The recent General Synod of the Church of England held several debates that got media attention. It debated the breakaway Anglican Church of North America (Synod “affirmed” the new church’s desire to be in communion, but declined to do anything about it), Women Bishops (It’s going to happen, but they are still trying to agree what special arrangements to make for grumpy old male clergy who think it is scandalous), and the effect of violent computer games on children. There was also a speech from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in which he asked everyone to please calm down, and “profoundly” apologised to gay people, and a speech from the President of the Methodist Conference Revd. David Gamble, saying that God is more important than individual church groups and that Methodism was willing to cease to exist if necessary.

Beyond Civil Partnership

Tucked away amongst all this was a debate on clergy pensions. It was so tucked away and boringly titled that much of the media didn’t notice it. In fact, many of the clergy themselves didn’t seem to have thought through the significance. And, curiously, that is what gives the debate its significance – this battle hadn’t been rehearsed.

Synod voted “…to bring forward changes to the rules governing the clergy pensions scheme in order to go beyond the requirements of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 and provide for pensions benefits to be paid to the surviving civil partners of deceased clergy on the same basis as they are currently paid to surviving spouses.”

A history of gay clergy

Sounds fairly innocuous, but the Civil Partnership Act is about giving committed same-sex couples a legal status more-or-less equivalent to marriage, with the ensuing rights and responsibilities. This includes pension rights, and this Synod vote goes further than the legislation by back-dating the pension rights for clergy. In doing so Synod publicly recognises not only that there are gay clergy (which we all knew), and not only that this has been true for quite some time (or why backdate it?),  and not only that these same-sex relationships can be seen as equivalent to marriage, but by extending the rights of the Act says that the Church actually believes in this and is not being pushed into it by a secular society.

So a church that doesn’t ordain gay people admits they have been ordained for a long time. A church that refuses to conduct same-sex marriages treats Civil Partnerships as of equal standing.  Many will shout “hypocrisy!”, others will scream “betrayal!”. An alternative reading is that this is a church slowly coming to terms with what it really believes. The big, staged debates simply go over all the old arguments, treating people as groups rather than individuals, and caution usually wins out, but in this less hyped debate the question wasn’t about the stereotypes and bible verses but about how the church wanted to treat the partners of faithful servants. The outcome, I think,  says a lot.