THE BISHOPS who chair the Council for Christian Unity (CCU) and the Faith and Order Advisory Group (FOAG) have published an open letter expressing concerns about a proposal to alter the marriage liturgy of the Church of Sweden.
The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill, and the Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Revd John Hind, were responding to a letter sent in late March to all Churches of the Porvoo Communion by the Archbishop of Uppsala, the Most Revd Anders Wejryd.
The letter from Archbishop Wejryd explains that, in the autumn, the Church of Sweden Synod will be considering a proposal to make changes to the Swedish marriage liturgy so that it can be offered to same-sex couples. This follows new civil legislation in Sweden which has, since 1 May, granted same-sex couples in Sweden the same legal marriage status as mixed-gender couples.
It also removed the possibility of creating new registered civil partnerships, which were introduced in Sweden in 1995. Existing partners may convert their relationship into marriage if they wish, but only marriage is available to new couples. The Church of Sweden has for many years approved the blessing of same-sex registered partnerships, and has provided a formal liturgy for this since January 2007. Until now, however, the Church has said that the word “marriage” should be reserved for a union between a man and a woman.
The letter from the English Bishops, dated 26 June, notes that Swedish approval of such blessings is already “problematic” for the Church of England, and reiterates the position expressed by the 1998 Lambeth Conference that same-sex sexual relationships should not be blessed, and those in such a relationship should not be ordained.
Describing the new Swedish proposal, as currently understood, to be apparently “a fundamental redefinition of the Christian doctrine of marriage”, FOAG says it is “acutely conscious of the immediate and negative consequences of moves within any of the Porvoo churches to revise Christian teaching and practice in matters of sexuality”. Such changes would have “particular implications for the limitation of the interchangeability of ordained ministry”, and could even “further undermine the fragility of the Anglican Communion”.
FOAG also says that “from a Church of England perspective it is vital for the Church to maintain a critical distance from the state.” It suggests, however, that the alternative, of ceasing entirely to solemnise marriages in church, which a majority of the Swedish bishops may favour, would still indicate a significant difference between the two Churches.
Both civil law and the Swedish proposal provide that no individual pastor will be obliged to act against his or her conscience.
The CCU has proposed that there should be a consultation among the Porvoo Churches next year. A Church of Sweden spokesman said this week that such a proposal was welcome, but would first need to be approved at the next meeting of Porvoo Primates in October. The spokesman also said that no other formal responses to the March letter had yet been received.
The Suffragan Bishop in Europe, the Rt Revd David Hamid, said: “We have very close working relations with our Swedish counterparts and understand to a degree the context in which that Church is ministering. However, from my own contacts with other Lutheran bishops in the region, a significant change in the doctrine and liturgy of holy matrimony would also affect relations among Lutherans, not only with Anglicans.”