The Way We Live Now

Offering a helping hand to the liberal agenda


Ever thoughtful, ever helpful, ever forward looking, The Way We Live Now intends this month courageously to address an issue which, ere long, will assuredly come before the General Synod of the Church of England. What should be the pension rights of the same sex partners of women bishops?

There will, no doubt, be many readers of this magazine who are shocked by such a question, others who think that it is premature to be asking it at this stage, and still others who would rather that it were not addressed at all until there is consensus within the Church as a whole as to the way forward on these matters.

To this alliance of blinkered, homophobic, misogynist bigots (and if you read this magazine, there is a high probability that you are all of those things), I can only repeat what Jesus himself said (or would have said, with enhanced social conditioning): that such will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. (I am repeating, of course, not the ipsissima verba of Jesus – which might by some be interpreted as saying just the opposite – but my own summary of his general trajectory.)

But let me explain why this issue must be addressed now, and why it must be dealt with in terms of absolute parity with the arrangements made hitherto for the female spouses of male bishops. We will need to begin with a little history.

In the distant days before sex became gender, it was (at least primarily) about reproduction. ‘First,’ says Dr Cranmer, ‘It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord to the praise of his holy Name.’ Procreation means education; Cranmer cannot mention childbearing without child-rearing. ‘The fecundity of conjugal love,’ says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ‘cannot be reduced solely to the procreation of children, but must extend to their moral education and spiritual formation.’ [§2221]

Upon these two pegs hang all the financial, legal and social provisions which once surrounded matrimony. Because a social unit of two parents and their children was deemed primary and necessary, and because the nurture of children was thought to require permanence and stability in those relationships, the State and the Church together set about penalizing infidelity, criminalizing adultery and providing financial inducements to pairings which complied with the preferred pattern. Pensions for widows were simply part of this arrangement.

None of this any longer applies.

It is no longer thought desirable or even practical for couples to remain married to each other for the entire term of their natural lives. Taken together, divorce, re-marriage and serial cohabitation are now the norm. Equal pay for women and men in the workplace has effectively ensured that two incomes are required for each household. Nursery care by others has largely replaced home care by a parent. The social aims of early Soviet Communism – free love, communal childcare, and the destruction of the bourgeois family unit – have been painlessly achieved by general consent, and with the aid of reliable contraception and abortion on demand.

Far from being oppressively limited to procreation and child-rearing, sexuality itself has become an arena of consumer choice. Same-sex relationships have now gained effective legal parity. It is true that this was at first achieved by claiming acceptance for ‘stable monogamous’ same-sex relationships; but no one supposed that standards which did not apply to heterosexuals could reasonably be imposed on anyone else. In a free market economy, everything, as everybody knows, finds its own level.

And sexuality has become a free market economy – even to the extent that, under recent civil partnerships legislation and the Gender Recognition Act individuals can decide for themselves which sex they are, and couple and uncouple accordingly.

Liberal Christians have played a large and important part in this revolution of sensibilities. Whilst other religions have, for the most part, continued reactionary support for the family (however understood) as a social unit, Christians have leapt to the forefront of its destruction; none more consistently than the House of Bishops of the Church of England, as evinced over the years by its voting patterns in the House of Lords.

Pensions, of course, are but a small cog in the machine of progress. But they are symbolically important. Since pension provisions cannot be eliminated (no one likes to see the removal of benefits they are in the habit of receiving), they must be equalized. If the repression of legitimate alternatives which is attendant upon financial and social inducements offered to the traditional family is to be ended, all must have pensions and all pensions must be the same.

To make pension payments to the female relict of a male bishop and not to the male relict of a female bishop or the female partner of a female bishop would be tantamount to undermining the very status of women as bishops. It would clearly uphold the obscurantist, traditionalist view that there is something essentially or necessarily male or masculine about the role of bishop itself.

What has not been sufficiently realized in the campaign to see women ordained as bishops is the very extent of the task. We have thus far, for example, seen only the beginnings of the linguistic struggle. Noble work has been done in eliminating sex-specific language from translations of the Bible and other ancient texts. But the policing of the pronouns is only a start.

The real task lies in the total removal of that oppressive ‘family’ language which mars so much of traditional Christianity – not only offensive terminology like ‘Family Service’, with its covert masculinist undertones, but also the way in which many evangelical bishops have sought to implicate their wives, in some subordinate role, in their own ministry. ‘My wife and I…’

The family (as social policy in the second half of the twentieth century only went to show) is the enemy: and the erroneous notion of God as Father lies at the root of the problem. It is not enough merely to evacuate that image of its meaning theologically (though Jörgen Moltmann and Rowan Williams have both seen the importance of that); we need also to marginalize the actual concept of the family in social policy. So long as children grow up experiencing ‘fatherhood’ and ’motherhood’ as distinct and separate roles they will, like it or not, be inclined to apply those oppressive notions in a religious context.

So let’s hear it for equal pensions for the same sex partners of women bishops! It is a small step, but more depends on it than at first you might think.


Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark

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