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Bishops’ same-sex plans do not need General Synod’s consent

19 January 2023

Clive Mear/Church Times

The Archbishop of Canterbury addresses the Synod in Church House, Westminster, in February 2021

The Archbishop of Canterbury addresses the Synod in Church House, Westminster, in February 2021

THE Bishops’ plans to permit clergy to bless same-sex unions in church will not need the General Synod’s approval next month, it has emerged.

In a letter circulated to the clergy in the diocese of Southwark on Wednesday, the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun wrote: “The Bishops are commending these materials to General Synod for consideration. I am saying this as the Bishops are likely — I hope — to authorise them for use come what may.”

The Church Times understands that there will be a motion for the Synod to vote on, but that the provisions for blessing same-sex unions do not depend on that.

Bishop Chessun was not present at the meeting of the College of Bishops on Tuesday, when the proposals were agreed (News, 18 January), because he is taking part in an ecumenical pilgrimage in Jerusalem.

The Church Times has confirmed that the Bishops believe that their proposals — since they do not involve any change in doctrine — do not require legislative consent by the Synod by means of a two-thirds majority vote by houses.

On Thursday afternoon, Bishop Chessun said that the materials would amount to a “suite of liturgical resources” which would “most probably follow the pattern of liturgy authorised by the House of Bishops”.

As a result, they would not be “fought over on the floor of the General Synod” he said, but exist as a “range of liturgical resources that people can use as they wish”.

Canon B5 of the Church of England — which governs “the discretion of ministers in conduct of public prayer” — allows for forms of service to be used without a vote at the General Synod, provided that they are “neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”.

In an interview with the Church Times on Wednesday, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said that “there’s a very specific opportunity for Synod to engage” on the contents of the prayers for blessing and the pastoral guidance to replace Issues in Human Sexuality, but indicated that members would not have a chance to vote on the proposals.

On the part that the Synod would play, Bishop Mullally spoke about the consultative nature of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) discernment process that led to the agreement announced this week. The Bishops, she said, were “providing leadership, recognising that there isn’t agreement in the Church, there’s not agreement within the Bishops.

“We’re proposing a way forward which gives us the opportunity to do as much as we can, in a way that we want seek views from Synod, but actually doesn’t require legislation.”

She continued: “We want to hear from Synod, and then having heard from Synod we will commend prayers” for the blessing of same-sex couples.

Dr Eeva John, who has been assisting bishops with the LLF process, said: “There’s a really genuine sense of wanting to honour the place of Synod in the governance of the Church, in the decision-making of the Church, and perhaps at the same time, hopefully share something of the process that the bishops themselves have gone through.”

She added that there was “a really genuine desire to hear the mind of Synod on these matters, even if they don’t necessarily formally need to make a decision themselves on it”.

Bishop Mullally said that the Synod papers, due to be released on Friday, would say that “having listened to Synod, the House of Bishops will then work on the draft prayers and then commend those prayers.”

The Bishops’ stratagem is in line with their decision not to put forward proposals that would allow clergy to conduct weddings in church for same-sex couples. Mirroring the announcement, Bishop Chessun said in his letter that what was proposed by the College and House of Bishops would “offer the fullest pastoral provision without changing the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony”.

In a pastoral letter to his diocese on Thursday, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, wrote: “The last few years of the LLF process have made it very clear to me that there is not sufficient consensus at present to seek to move to marrying same-sex couples in church. Jesus speaks tellingly of the need, before embarking on a venture, to ensure one has the resources to complete it.

“To have begun a legislative process that was always bound to fail to reach the required two-thirds majorities in all three of the Houses of Synod would not only have been cruel and divisive but have shown failure to heed that gospel warning.

“My hope remains that this present, important, stage on our journey will lead in time to a moment when sufficient consensus, which cannot be simply reduced to synodical arithmetic, exists for that matter to be revisited.”

Offering his own views on the issue of same-sex unions and the Church, he wrote: “I would be delighted to serve as bishop in a Church that fully celebrated the committed, exclusive, and faithful love of two adults, regardless of whether they were of same or different sexes. I believe that view to be consonant with my reading of scripture.”

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