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Archbishop of York backs experimental services of blessing for same-sex couples

13 November 2023

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Archbishop of York delivers his presidential address to the General Synod on Monday afternoon, after that given by the Archbishop of Canterbury

The Archbishop of York delivers his presidential address to the General Synod on Monday afternoon, after that given by the Archbishop of Canterbury

THE General Synod is to vote on whether stand-alone services of blessing for same-sex couples should be authorised immediately for experimental use rather than first undergoing a full synodical process.

The move would effectively reverse a decision made in the House of Bishops last month (News, 27 October), but seems to be supported by both archbishops.

A total of 13 amendments have been tabled to the motion to be tabled by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, on Tuesday afternoon, which recognises both the uncertainty surrounding the implementation of Prayers of Love and Faith for same-sex couples, and the progress that has already been made. The Synod’s agreement in February (News, 10 February) to commend the prayers has since been challenged by those who want the decision to be removed from the Bishops and given to the Synod.

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, has tabled an amendment asking the Bishops “to consider whether some stand-alone services for same-sex couples could be made available for use, possibly on a trial basis, on the timescale envisaged by the motion passed by the Synod in February 2023”.

In his presidential address, the Archbishop of York stated his support for the Oxford amendment, saying that the authorisation of the prayers on an experimental basis was a “sensible and pastoral way forward”. Doing so would give clergy and parishes “the legal protection they need” if they chose to use the Prayers of Love and Faith, he said. It would also mean that those, who, “in good conscience won’t use the prayers, will be under no compunction or compulsion so to do, nor will they be disadvantaged in any way by their decision”.

Experimental authorisation under Canon B5(A) requires the approval of both archbishops. At the start of his own presidential address, Archbishop Welby said that he was in “complete agreement” with the remarks that Archbishop Cottrell was planning to make.

Archbishop Cottrell said that the purpose of this contingency meeting of the Synod was to find “ways to enact the decision we made in February that will honour God, uphold the unity and doctrine of the Church, offer care, kindness, and compassion in our communities, serve our nation and most of all — for me, always most of all — make Jesus known.”

The disagreements between parts of the Church on the issue “appear to be stretching us to breaking point”, he said. “In different ways, and for different reasons, and to different degrees, many of us have arrived at this Synod feeling weary, fearful, confused, and even angry about it all.”

He also said, however, that he “dared to hope” that, “if we can tell a story of love and commitment to each other without our disagreements, then that is a story our world desperately needs to hear”.

Archbishop Cottrell sought to highlight areas of agreement, including that “there should be no place for homophobia in our Church,” despite disagreements about “the form that welcome should take” for LGBTQ+ people.

“I want to notice what we hold in common, I am thankful for it. I see Jesus in it,” he said. By going over some of the amendments to the motion which were due to be raised, he was not trying to “anticipate the debate”, but “to ask us to lift our eyes above the debate to see Jesus”.

In response to a question from the chamber on Monday afternoon, Bishop Mullally said that she, too, would likely support Dr Croft’s amendment to her motion.

Among the 12 other amendments being tabled is one brought by the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson. This pulls in the opposite direction to Dr Croft’s amendment, asking that the prayers themselves, not just stand-alone services, be subject to a full synodical authorisation process under Canon B2.

Documents seen by the Church Times show that Bishop Watson brought a similar amendment to the House of Bishops meeting on 9 October, at which it was defeated by 25 votes to 12.

The Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, has tabled an amendment calling on the House of Bishops “not to commend the draft suite of prayers before this Synod has considered the complete Pastoral Guidance replacing Issues in Human Sexuality”.

When the papers for this meeting of Synod were published on 20 October, they did not contain pastoral guidance on whether clergy would be permitted to enter same-sex civil marriages (News, 20 October).

In a press conference at the time, Bishop Mullally said that “more listening” needed to be done on this. An amendment tabled by the Revd Dr Sara Batts-Neal (Chelmsford) calls for this pastoral guidance to be issued by the end of March 2024.

The Church Times has seen multiple drafts of the guidance, which states clearly that clergy in same-sex civil marriages should not be denied either permission to officiate or a bishop’s licence, and that a majority of both the College and House of Bishops supported the adoption of such guidance (News, 26 October).

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, has tabled an amendment to include in the motion a commitment to providing “a clear way of distinguishing differing views” to “ensure that all God’s people are able to recognise those with whom they disagree”.

The Revd Vaughan Roberts (Oxford) has tabled an amendment which would “call on the House not to commend the draft suite of prayers before this Synod has considered proposals for structural provision having the confidence of both those who do and those who do not seek change”.

Other amendments tabled call for a referendum in which all Church of England electoral roll members could vote on the Prayers, and requests that the process of implementation be paused until legal advice received by the House has been published.

Continuing his presidential address, Archbishop Cottrell said that he was “really quite an orthodox Christian”, and knew that “one day I will have to give an account for my stewardship of God’s Church.

“In my leading of the Church, where there is conscientious and godly disagreement, I choose to err on the side of generosity, to err on the side of mercy,” he said, and spoke of the “fruit and the goodness and faithfulness” in “many gay and lesbian Christian couples, not least so many faithful clergy”.

“I believe we will be a richer and better Church for living in love and faith with those provisions that will hold us together,” he said.

He concluded his address by thanking Bishop Mullally for her leadership of the Living in Love and Faith process. Her term as co-chair with the Bishop of Winchester is due to end with the calendar year. The Bishops of Leicester and Newcastle, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow and Dr Helen-Ann Hartley respectively, are to take over as co-chairs next year.

Archbishop Cottrell said: “Her [Bishop Mullally’s] often costly willingness to continue having difficult conversations in order to help us continue walking together, and seeking above all to discern the will of God, has been, and is, an inspirational example of humble and persevering servant leadership.”

This statement was met with applause and a standing ovation from the majority of members, although some did not clap, and one stood with her back to the Archbishop of York.

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