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Synod members express frustration at slow progress on blessings for same-sex couples

08 July 2023

Bishop of London: ‘We need to get this right rather than get it done quickly’

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The General Synod meets to discuss progress on the Prayers of Love and Faith for same-sex couples, on Saturday afternoon

The General Synod meets to discuss progress on the Prayers of Love and Faith for same-sex couples, on Saturday afternoon

TEMPERS were frayed and emotions were in evidence as the General Synod digested an update on the progress towards introducing blessings for same-sex couples. The update clearly underwhelmed and frustrated many Synod members.

In an informal session on Saturday afternoon, bishops conversed about the working groups (News, 29 March 2023) that flowed out of February’s vote in favour of the Prayers of Love and Faith, and outlined what was left to be done.

It had been announced in advance that neither the prayers themselves nor the pastoral guidance intended to replace Issues in Human Sexuality would be ready for synodical scrutiny before November.

A third working group, looking at “pastoral reassurance” for clergy opposed to the blessings, was also only ten to 15 per cent complete, its co-chair, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, conceded.

Significant issues remained unresolved, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, told the Synod. She is in overall charge of steering the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process to its practical conclusion. Among the issues was the relationship between holy matrimony and civil marriage; the relationship between doctrine and teaching; and the different canonical routes available to implement the Prayers of Love and Faith.

The three working groups had now been disbanded, and their remaining projects merged, because their work was overlapping so much.

Bishop Watson said that his group had been considering structural differentiation: the big demand from the conservative Evangelical wing of the Church. They had come up with five different ways that this could be achieved, ranging from opt-in-opt-out systems through to extended episcopal oversight.

A common refrain in the answers to Synod members’ questions during the session was that an issue would be covered by the pastoral guidance. So much so, that the Bishop of Stockport, the Rt Revd Sam Corley, who co-chaired that working group, joked that even the date of the Second Coming would probably be covered by the much-anticipated guidance.

The guidance needed to be clear and compassionate as well as able to stand the test of time for years into the future. “Let me tell you, it’s really, really complex,” he said.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, walks across the University of York campus on Saturday. During the LLF discussions, she spoke with barely concealed fury about the entire process

The temperature began to rise in the chamber as frustrations over the slow progress were aired.

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, spoke with barely concealed fury about the entire LLF process. “I suspect that if my blood pressure was taken at the moment, it would be off the Richter scale.”

All of our children and grandchildren were having sex, she said — but nobody was refusing to walk with them in the Church, or consign them to “an outhouse”.

She despaired of Synod members who were “speaking so glibly” about differentiation, using the example of the women-bishops settlement. “Actually, the women bishops thing ain’t working — and we are paying the price.”

Her heart was breaking as she listened to the conversation under way, she said, at the “callous refusal” to walk together with LGBTQ+ believers.

Most of those coming forward for heterosexual weddings in church were living together and having sex, so what was it about homosexual sex, she demanded, that so upset the Church?

“Why are we reacting in such a visceral way? What is it? What does it say about us?”

Other members demanded reassurances that the bishops were not trying to renege on their commitments made in February. Canon Kevin Goss (St Albans), for example, was concerned that a “reverse ferret” was under way.

But while some members expressed their frustrations at delays, several others took the opportunity to question the entire enterprise.

The Revd Charlie Skrine (London) said that, without clarity on whether extra-marital sex was sinful or holy, there could be no resolution to the knotty questions the bishops were working on.

And Ros Clarke, a laywoman from the Lichfield diocese, said that, despite all the friendship and empathy developed during LLF, no common ground had been established. “It may be the case [that] there is no timeframe in which we could square this circle,” she warned the bishops. “The group may have been given an impossible task.”

Other members probed into the contentious question of how the prayers would be implemented: whether simply commended, or authorised, or going through the full synodical process.

And others returned to the debate about whether the prayers were, in fact, counter to the accepted doctrine on marriage, despite the House of Bishops’ legal advice that they were not.

Numerous attempts were made to get the panel of bishops to say what was coming in November, but little was revealed. Indeed, Bishop Mullally told the Synod that, while she committed to bringing something back to the next session, work on sexuality would not stop in November.

A new Pastoral Consultative Group had been established to consider a future timeline of work on topics LLF had not covered in detail. This would feed into the new pastoral guidance. Bishop Mullally did, though, reveal that this would not be a book like Issues but would, instead, be a more dynamic and updateable document.

Some would believe that the bishops were dragging their feet, while others would feel they were moving too quickly, she acknowledged. But, she said: “We need to get this right rather than get it done quickly.”

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