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Church Society question legality of blessing prayers for same-sex couples

19 May 2023

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Members of the General Synod meet in London in February

Members of the General Synod meet in London in February

OPPONENTS of the commendation of blessings for same-sex couples circulated documents last week challenging the legality of the proposed prayers and expressing anxieties about their practical application.

Last week, the Church Society, a conservative Evangelical organisation in the Church of England, distributed a compilation of questions relating to the work of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) implementation groups (News, 3 May)

In an email to the members of the groups, the director of the Church Society, the Revd Dr Lee Gatiss, wrote: “Our aim is to give a voice to those who are fearful of raising issues themselves.”

Questions on the implementation of the Prayers of Love and Faith include “How might clergy reasonably enquire as to the sexual activity of the couple?” and “Is the wearing of wedding dresses at a service indicative of marriage?”

Further questions relate to situations in which priests or ordinands who do not wish to use the prayers find themselves in disagreement with their training incumbent, PCC, or bishop.

Many of these topics had been raised at a recent meeting of the House of Clergy, at which questions were gathered to be sent to the House and College of Bishops (News, 4 May).

In addition, a small group of General Synod members who opposed the introduction of blessings for same-sex couples in February issued “further commentary” on the proposals.

The note was emailed to Synod members late on Sunday evening by Stephen Hofmeyr (Guildford), and signed by a further seven legal professionals who sit in the House of Laity, all of whom voted against the motion introducing the Prayers of Love and Faith (News, 9 February).

In the email, Mr Hofmeyr wrote that the commentary had been prepared “with a view to assisting the House of Bishops as they meet this week”, and that it analysed a note from the Church of England’s Legal Office from January (News, 30 January).

The C of E note had said that there was “a good case for saying that the institution of Holy Matrimony and the institution of civil marriage are now distinct”, owing to the fact that civil marriage was not defined as being between one man and one woman, contrary to the doctrine of marriage as defined in the Canons of the Church of England

The commentary distributed on Sunday challenges this distinction, however, arguing, among other things, that it “adopts an implausible interpretation of English law” and “mistakes the role of civil law in relation to intimate relationships”.

Instead, it argues that “there is one institution (marriage) with broader and narrower views as to who is entitled to enter that single legal state.”

In distinguishing the two, the group suggest that “the Christian Church has historically treated the marriage contract as unique by reference to its relation to the natural order and its spiritual resonance, reflected in requirements of sexual differentiation, procreativity, exclusivity and fidelity.”

They argue that the “distinctive nature” of a same-sex partnership means that, “in our current context”, it is contrary to the Church’s doctrine of marriage “for a same-sex couple of choose civil marriage over civil partnership”, concluding that “blessing a couple who have chosen the less suitable legal form for their relationship indicates a departure from the Church’s doctrine of marriage.”

Though not stated explicitly in the commentary, a possible implication of this argument is that any priest who uses the Prayers of Love and Faith for a same-sex couple in a civil marriage would be open to a legal challenge.

In a speech opening the debate in February’s Synod meeting, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who led the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process, addressed some of the issues created by a difference in the definitions of holy matrimony and civil marriage: “Opposite-sex couples who have been civilly married are understood as being married in the sight of God and of the Church. There is no question of reneging on the validity of that understanding.

“But how does this apply now, when same-sex couples in a civil marriage are not considered to have entered a state of holy matrimony? Furthermore, civil marriage ceremonies encompass many options, some of which accord with marriage as the Church understands it — with vows of fidelity and permanence — and others which do not include such promises,” she said.

On the subject of sexual activity, the Church of England Legal Office previously noted: “The draft Prayers [of Love and Faith] contain no implication that what is being celebrated or blessed is a sexual relationship. The argument that the Prayers are therefore indicative of a departure from doctrine so far as sexual relationships are concerned cannot be sustained; they are simply silent on that point.”

In the commentary distributed on Sunday, however, the group of lawyers argue that “a departure from doctrine may also be indicated by the context in which a form of service is applied,” and suggest that it would, therefore, be illegal for the prayers to be used if their context implied approval of sex outside of an opposite-sex marriage.

In February, a majority in all three Houses of the Synod voted to endorse the introduction of the Prayers of Love and Faith, amended with a proviso that the C of E’s doctrine of marriage remained unchanged.

The prayers are expected to be commended under the terms of Canon B5, which gives priests discretion to use new forms of service as long as they are “neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter” (News, 20 January).

The commentary released on Sunday argues, however, that the bishops should “invite General Synod to adopt the proposed Prayers of Love and Faith under the Canon B2 route”, which would, in effect, give Synod the option of abandoning the process entirely.

The members of the House of Laity who signed the commentary are: Stephen Hofmeyr (Guildford), Rebecca Bensted (Portsmouth), Richard Denno (Liverpool), Carl Fender (Lincoln), Daniel Matovu (Oxford), Clive Scowen (London), Christopher Townsend (Ely), and Debbie Woods (Chester).

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