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General Synod agrees to trial services for same-sex couples after marathon debate

15 November 2023

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

STAND-ALONE services of blessing for same-sex couples are to go ahead in trial form, after an amendment was made — by a narrow vote — to the main motion being debated by the General Synod.

The final motion was carried on Wednesday afternoon in all three Houses: Bishops 23-10, Clergy 100-93, and Laity 104-100.

The motion stated that the Synod “recognise the progress made by the House of Bishops towards implementing the motion on Living in Love and Faith (LLF) in February 2023 . . . and encourage the House to continue its work of implementation”.

The margins in the final vote were tighter than they had been in February’s vote on the original proposals (News, 9 February), in the House of Bishops as in the others: nine months ago, only four bishops voted against.

After Wednesday’s debate, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, confirmed that the Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF), which had been voted through in February, would be commended by the House of Bishops in mid-December, but it remained unclear exactly when stand-alone services would be available.

During the debate, a significant amendment calling for a trial period for stand-alone services was added to the motion by the barest of margins, being carried by just one vote in the House of Laity, 99-98, with two recorded abstentions. The House of Bishops broadly supported the amendment to their own motion, voting 25-16, and among the Clergy it was carried by 101-94, with one recorded abstention.

The outcome of this vote was met with gasps around the chamber, and a coordinated protest from the public gallery, with shouts that the Synod was “serving Satan”.

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, had put down the amendment calling for a trial period for the services of blessing, which, in effect, reversed a decision made by the House of Bishops in October to proceed straight to a full synodical process under Canon B2 without a trial period (News, 10 October). Authorisation under B2 requires final approval by two-thirds in all three Houses. On current voting patterns, it seems unlikely that it would be approved.

The Church Times subsequently revealed that the vote taken in the House of Bishops on moving straight to B2 was carried by a narrow margin, 19-16 (News, 26 October).

This vote was reversed in the House of Bishops on Wednesday, however, as had been expected after the Archbishop of York said in his presidential address on Monday that he would back the amendment, and the Archbishop of Canterbury implied that he would do likewise (News, 13 November).

On Wednesday, Bishop Mullally said that the Bishops had “heard the concerns” expressed about the B2 process, and said that B5(A) would provide “clarity” that the services would be used on an opt-in basis.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, speaks in the debate

Although Dr Croft’s amendment did not specify what mechanism should be used to trial stand-alone services, it is likely that it will done under Canon B5(A), which allows the Archbishops jointly to authorise liturgy for an experimental period.

It is expected that the House of Bishops will discuss at its meeting next month how to implement this.

The operations of the House were criticised from both sides of the debate. Those in favour of the introduction of the PLF complained that the proposals amounted to “crumbs” and suggested that the Bishops had given in to pressure from conservatives.

Others criticised the Bishops for the opaqueness of their decision-making, and, in particular, for the decision not to publish any advice that they had received in recent months about the legality of their proposals.

Two amendments calling for a degree of structural differentiation within the Church were debated, but neither was carried.

Canon Vaughan Roberts (Oxford) proposed an amendment that called on the Bishops not to continue until the Synod had “considered proposals for structural provision”, and said that this was necessary in order to move forward in a way that did not “tear the fabric of the Church of England.”

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, later moved an amendment that called for “firm provision that provides a clear way of distinguishing differing views”, which was interpreted by speakers in the debate as a request for structural differentiation. It was defeated in all three Houses, though by a margin of only five votes in the House of Bishops.

THE debate on Wednesday was punctuated by several unsuccessful points of order, including an attempt to rule Dr Croft’s amendment out of order on the basis that it was not “intelligible” when read alongside the motion carried in February. The chair, Geoffrey Tattersall KC, dismissed the appeal.

The previous day, an amendment fell as a result of the requirement, introduced by a point of order before each vote, that the vote be taken by Houses. Bishop Butler had proposed an amendment of the way in which the motion described the House of Bishops’ work: from “progress” to “work and consultation undertaken”.

In a count of the whole Synod, the vote would have been a dead heat: 207 in favour and 207 against. But the amendment was lost in the House of Bishops by 23-11.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesLucy Gorman, a lay member for York

The second day of debate began with further consideration of an amendment, brought by Clive Scowen (London), calling on the Bishops to publish the formal advice that they had received about the legality of the new proposals. It was suggested that they had not done so because it was not favourable to their view.

Responding to the amendment on Tuesday evening, Bishop Mullally said that this was not true: the legal foundation for the proposals was contained in the paper GS 2328 published last month (News, 20 October).

Speeches for and against the amendment depended largely on whether a speaker favoured the proposals or not. Mr Tattersall remarked that something of a “war” was taking place over which side could applaud the loudest.

There was no contest, though, for the speech that received the biggest laugh. The Revd Dr Tom Woolford (Blackburn) joked that he had been tempted to contact the British Transport Police after reading GS 2328, as he had “seen something that didn’t look right”. He argued that the legal advice should be published, and concluded: “I’ve said it, let’s see it, then it can be . . . sorted!”

Despite Dr Woolford’s eloquence, Mr Scowen’s amendment was defeated in all three Houses — although ten of the 24 bishops who cast a vote favoured publishing the advice.

Several speeches during the debate made emotional appeals for there to be no further delay in implementing the Prayers of Love and Faith. “We can wait no longer,” said the Revd Andrew Dotchin (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich), in the last speech before the debate was adjourned until Wednesday morning.

ON WEDNESDAY evening, reaction to the debate was beginning to circulate. The national director of the Church of England Evangelical Council, Canon John Dunnett, said in a statement that the proposals “depart from a biblical understanding of sex and marriage”, and said that the process by which they had been approved “has been widely observed as unduly hasty, incomplete, and haphazard”.

“In the next few days CEEC will announce a series of provisions for orthodox Evangelicals and work to do all it can to ensure Evangelical life and witness in the Church of England continues for years to come,” Canon Dunnett said.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesCanon Vaughan Roberts (Oxford)

Dr Croft, meanwhile, told the Church Times that he was “relieved” that his amendment, and the motion as a whole, had been carried, and that the Church was “still on track for there to be significant change in terms of radical inclusion”.

The motion, as amended, reads:

That this Synod, conscious that the Church is not of one mind on the issues raised by Living in Love and Faith, that we are in a period of uncertainty, and that many in the Church on all sides are being deeply hurt at this time, recognise the progress made by the House of Bishops towards implementing the motion on Living in Love and Faith passed by this Synod in February 2023, as reported in GS 2328, and encourage the House to continue its work of implementation, and ask the House to consider whether some standalone 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.

Paul Handley, editor, and Francis Martin discuss the vote on this week’s edition of the 
Church Times Podcast

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