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Bishops go public with their rift over blessings for same-sex couples

12 October 2023

Sam Atkins/Church Times

Living in Love and Faith is discussed at the last General Synod, in York, in July

Living in Love and Faith is discussed at the last General Synod, in York, in July

TWELVE bishops have publicly dissented from the decision, announced on Monday by the House of Bishops, to commend blessings for same-sex couples. The 12 said that there is “deep disagreement within the House”.

In a statement published on the website of Premier Christianity on Thursday morning, the signatories say that they are “unable to support the collective decisions made by the House which we believe fail to safeguard the pastoral stability, mission and unity of the Church”.

On Monday, after a meeting of the House, it was announced that agreement had been reached “in principle” that the Prayers of Love and Faith should be commended, and thereafter used in existing liturgies, but that stand-alone services using the prayers would require full synodical approval (News, 10 October).

The dissenting group includes seven diocesan bishops, as well as two suffragan bishops elected to the house and bishops designated as Provincial Episcopal Visitors, who are non-voting members. There are currently 53 members of the House of Bishops.

In their statement, they call on their colleagues to “reconsider the course we saw mapped out in our meeting”.

Disagreement among the bishops on the issue of same-sex relations is well known, but Monday’s statement — which began “The Church of England’s House of Bishops has agreed . . .” — gave the impression of its being a collective decision of the whole house, given the concession it contained to refer the Prayers to the General Synod.

But Thursday’s statement undermines this apparent collegiality. It continues: “We have participated in good faith in attempts to find consensus but were unable to support the decisions taken on Monday. There was deep disagreement within the House.

“Sharing the profound concerns of many in the Church of England and in the wider Communion, with heavy hearts we find it necessary to dissent publicly from the decisions of the House.”

The signatories to the statement are the Bishops of Blackburn, Chichester, Guildford, Hereford, Rochester, Sheffield, and Southwell & Nottingham, along with the Suf­­fragan Bishop of Lancaster, Dr Jill Duff (the only woman on the list), and the Suffragan Bishop of Isling­ton, as well as the Bishops of Beverley, Ebbsfleet, and Oswestry, each of whom ministers to a con­­stituency of the Church which does not accept the ministry of women priests and bishops.

They set out their opposition to the commendation of the prayers separately from the authorisation of the new services, saying that it “does not permit the General Synod to consider the full significance of the prayers”.

In an echo of letters sent to the College of Bishops in the summer (News, 14 July), the group suggests that “legal and theological advice the house has received suggest clearly to us that the decisions of the house may fall short” of a commitment that the new prayers would not be “indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England”.

They also seem to criticise the process by which the prayers are being approved, writing that the Bishops “must have due regard to the obligations of good and proper governance”.

On Thursday afternoon, the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) released a statement welcoming the bishops’ decision to publicise their dissent. The national director of the CEEC, Canon John Dunnett, said that he was “very grateful to these bishops for critiquing the process by which the House of Bishops is pursuing their agenda for change.

“There must be proper and fit use of power, not misuse and abuse of power. I wonder if there’s a hint here that good process in respect of the use of power has not always been at the top of the agenda. I share with the signatories the deep desire that we remain true to the gospel as entrusted to us.”

But Jayne Ozanne, a General Synod member and campaigner for LGBT inclusion in the Church, described the statement by the dissenting bishops as “pretty appalling behaviour”.

She said: “They will never agree to anything — it’s time the rest of the House stood up to them. The ‘unity at any cost’ mantra only ever hurts LGBT people, who continue to bear the weight of a dysfunctional leadership.”

 

SINCE the the House of Bishops’ announcement on Monday, there has been pressure on Bishops to recant their decision, of which Thursday’s statement is just the most significant example.

The Church Times has seen a letter sent to the bishops in St Albans diocese by the Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship, which says that it is “compelled to resist” the decision of the House of Bishops to commend the blessings, and calls them a “departure from the historical, biblical, and orthodox teaching of the Church on sin, repentance, and salvation”.

The Fellowship says that there “will inevitably be consequences” if the prayers are approved. “We will not be able to welcome a bishop who welcomes and supports the use of these prayers to preach, preside, confirm, ordain, or perform any other act of spiritual oversight within our churches,” they say, but will “actively seek the ministry of a bishop who is willing to reject the use of these prayers”.

And, on Thursday, a group of 78 ordinands, drawn from 26 dioceses, wrote to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to “convey [their] grief in seeing the current direction of travel concerning the Prayers of Love and Faith”, arguing that it is a departure from Anglican doctrine.

The prayers “leave us feeling vulnerable and concerned”, they write. “We anticipate fracturing across the Church of England if they are implemented. We fear harm to the Church’s gospel witness if they proceed.”

The ordinands, all but two of whom remained anonymous, suggest that moves towards adopting the prayers has already had an impact on the number of people entering the discernment process.

The 12 bishops’ statement in full:

“On Monday the House of Bishops reached a decisive point in the journey discerning how to proceed in relation to Living in Love and Faith. We have participated in good faith in attempts to find consensus but were unable to support the decisions taken on Monday. There was deep disagreement within the House. Sharing the profound concerns of many in the Church of England and in the wider Communion, with heavy hearts we find it necessary to dissent publicly from the decisions of the House.

“We welcome the fact that the House recognised the need for General Synod to exercise its legitimate responsibilities in relation to liturgy and doctrine under Canon B2. However, the decision to commend the suite of prayers for use in public services bypasses those procedures and does not permit the General Synod to consider the full significance of the prayers. Nor can Synod determine whether the bishops have fulfilled their intention (supported in February) that the final form of the prayers should not be “indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England”. Indeed, legal and theological advice the House has received suggest clearly to us that the decisions of the House may fall short of this commitment.

“We are also firmly of the view that we need to adhere to the commitment made to bring the Prayers of Love and Faith, the pastoral guidance and pastoral reassurance (including whatever formal structural provision is necessary) to Synod as a single package, rather than doing so in a piecemeal fashion. We are therefore unable to support the collective decisions made by the House which we believe fail to safeguard the pastoral stability, mission and unity of the Church.

“Faced with these sensitive matters over which there remains deep disagreement, we are committed as bishops to continue seeking to discern a way forward in the interests of the whole Church and to providing pastoral care for all. At the same time, we believe that bishops must have due regard to the obligations of good and proper governance. Even at this late stage, we urge our episcopal colleagues and the Archbishops, as joint Presidents of General Synod, to reconsider the course we saw mapped out in our meeting.

“We join the prayers of the whole Church as we seek to bear united and faithful witness to the good news of Jesus Christ entrusted to us, in the midst of the challenges we face as the Church and especially for our wider world at this time.”

The Bishop of Blackburn, Philip North
The Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner
The Bishop of Ebbsfleet, Rob Munro
The Bishop of Guildford, Andrew Watson
The Bishop of Hereford, Richard Jackson
The Bishop of Islington, Ric Thorpe
The Bishop of Lancaster, Jill Duff
The Bishop of Oswestry, Paul Thomas
The Bishop of Rochester, Jonathan Gibbs
The Bishop of Sheffield, Pete Wilcox
The Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, Paul Williams
The Bishop of Beverley, Stephen Race

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