THE Diocese of Hereford has asked the House of Bishops to commend an “order of prayer and dedication” to be used for same-sex couples after a civil partnership or marriage.
The Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Richard Frith, who spoke and voted for the motion in his diocesan synod last week, told the BBC on Sunday that the motion was “right and consistent” with the House of Bishops’ call for the “radical Christian inclusion” of LGBT people.
The motion was carried by 41 to 18, with four abstentions. It reads: “That this Synod request the House of Bishops to commend an Order of Prayer and Dedication after the registration of a civil partnership or a same-sex marriage for use by ministers in exercise of their discretion under Canon B4, being a form of service neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter, together with guidance that no parish should be obliged to host, nor minister conduct, such a service.”
A briefing paper from the Hereford bishop’s council to the synod states that the request is modelled on the provision made in the 1980s for couples who had married a second time after a divorce. It says that the order of service “whilst providing officially for the first time for prayer in support of a same-sex couple, should be carefully drafted (as is that for remarriage) to avoid particular theological statements”.
It goes on: “Given that the Church of England in part defines its doctrine through its authorised liturgies, even if this service did not amount to a change in marriage, it would increase pressure towards such a change, and Diocesan Synod would need to be confident that it wished to make a potentially controversial call.” It warns that the diocese’s partner diocese, Tanzania, is “likely to be dismayed at such a resolution”.
Furthermore: “If the motion is rejected, it will be experienced as ongoing rejection and exclusion by gay people who are seeking to follow God in conscientious belief that he calls them to faithful and committed relationships as much as he does heterosexuals who may marry in our churches by right. If the motion is approved, it will be experienced by others as a rejection of faithfulness to Scripture, and may lead those who hold the traditional position to feel unwanted in our diocese.”
In a statement, OneBodyOneFaith, formerly the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, responded: “Of central importance is the principle of not compelling anyone to act against their conscience — but at the same time permitting those who wish to celebrate and affirm faithful and committed relationships, to act with integrity too. . . There is widespread support for affirming same-sex couples, and being alongside them as they experience the joy and blessing of their relationships.”
Bishop Frith told Sunday on BBC Radio 4 that “the momentum” for the motion had come from local parishes, where clergy were being approached by couples seeking a blessing.
It was, he said, “right and consistent with the approach which the Church of England is adopting in trying to be more welcoming to such couples, and we are wanting clear guidance as to what we may be able to do, without changing the doctrine.” He recalled to the House of Bishops’ reference to a “fresh tone and culture of welcome” in their report, produced in the wake of the Shared Conversations (News, 24 February), and the Archbishops’ call for “radical Christian inclusion”.
The bishop’s council briefing envisages that the motion will be “almost certainly ‘parked’ at least in the short term” at General Synod, “but available for debate as and when the Business Committee judge it helpful”. It goes on: “A similar motion from Southwark on women bishops remained on the agenda for over 10 years, and contributed to moving that process forward.”
This motion pre-empts any guidance from the Pastoral Oversight Group, set up by the House of Bishops this year and chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle, tasked with advising dioceses on the pastoral response to those in same-sex relationships. During the July General Synod, the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked whether the timescale for the work reflected the urgency of the issue (News, 14 July). The Bishops were also challenged about how theology, doctrine, and pastoral responses would cohere.