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Letters reveal divisions among the Bishops over prayers for same-sex couples

07 July 2023

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

A view of the bishops’ benches at the General Synod in London in February, including two of the signatories, the Bishops of Sheffield (second row, left) and the Bishop of Rochester (front row, middle)

A view of the bishops’ benches at the General Synod in London in February, including two of the signatories, the Bishops of Sheffield (second row, lef...

A BURST of letter-writing has laid bare disagreements in the College of Bishops about the best mechanism for introducing the Prayers of Love and Faith to be used to bless same-sex couples in church.

The moves come as the General Synod prepares to gather in York on Friday.

Earlier this week (News, 5 July), a group of leaders from 11 different C of E organisations, including the HTB network, as well as the Catholic and Evangelical Groups on the Synod, wrote to the College of Bishops to argue that the Prayers, drafted under the auspices of the Bishops, should be subject to the Synod’s authorisation under Canon B2, a process that requires two-thirds majorities in each of the three Houses of Synod at the final-approval stage.

This has been widely interpreted as an attempt to halt the introduction of blessings for same-sex couples, an outcome of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process, or at least to delay them. When the Prayers were approved by the Synod in February, a two-thirds majority was achieved only in the House of Bishops.

Now even this support looks uncertain. The Church Times has seen a letter sent on Wednesday by a group of 22 bishops — including nine diocesans — who have written to their colleagues to welcome the letter from the “alliance of network leaders” and to support its call for the Prayers of Love and Faith to be returned to the Synod under Canon B2.

It is understood, however, that a larger group of bishops, believed to number more than 40, have warned against subjecting the prayers to a long, uncertain, and, they argue, unnecessary synodical process. Instead, they call for the prayers to be approved by the Archbishops under Canon B4.2.

(Canon B4.2 states: “The archbishops may approve forms of service for use . . . on occasions for which no provision is made in The Book of Common Prayer or by the General Synod under Canon B2 or by the Convocations under this Canon, being forms of service which in both words and order are in their opinion reverent and seemly and are neither contrary to nor indicative of any departure from the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.”)

The larger group is also thought to suggest that, if a route is taken that delays the use of blessings, some diocesan bishops might break ranks and commend the prayers for immediate use.

The letter advocating the use of Canon B2 argues that the synodical process is “designed for such material, providing robust methods of revision that properly test the theological and liturgical quality of the material and a participative process which works towards a consensus, which — while not unanimity — nevertheless represents something close to the common mind of the Church.”

They also argue that “other routes risk not only damaging the unity of the Church of England but, in so doing, also damaging the integrity of the Church’s episcopate”.

The letter concludes with an acknowledgement that “not every recipient of this letter will agree with this perspective”, and an assertion that the signatories “desire to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, and to play our part in forging a positive way forward.”

The letter has been signed by the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth; the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Jonathan Gibbs; the Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Richard Jackson; the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome; the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North; the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson; the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox; the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams; and the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner.

The former Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, who is now the director of the Centre for Cultural Witness at Lambeth Palace, and the former Bishop of Shrewsbury, the Rt Revd Mark Rylands, who now serves as a team rector in Exeter diocese, also signed the letter.

The other signatories are the suffragans Horsham, Woolwich, Lancaster, Plymouth, Lewes, Loughborough, Penrith, and Islington, as well as three of the bishops who provide episcopal oversight for parishes that have passed resolutions on the ministry of women: the Bishops of Fulham, Ebbsfleet, and Oswestry.

 

ON WEDNESDAY afternoon, a former Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, reacted to the publication of the letter from leaders of 11 C of E organisations by urging the College of Bishops to “hold (or discover) their nerve”.

In a post on Twitter, he wrote: “This will only go on, and become more shrill. Marginal people in the LGBT+ community don’t have this sort of resourced, organised, amplified voice; but it is they who pay the price for the way things are.”

On Thursday evening, a statement was published on the Prayer Book Society (PBS) website, stating that the organisation “holds no formal stance on the proposed liturgical resources, Prayers of Love and Faith”.

The current chairman of the PBS, Bradley Smith, was one of the signatories of the letter, with his affiliation to the organisation clearly stated. The letter, however, included a proviso that signatories were “signing in their personal capacities”.

The PBS statement on Thursday said: “Without consultation with the Society’s trustees, the Society’s Chairman signed the letter, without stipulating that reference to the Society should be omitted. The Chairman has expressed his regret at this oversight.”

Early in 1992, the leadership at that time of the Prayer Book Society declared its opposition to the ordination of women, a position that was later reversed after protests from members.

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