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Bishops opt for blessings for same-sex couples in church, but not marriage

18 January 2023

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CLERGY will be able to offer services of prayer and thanksgiving for same-sex couples and bless same-sex civil marriages in church for the first time under proposals due to be presented to the General Synod next month.

The proposals, finalised by the College and House of Bishops in London on Tuesday, are the result of years of discernment over the issue of sexuality and the Church through what was called the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process.

The Bishops’ proposals do not include a vote to change canon law on marriage to allow clergy to marry same-sex couples in church. Several MPs had written publicly or privately to their diocesan bishops this week in support of such a move.

The Church Times understands that there was “some way off” a two-thirds majority in favour of same-sex marriage in church among the bishops. This is thought to be a key reason why individual bishops in favour of allowing same-sex marriage saw no point in sending something to Synod that would have required a two-thirds majority in each House, only for it to be voted down by the Bishops.

The recommendation to bless same-sex unions in church is still subject to approval by the Synod. If there is a call for a vote by houses — Clergy, Laity, and Bishops — it would require only a simple majority in each house.

On Tuesday, the Bishops agreed to issue a letter of apology to the LGBT+ community later this week for the “rejection, exclusion and hostility” people have faced in churches and the effects this has had on their lives.

An outline of these proposals was published on the Church of England website on Wednesday morning, three days earlier than planned after a leak to the BBC. The full detail of the bishops’ recommendations will be set out in a report due to be published alongside the other Synod papers on Friday.

The outline states that the LLF paper “will offer the fullest possible pastoral provision without changing the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony for same-sex couples through a range of draft prayers, known as Prayers of Love and Faith, which could be used voluntarily in churches for couples who have marked a significant stage of their relationship such as a civil marriage or civil partnership”.

Also subject to a Synod vote would be the creation of new pastoral guidance to replace the 1991 statement Issues in Human Sexuality which imposed celibacy on clergy living with a same-sex partner. The inference is that this stipulation will disappear, but this was not made clear in the press release on Wednesday.

In line with their own apology this week, the Bishops will also be urging congregations to welcome same-sex couples “unreservedly and joyfully” and commit to a “radical new Christian inclusion founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it — based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st-century understanding of being human and of being sexual”.

The letter of apology would also “speak honestly” about the ongoing disagreements among the Bishops and in the wider Church over the possibility of changing the Church’s teaching on marriage. This possibility had been discussed among the bishops in light of the recent Lambeth Conference, the announcement on Wednesday explains.

“During that discussion,” it says, “the Archbishop of Canterbury made clear that the majority of the churches in the Anglican Communion continue to affirm traditional teaching on marriage, but that some have already come to a different view on sexuality ‘after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature’ and now bless or celebrate same-sex unions.”

Archbishop Welby said on Wednesday: “This response reflects the diversity of views in the Church of England on questions of sexuality, relationships, and marriage — I rejoice in that diversity and I welcome this way of reflecting it in the life of our Church.”

He continued: “I am under no illusions that what we are proposing today will appear to go too far for some and not nearly far enough for others, but it is my hope that what we have agreed will be received in a spirit of generosity, seeking the common good.

“Most of all I hope it can offer a way for the Church of England, publicly and unequivocally, to say to all Christians and especially LGBTQI+ people that you are welcome and a valued and precious part of the body of Christ.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chaired the group of bishops which led the process of discernment and decision-making, said: “I know that this has been costly and painful for many on all sides of the debate and has touched on deeply personal matters and strongly held beliefs. . . What has come through very clearly, even though there continues to be disagreement among the bishops and among the wider church on these questions, is a strong desire to continue to share our life together in Christ with all our differences.”

The Archbishop of York apologised for the Church’s treatment of LGBT+ people. “Over the last six years, we have been confronted time and time again with examples of the rejection, exclusion, and hostility that many LGBTQI+ people have received in churches.

“We are deeply sorry and ashamed and want to take this opportunity to begin again in the spirit of repentance which our faith teaches us. This is not the end of that journey but we have reached a milestone and I hope that these prayers of love and faith can provide a way for us all to celebrate and affirm same-sex relationships.”

The main debate on the proposals is due to take place on 8 February. If the proposals are agreed by the Synod, the House of Bishops will “refine” the prayers before commending them for use.

Leader comment: Blessings? Really?

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