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Bishops’ proposals to bless same-sex couples carried by Synod, despite sustained opposition

09 February 2023

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally

THE General Synod has agreed to welcome the Bishops’ proposals to provide prayers to bless same-sex unions in church — but with a last-minute clarification that their use would not contradict the Church’s current teaching on marriage.

The debate on the proposals (News, 20 January), which began after lunch on Wednesday, overran by several hours, concluding at lunchtime on Thursday with a vote by houses.

The result was: Bishops, 36 in favour, four against, with two abstensions; Clergy, 111 in favour, 85 against, with three abstensions; Laity, 103 in favour, 92 against, with five abstensions.

The size of the vote against the blessings — after eight hours of debate and six years of discussion about sexuality and identity through the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) project — was a clear indication that the chief concern here was not to mollify those who had wanted to be able to marry same-sex couples in church rather than just bless them, as some had thought.

Instead it was to keep conservative Evangelicals in a Church which, as many of them see it, was proposing to endorse extra-marital sex.

The compromise thrashed out in several meetings of the College and House of Bishops was carefully guarded throughout the debate, despite dozens of attempts to alter and remove clauses — or, in one instance, rewrite it entirely.

But the narrowness of the vote on several of the conservative amendments indicated that approval of the final motion endorsing the blessings was not a foregone conclusion.

To get it over the line, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, agreed to an amendment stating that there was no change of marriage doctrine involved. And the Archbishop of York promised further discussions with conservatives to secure their continued place in the Church.

The debate began on Wednesday afternoon, and was characterised by procedure — each amendment was lost by a count of houses, allowing the bishops to vote down any that deviated from their desired process — and high emotion, most notably from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who spoke of the serious consequences that the sexuality debate had on Christians in the Anglican Communion (see separate story).

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Synod votes on the final motion on Thursday lunchtime

As the debate resumed on Thursday morning — “Mama Mia, here we go again,” said the chair, Geoffrey Tattersall (Manchester) — amendments continued to fall, albeit narrowly among the houses of clergy and laity.

It was not until mid-morning that the Synod agreed its first and only amendment, albeit by a whisker. The first of two moved by Canon Andrew Cornes (Chichester), it asked the Synod to “endorse” the Bishops’ decision not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage (between one man and one woman), and clarified that “the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England”.

The count on the amendment was: Bishops, 22 in favour, 14 against, with four abstentions; Clergy, 100 in favour, 94 against, with three abstentions; Laity, 98 in favour, 96 against, with four abstentions.

This result came shortly before a point of order from Stephen Hofmeyr (Guildford), who argued that voting by houses on proposals from the bishops was inappropriate because it gave bishops an “in-built power to block each and every amendment” — this prompted loud and sustained applause from all sides of the chamber. Mr Hofmeyr reminded the bishops of the pastoral principles, one of which is “pay attention to power”. If votes by houses continued, they ought at least to abstain, he suggested.

The chair, Mr Tattersall, said that he was constrained by the standing orders which permitted the House of Bishops to vote by houses. He might also have mentioned that none of the calls for votes by houses came from the bishops.

The liberals were not silent, however. One of the lost amendments on the second day was an attempt by Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) to replace the final clause of the motion — which asked the Bishops to monitor the use of the prayers and report back to Synod in five years — with a request to bring forward proposals for same-sex marriage to the next sessions in July. In the vote on the amendment, only one bishop was in favour, but the margins were closer among the clergy (79 in favour, 105 against) and laity (89 in favour, 102 against).

A similar amendment from Vicky Brett (Peterborough), which asked to test the mind of Synod on equal marriage within the next two years, was also lost. She argued that the legal advice from the Bishops suggested that civil marriages, even for straight couples such as herself, were all invalid, which she said was absurd. God was not obsessed with sex, but with love, she said.

Two other amendments had already been lost at this point: one, to authorise Prayers of Love and Faith via the Canon B2 process, with a synodical vote which would protect clerics from legal challenges; a second, which would require both the incumbent and the PCC to vote in favour of using the prayers before any services of blessing could be held.

Canon Cornes then proposed his amendment, aided by Bishop Mullally, who said that she would not resist it.

Canon Cornes understood that his proposal would be hurtful to some, but argued that there remained a huge lack of clarity about whether the C of E was changing its teaching on sex. Christ was radically inclusive and radically conservative, he argued, and if Jesus had not agreed with the condemnation of same-sex activity, he had “grossly misled” his listeners.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe chair of the debate, Geoffrey Tattersall (Manchester)

In favour, the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Jonathan Gibbs, said that the amendment would not only reaffirm what was implicit in the Bishops’ proposals, it would affirm the substantial conservative minority in the Synod. Without it, many would be unable to vote for the main motion, he said, including himself.

Opposing, the Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (Liverpool) said that it was not true that there had been a settled definition of marriage throughout Christian history. “The Church has not taught consistently for 2000 years that sex outside of marriage is a sin,” she said. Much of the historical discussions about marriage had primarily been about power rather than sex, she said.

Conversely, Sophie Clarke (London) said that she and her fiancé were waiting for marriage before having sex. “I am devastated at the possibility that my leaders and shepherds of this Church might be telling me that our decision to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ is unnecessary.”

Canon Corne’s second amendment — that the prayers “should not be used so as to indicate or imply affirmation of sexually active relationships outside Holy Matrimony or to invoke God’s blessing on such relationships” — was lost.

With all the amendments seen, debate resumed on the main motion, now amended.

The first speaker was a Global South Primate, the Archbishop of the Province of Alexandria, Dr Samy Fawzy Shehata, who affirmed his backing for traditional Anglican teaching, including Resolution 1.10 from the 1998 Lambeth Conference.

The Church today could not claim to understand Jesus’s teaching better than the apostles of the early Church, he said, and blessing same-sex unions would cross a line and alienate 75 per cent of the Anglican Communion. “Please, please, do not surrender your unique position as the mother Church of the Anglican Communion.”

Archbishop Cottrell said that the proposals needed to be understood as a single package: no change to the doctrine of holy matrimony, while acknowledging the legal and pastoral reality of same-sex partnerships. These services were purely optional, he reiterated, but protections for conservatives were needed.

“I won’t be able to commend these prayers until we have the pastoral guidance and pastoral provision,” he said. He asked Bishop Mullally to offer this reassurance. Baptismal identity must trump theological disagreement, he said.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, also endorsed calls for a “settlement” to offer structural differentiation for those who felt unable to accept the new prayers.

By contrast, Alison Coulter (Winchester) supported the motion, saying that, as an Evangelical, she was “outside of her tribe” on this issue. Tolerance and freedom of conscience was crucial, she said.

Calling on Synod to reject the motion, Laura Oliver (Blackburn), said that, as a gay Christian committed to celibacy, the proposals made her “invisible”. This was also the view of the final speaker, the Revd Kate Wharton (Liverpool), before a motion for closure was carried. “I’m 44, a single, celibate virgin, and incidentally not lonely,” she said. “I fear that the impact of this motion is not to draw us together but to push us apart.”

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesVicky Brett (Peterborough) moves her amendment

Replying to the debate, Bishop Mullally acknowledged that the past eight hours had been “difficult and costly”, but urged the Synod not to act out of fear. She dismissed claims that the divisions over sexuality were too great to be bridged. The debate and motion had not been about winning or losing, she said.

She recognised the need for pastoral reassurance and protection, and the “anxiety” around the new pastoral guidance, yet to be written. She promised to bring this back to the Synod once it had been drawn up.

“The motion commits the Church to a journey of repentance, and repentance does require change in the way we behave in our life together,” she concluded.

At the end of a minute of silent prayer, Archbishop Welby prayed for the “gift of peace”.

After the vote was carried, Bishop Mullally addressed the Synod as the chair of the Next Steps Group, acknowledging that some would be grateful for the vote, while others would be “hurting”. In the coming months, the Bishops would reflect on what had been said, and chief among these concerns would be how to guard the conscience of those for whom the proposals went too far.


The final motion as amended and carried read:

‘That this Synod, recognising the commitment to learning and deep listening to God and to each other of the Living in Love and Faith process, and desiring with God’s help to journey together while acknowledging the different deeply held convictions within the Church:

(a) lament and repent of the failure of the Church to be welcoming to LGBTQI+ people and the harm that LGBTQI+ people have experienced and continue to experience in the life of the Church;

(b) recommit to our shared witness to God’s love for and acceptance of every person by continuing to embed the Pastoral Principles in our life together locally and nationally;

(c) commend the continued learning together enabled by the Living in Love and Faith process and resources in relation to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage;

(d) welcome the decision of the House of Bishops to replace Issues in Human Sexuality with new pastoral guidance;

(e) welcome the response from the College of Bishops and look forward to the House of Bishops further refining,

commending and issuing the Prayers of Love and Faith described in GS 2289 and its Annexes;

(f) invite the House of Bishops to monitor the Church’s use of and response to the Prayers of Love and Faith, once they have been commended and published, and to report back to Synod in five years’ time;

(g) endorse the decision of the College and House of Bishops not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage, and their intention that the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England.’

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