faith by the body of Christ led by the Holy Spirit. To these concerns there must now be added further concern at the speed with which this highly unresolved discussion in Homosexuals in the Church was brought to final decision and the basis on which the disagreement was disregarded as an obstacle. Life Together held that disagreement was tolerable, “provided that the common ethical basis is clear and explicit”. Following a distinction drawn from the work of the theologian Gustav Wingren, it argued that love is “the fixed point” in the order of creation, and that existing institutions and orders are “moveable”.

But that formula was surely not intended to mean that the use of the term “love” would itself be sufficient to ensure community of ethical outlook in the face of any possible substantial disagreement. Love, in the universal tradition of Christian ethics, responds to the unfolding of God’s love in creation, redemption and new creation, and is embodied in forms of mutual service that attest the wholeness and healing of the created order. To agree about love is to agree about its possible forms of embodiment. What conduct authentically embodies Christian love in the Church of Sweden’s view, and what conduct fails to embody it? How much weight is to be given to the traditional principles of Natural Law and to the commands of the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount? Much more unfolding of this pregnant formula is needed before it can be appealed to in support of the claim that the Swedish church, notwithstanding its far-reaching differences of moral judgment, has a “clear and explicit” common ethical basis.

Different circumstances call for different judgments; and a variety of emphasis in the evaluations Christians make of concrete situations can contribute to the wholeness of the judgment of the whole church. One Christian community should certainly not expect to see eye to eye with another on every specific issue, nor to make the same decisions in every concrete circumstance. But an underlying community of Christian moral outlook cannot simply be taken for granted. It requires more than a perfunctory mention if it is to be sustained in the face of concrete disagreements that tend of their very nature to raise disturbing doubts and suspicions. A community making a controversial decision carries a burden of responsibility to ensure that its reasoning is well understood, and understood to be Christian reasoning, even if it does not command immediate agreement. It needs to assure its critics that its actions are founded on a Spirit-given discernment of the application of the Gospel to its situation, not on submission to the moral fashions or ideologies of the age. In this case that would seem to require a much more painstaking exploration of the place of human sexuality in the purposes of God, open to wider questions and relating them to the doctrines of creation and redemption under the guidance of the whole teaching of the Bible about the will and acts of God. Without such an exploration it must be impossible to judge how extensive or how tractable the disagreements presenting themselves within the Church of Sweden are likely to prove, let alone think constructively about how they may be overcome.

3. Ecumenical-Ecclesiological Issues:

The Church of Sweden is by no means alone in having to face divisive pastoral and theological questions about homosexuality. The churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion are in the same position. It is not necessary to rehearse here the disagreements surrounding the resolutions of the Lambeth Conference of 1998 and attempts made since, most recently by the Primates meeting at Dromantine in 2005, to make progress towards a united approach. Since the authority of the Lambeth Conference is not at issue in relation to the Swedish Church, the problems posed by this decision are not symmetrical with problems arising from within the Anglican Communion itself. Nevertheless, they pose significant difficulties for the Church of England, bound on the one hand to the Anglican Communion through the Lambeth Conference and the other Instruments of Unity and on the other to the Church of Sweden through the Porvoo Agreement.

Given the similarity of the questions we face, the Church of England can sympathise with the pastoral motivations prompting the first two statements approved by the Assembly. Interpreted with the same care that is evident in their drafting, they could serve to foster a common spirit of constructive charity in the same way that they united the signatories to Homosexuals in the Church. On the third statement it may be observed that while there exist obvious targets for this condemnation, it runs the risk of condemning at the same time responsible therapeutic ministries suitable for certain kinds of case, and of begging some of the important underlying questions of principle. It is with the fourth statement, however, taken together with the Assembly’s second decision to authorise a rite for blessing of registered partnerships, that the Church of Sweden embarks on a course sharply divergent from that adopted by the Anglican Communion and by the House of Bishops of the Church of England. While nothing is said here to undermine the ecclesiology of ministerial order at the heart of the Porvoo agreement, it inevitably implies an unwelcome new limit on the interchangeability of ministries, since a Swedish priest in a registered partnership wishing to minister in the Church of England would be required, within the terms of the Overseas and Other Clergy Measure, to live according to the disciplines of the Church of England and would therefore have to expect to be asked for assurances that his or her relationship was consistent with the teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality.

The Church of England has obligations of loyalty to the processes and disciplines of the Anglican Communion on this matter. It also has obligations of loyalty, shared with the Church of Sweden, to a constructive process of building on the Porvoo Agreement and strengthening the fellowship of its members. Central to that fellowship was a commitment “to establish appropriate forms of collegial and conciliar consultation on significant matters of faith and order, life and work” (Porvoo Declaration, Commitment B8.) It was not, of course, the sole responsibility of the Church of Sweden to implement this commitment; nevertheless, the level of consultation prior to a major decision of importance both for Faith and Order and for Life and Work, fell short of what any reader of the Porvoo commitments would have expected. The Church of England received Homosexuals in the Church in 2004, two years after its publication, and a response was sent by the Faith and Order Advisory Group in the same year. Further communication over that response is still awaited. The refusal of the Governing Board to countenance delay while ecumenical partners’ objections might be considered was in itself disappointing; even more disappointing was the complete silence about Porvoo and its commitments in the advice the Governing Board gave to the Church Assembly. However, the Church of England welcomes a further invitation to respond to the decision now taken, and hopes that it will afford an occasion to discuss matters of concern in greater depth than hitherto. It is not clear whether this will be in time to influence the form of the rite to be published or the preliminary opinion to be prepared by the Swedish House of Bishops. For reasons to be elaborated below, it is very much to be hoped so.

The FOAG response to Homosexuals in the Church indicated that nothing in such a decision, which was then only hypothetical, would in and of itself alter the relation in which the two partners to the Porvoo Agreement stood to each other. But it also warned that it could well create difficulties in the implementation and further development of the Agreement. Subsequently, Life Together appeared to regard ecumenical difficulties as more or less inevitable and not worth spending time over. This creates a further danger that division will be worsened by an impression that the Swedish Church has taken all too lightly, and on its own, a decision with heavy implications for the whole oikoumenê, and not least for its Porvoo partners. But even if no special problems were raised for the Porvoo churches by decision (and responses have shown that the Church of England is not alone among them in finding it difficult), ecumenical understanding must go forward multilaterally as well as bilaterally, and the anxieties of other churches, not least those of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions, need to be weighed seriously in the course of deliberation and responded to with due care and respect.

4. The Theology of Marriage

There remains the question of the liturgy for blessing gay partnerships, still to be devised. Its content could be decisive in determining how serious an ecumenical block was put in the way of future relations.

Much will turn on how closely it is to resemble the form of Christian marriage. The Church of England, both in response to the Government’s policy consultation on the Civil Partnerships Act and in the House of Bishops’ guidelines on clergy in civil partnerships, has stressed the difference between partnership and marriage. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has stated: “It doesn’t presuppose there is a sexual relationship, it doesn’t presuppose that there is…what we would call, as Christians, a marriage.”[1] This position has not been without its critics, but it makes some important moral distinctions. The difficulties the Church of England finds with the new rite are likely to be much greater if it implies an equivalence between a registered partnership and marriage, whether marriage is understood simply as a created ordinance or as a sacramental image of the union of Christ and the church. They will also be much greater if it suggests that the church’s act of blessing a partnership is equivalent to the nuptial blessing, or that the homosexual orientation is an original gift of God in the unfallen order of creation.

A liturgy which, it is asserted, will express the “faith, creed and doctrine” of the Church of Sweden, needs to be unquestionably at one with the faith of the ecumenical creeds which the Porvoo partners share. The theological exposition in Life Together (which has not as such been endorsed by the Assembly) lays especial weight on the nature of blessing as an act and draws a direct comparison between the blessing of a partnership and the blessing of a marriage. In arguing for the extension of the concept of sacramentality to gay partnerships, it comments: “Here the distinction between what belongs to creation and what belongs to salvation loses its significance.” In what we hope will quickly become a much improved level of communication, the Church of England will wish to press the point that major doctrinal issues, not only ethical ones, are at stake in judgments of this kind.

[OMTO’D/JM] [12/01/2006]

[1] BBC Radio 5 Live, Dec. 6th 2005. http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=73

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