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Church Times Review of the Year 2023

22 December 2023

Key events from around the world


The Archbishop of Canterbury places St Edward’s Crown on the King, seated in the Coronation Chair of St Edward, in Westminster Abbey, in May. See gallery for more images

The Archbishop of Canterbury places St Edward’s Crown on the King, seated in the Coronation Chair of St Edward, in Westminster Abbey, in May. See gall...


PRELATES and politicians around the world paid tribute to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, after his death, at the age of 95, on New Year’s Eve. The Archbishop of Canterbury praised Benedict, who was elected to succeed Pope John Paul II in 2005, as “one of the greatest theologians of his age — committed to the faith of the Church, and stalwart in its defence”.

Church leaders urged Ukrainians not to lose heart in the wake of Russian missile and drone strikes over the New Year, and expressed confidence in a national victory during 2023. Later in the month, the World Council of Churches condemned Russian attacks on civilians.

The Church Commissioners announced the creation of an “impact investment fund” worth £100 million to mitigate long-term consequences of their fund’s connection with the transatlantic slave trade. Profits from the new fund would be used primarily overseas to provide grants to “address some of the past wrongs” of the Church of England’s links to the slave trade through Queen Anne’s Bounty, the early-18th-century fund set up to support poor Anglican clergy. Save the Parish called on the C of E to “fund its frontline” first.

Anglican bishops in Brazil described the storming of the country’s National Congress by supporters of the former President Jair Bolsonaro as an “act of terrorism” which they “violently repudiate”. They called for all those involved to be held accountable.

Francis Martin/Church TimesAnglicans in favour of same-sex marriage hold a candlelit vigil outside Lambeth Palace, in January

The College and House of Bishops finalised proposals to allow clergy to offer services of prayer and thanksgiving for same-sex couples and bless same-sex civil marriages in church for the first time. The proposals, the result of years of discernment over the issue of sexuality through the Living in Love and Faith process, were greeted with dismay by opponents of same-sex marriage and frustration by those who had looked for permission to marry such couples.

Some MPs also criticised the Bishops’ proposals, and suggested that the constitutional status of the Church of England was under threat. The Archbishop of Canterbury told protesters outside Lambeth Palace that blessings for same-sex couples were the “best we can do” in the current context. “I don’t have the votes to go further,” he said. He told a press conference, however, that, while he was “really pleased” with the proposals on blessings, he would not conduct them himself, so as to be a “focus of unity” in the Anglican Communion.

A report by the Archbishops’ Commission on Reimagining Care, Care and Support Reimagined, called for a clear Christian vision to mend the broken social-care system: a plan of action that would give equal dignity to everyone, and find its expression in a National Care Covenant for England.


A NINE-PAGE document signed by 14 bishops, nine of whom were diocesans, from both Catholic and Evangelical traditions, defended the understanding of marriage as a “male-female relationship”. The Church of England Evangelical Council warned the House of Bishops that its proposal to allow the blessing of same-sex couples would lead to “broken fellowship” in the Church of England, and would damage its mission to young people.

A group of conservative Primates connected to the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches declared that they no longer recognised the current Archbishop of Canterbury as the de facto leader of the Anglican Communion. They said that the Church of England had “chosen to break communion with those provinces who remain faithful to the historic biblical faith” by allowing blessings for same-sex couples.

A visitation of Truro Cathedral conducted by the diocesan Bishop, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, found “serious concerns” about its mission and governance, including “discordant leadership”, “under-performance”, and “an unhealthy culture”. Bishop Mounstephen directed the Chapter to restore “at pace” the apparent breakdown of relationships.

The Archbishop of Canterbury told a meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Accra, Ghana, that the Instruments of Communion must change with the times. “If we have another world war, of which many are talking, the Instruments must be capable of keeping us linked and seeking peace,” he said. “If climate change brings natural terror after terror, the Instruments must be effective in promoting mutual hope and advocacy for those who suffer most.”

AlamyPresident Biden with the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, at St Michael’s Monastery, Kyiv, in February. The surprise visit was his first since the invasion

Churches in Ukraine marked the first anniversary of the Russian invasion with calls to prayer and fasting, as President Putin vowed to continue his military assault, and President Biden rallied morale during visits to Kyiv and Warsaw. In a two-hour speech to political and military leaders in Moscow, President Putin asserted that Anglicans were planning to introduce “a gender-neutral God”. This was described as “simply wrong” by a C of E spokesman.

A violent earthquake in Turkey and Syria killed more than 47,000 people, and left hundreds of thousands of children orphaned and homeless. Two weeks later to the day, another earthquake struck. Aid agencies and churches offered shelter to the homeless.


A GROUP of ten clerics in the City deanery of the diocese of London announced their decision to establish an alternative “deanery chapter”, in protest at the decision to allow church blessings for same-sex couples. The diocese of London described the initiative as a “unilateral move” with “no legal substance”.

A Bill to remove legal impediments for Church of England priests wishing to conduct same-sex marriages was introduced in the House of Commons, although the MP proposing it, Ben Bradshaw, admitted that it had “no chance of becoming law”.

AlamyA protest rally in Westminster against the Illegal Migration Bill, in March

The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, said that the new Illegal Migration Bill would “stop the boats bringing tens of thousands to our shores”. The Bill proposed that people entering the UK via illegal routes would either be returned to their homeland, sent to Rwanda, or sent to a “safe” third country. The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, joined widespread condemnation of the Bill. “We must not abdicate our legal and moral responsibility to some of the world’s most vulnerable by simply treating asylum-seekers as a group not to be welcomed or integrated but detained and returned,” he said. “We must do and be better.”

The chair of the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), Professor Maggie Atkinson, resigned, after months of internal disputes. “Changing family circumstances and ISB matters have meant that my presence, even from a distance, has become a distraction, and therefore I decided to tender my immediate resignation to the Archbishops’ Council,” she said.

The Synod of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa was unable to reach consensus about the blessing of same-sex unions. The Bishops also ruled out marriage in church for same-sex couples.

Charities welcomed new support for childcare in the spring Budget, but criticised the Government’s spending priorities. Campaigners called for bold initiatives to end poverty. The same week, bishops and other faith leaders urged the Prime Minister to raise taxes on the highest incomes to tackle the cost-of-living crisis.

President Zelensky defended the removal of the historic Pechersk-Lavra monastery from its Moscow-linked Orthodox Church (UOC) before a projected ban on the UOC’s communities under a new law. “Moves are under way to strengthen our spiritual independence. . . We will continue these moves, and not allow a terrorist state any opportunity to manipulate our people’s spirituality or destroy our Ukrainian shrines,” he said. The monastery’s abbot, Metropolitan Pavel, was arrested while resisting a state repossession order.

Bishops criticised government proposals to restrict strike action. The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said that the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill was “open to abuse”, referring to a “complete lack of clarity about how [the new law] could be used”.


THE founder of the Christian youth festival Soul Survivor, the Revd Mike Pilavachi, agreed “to step back from all ministry” while “non-recent safeguarding concerns” were investigated.

After a week of violent unrest in Jerusalem, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced that visits by non-Muslims and tourists to the holy site of Temple Mount would be suspended until the end of Ramadan.

An independent review, written by Colin Bloom, a former director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, concluded that a clearer understanding of faith in society would help the Government to tackle issues such as forced marriage, child safeguarding, radicalisation in prison, and faith-based extremism.

AlamyDisplaced Sudanese and foreigners arrive in Port Sudan, the country’s main port, in late April, having fled Khartoum after heavy fighting broke out

The Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB) set out, in its first annual report, plans to create a separate legal entity to extract itself from Church of England structures. The report said that initial cost controls imposed on the ISB by the Archbishops’ Council, including a shared media team and IT systems, had thus far compromised its independence and workflow.

A communiqué issued at the conclusion of the fourth gathering of the Global Anglican Futures Conference (Gafcon) in Kigali, Rwanda, dismissed the four “Instruments of Unity” of the Anglican Communion, saying that they had “failed to maintain true communion based on the Word of God and shared faith in Christ”. It said: “We have no confidence that the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the other Instruments of Communion led by him (the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meetings) are able to provide a godly way forward that will be acceptable to those who are committed to the truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency and authority of scripture.”


MYSTERY remained at the heart of the Coronation of the King and Queen in Westminster Abbey, before a congregation of 2200 (and watched live on screens in churches in the UK and around the world). During the service, the King knelt before the altar and said aloud his specially written Coronation Prayer: a 2023 innovation in a service in which he was largely silent and passive. He recited his Accession Declaration Oath, about being a “faithful Protestant” and securing the Protestant succession “according to law”. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon spoke of the weight of royal duty as being “only bearable by the Spirit of God, who gives us the strength to give our lives to others. With the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the King is given freely what no ruler can ever attain through will, or politics, or war, or tyranny: the Holy Spirit draws us to love in action.”

AlamyThe embroidered screen placed round the King hides the anointing

The anointing followed, behind the new Anointing Screen, during the singing of Handel’s Zadok the Priest. After the crowning, the Archbishop shouted “God save The King!” and the general cry went up, the bells rang, and Richard Strauss’s Wiener Philharmoniker Fanfare was played by the Coronation Brass Ensemble, as gun salutes were fired in London and far beyond. The Archbishop of York led the solemn blessing of the King by an ecumenical group of church leaders.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York were among the thousands of people who gave their time on the Bank Holiday Monday to support the Big Help Out — a national volunteering drive to mark the Coronation.

Aid agencies warned that ongoing conflict in Sudan could overwhelm South Sudan with refugees. The UN put the total number of people who had so far fled to other countries at 100,000.

The former Archbishop of York, Lord Sentamu, was suspended from active ministry in the diocese of Newcastle, where he is an honorary assistant bishop, after he rejected the finding of a church safeguarding review that he had failed to act on a non-recent disclosure of abuse while he was at Bishopthorpe.

Ukrainian Churches backed demands that Russian leaders face trial for war crimes in the country.

The Archbishop of Canterbury attempted to persuade the Government, through amendments to the Illegal Migration Bill, to adopt a ten-year international plan to tackle the refugee crisis, illegal migration, and human trafficking.


THE Archbishops’ Council terminated the contracts of two of the three members of the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), and set in place plans to disband the body entirely. The Archbishop of York blamed “a breakdown in communication” for the ISB’s demise. The ISB’s lead survivor advocate, Jasvinder Sanghera, said, however: “It is not true to say this has happened because of a breakdown in relationships.” The acting chair, Meg Munn, was to stay on “to provide business continuity for the remaining business” of phase one of independent scrutiny of church safeguarding.

The Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board announced that they would remove Shell, BP, and other oil and gas firms from their investment portfolios, because they were not reducing their carbon emissions quickly enough.

The Archbishop of Uganda, Dr Stephen Kaziimba, expressed his Church’s gratitude for a hardline anti-homosexuality law in the country, signed off by the country’s President. International organisations and political figures describe themselves as “appalled” by the legislation.

AlamyThe Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, looks on as people gather for a vigil in St Peter’s, Nottingham, in June, after the after the deaths of three people — two of them students — in a random attack by a lone individual on the city streets at 4 a.m.

Soul Survivor suspended its senior pastor, the Revd Andy Croft, and its assistant pastor, Ali Martin, after the church received new information from the National Safeguarding Team investigation into the Revd Mike Pilavachi.

A “significant” change in patterns of ministry in the diocese of Truro was recommended by the Plan for Change and Renewal. It forecast that, within ten years, “the majority of church communities are led by local ministers (both lay and ordained), with stipendiary priests in oversight roles, leading, enabling and ministering to groups of churches, communities and missional activities of different kinds.”


ANGLICAN communities in France escaped damage when riots erupted after a teenager was killed by police in a Paris suburb. “This has been a sad and difficult time, reminding us that, when something starts locally, all the major cities are likely to get caught up in it,” the Chaplain of All Saints’, Marseille, the Revd Jamie Johnston, said.

The acting chair of the Independent Safeguarding Board, Meg Munn, accused the Archbishops’ Council of being “slow to listen” to experts — and the Archbishop of Canterbury of “undermining” her work — as she resigned all her safeguarding responsibilities in the Church. Ms Munn, a safeguarding professional and a former MP, was also the independent chair of the Church’s National Safeguarding Panel.

The two sacked members of the now disbanded Board, Jasvinder Sanghera and Steve Reeves, told the General Synod, meeting in York, that they had been “silenced” by the Archbishops’ Council for being “too independent” — and warned that survivors would pay the price for their dismissal.

Later in the month, it was announced that the chair of the now concluded Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, Professor Alexis Jay, would develop proposals for a “fully independent structure to provide scrutiny of safeguarding” in the Church of England.

AlamyA boy helps to salvage items at the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in the port city of Odesa, in July, after it was severely damaged in a missile attack

The Revd Mike Pilavachi resigned as Associate Pastor of Soul Survivor, Watford, with immediate effect. “I have taken this step because the Church needs to heal and I have realised that my continued presence will hinder that process,” he wrote on social media. “I seek forgiveness from any whom I have hurt during the course of my ministry.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s amendment to the Illegal Migration Bill, which called for an “ambitious” ten-year strategy to address the refugee crisis, was rejected by MPs. It had been passed by more than 50 votes in the Lords during the Report Stage of the Bill. Archbishop Welby withdrew his amendment, and the Bill completed its passage through Parliament.


A SURVEY of 5000 priests, conducted by The Times, found that almost half (49.2 per cent) would officiate at same-sex weddings if they were permitted to do so, and 59 per cent would bless gay relationships. Almost two-thirds said that the Church should no longer teach that sex belonged only in marriage. Asked how they would vote if there were a General Election to morrow, 36.1 per cent of respondents named Labour; the Conservatives were in fourth place (13.2 per cent), behind the Liberal Democrats and “Don’t know”.

The England team were congratulated for bringing joy to the nation despite losing 1-0 to Spain in the final of the women’s World Cup. The Archbishop of Canterbury offered commiserations on Twitter to the team, who were nicknamed the Lionesses. “We know you gave it everything,” he wrote. “We admire your talent, grit and determination.”

MARK KENSETTCasting Off, a feminist circus act, performs during Greenbelt’s 50th-anniversary festival, in August. More than 11,500 people attended the festival — its highest attendance since 2014, the organisers said

In a video message to 400 young Roman Catholics in St Catherine’s Basilica, St Petersburg, the Pope called on Russian Roman Catholics to “recognise the dreams” of previous generations and to preserve “the living history and culture of the people”. Church leaders in Ukraine criticised the Pope for his remarks.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, criticised government intervention in a planned housing project on church land at Leckhampton, south of Cheltenham, as “incomprehensible and utterly confusing”.


C OF E schools were among the more than 100 educational establishments that were asked by the Government to close, owing to safety concerns connected with the type of concrete used in their construction: reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).

The Prime Minister announced plans to delay various net-zero targets, although he said that he still wished to meet the deadline of 2050. Measures announced included delaying by five years a ban on new petrol and diesel cars, and delaying the phasing out of gas boilers. The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, lead bishop for the environment, described the rowing back on green commitments as shameful and short-sighted. Church leaders also disputed Mr Sunak’s assertion that his plans would help people who were struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.

AlamyPope Francis leads church leaders in prayer in front of a replica of the San Damiano crucifix at the end of an ecumenical prayer vigil in St Peter’s Square, in late September

A group of cross-party peers, MPs, and religious educators decried, in a letter to the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, the lack of funding for the teaching of religious education, and called on the Government to address the crisis in teaching and recruitment, including the introduction of training bursaries.

The Bishops of Coventry, Leeds, and Southwark called for “lasting peace” in Nagorno-Karabakh, after the latest assault on the territory by Azerbaijani forces, and a mass exodus from the area. A ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh had been agreed, the day after Azerbaijan launched an offensive against the contested enclave in the South Caucasus.


HAMAS launched a devastating attack on Israel on 7 October, killing about 1200 people and taking an estimated 240 hostages. The attack was followed by extensive retaliatory air strikes on Gaza. Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem called for “a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land, based on equal rights for all”. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, in a joint statement, said: “We unequivocally condemn the attacks by Hamas. . . The way forward must be for both sides to build confidence in a secure future through which Israel and its people can live in security within its internationally recognised borders, and Palestinians have their own state and live in their lands in security, and with peace and justice.”

As the conflict escalated, the United Nations warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Church leaders in Jerusalem summoned a day of prayer and fasting on 17 October; but, at the end of the day, an explosion in Gaza, at the Anglican Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, killed and injured hundreds of Palestinians. It emerged that a misfiring Palestinian rocket was the likeliest cause. Archbishop Welby lamented the “appalling and devastating loss of innocent lives”, and renewed his appeal for civilians to be protected.

AlamyPalestinians rescue a man from the rubble of a destroyed residential building in Gaza, after an Israeli air strike, in October

In the UK, anti-Semitic incidents increased significantly. Archbishop Welby joined other religious leaders to condemn this and to call for unity between British faith communities.

Archbishop Welby made a four-day pastoral visit to Jerusalem, where he met Heads of Churches in the Holy Land, visited hospitals and schools in the city, and met the families of some of those who were killed or kidnapped by Hamas.

Church leaders renewed calls for a ceasefire after an Israeli air strike on the compound of St Porphyrios’s Greek Orthodox Church, in Gaza City, which reportedly killed 18 people, including nine children.

Working-class clergy were “deeply alienated from a church culture that favours and naturalises middle-class ways”, a report commissioned by the Church’s National Ministry Team concluded. The study heard from clergy who felt “ground down” over the course of their ministry in a Church with an “upper-middle-class culture”, in which they encountered “disapproval, judgmentalism, and lack of sensitivity towards cultural difference”.

The Pope said that the Roman Catholic Church should seek to discern whether there were ways of blessing same-sex couples which did not undermine its teaching on marriage.

A review of church buildings in Wigan recommended that four should be closed, and that the viability of 15 should be reviewed. It warned that “sustainability is at risk without significant investment in adaptation or development. . . We will not be able to afford to retain all.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury met the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, in Baku, amid international tensions over the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Archbishop Welby emphasised the need to pursue a stable and long-term peace.

The House of Bishops agreed in principle to commend prayers of blessing for same-sex couples. Twelve bishops subsequently dissented publicly from the decision, saying that there was “deep disagreement within the House”. Later in the month, it emerged that a large majority of bishops supported a move towards allowing priests to enter into same-sex marriage and the immediate adoption of stand-alone services of blessing for same-sex couples.


THE Roman Catholic Church’s so-called Synod on Synodality concluded in Rome with dozens of proposals for reform, touching on governance, mission, theology, canonical discipline, and pastoral outreach. The Synthesis Report said that urgent steps were needed to ensure that women “participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility”, at a time when many believe that the Church is scarred by “clericalism, a chauvinist mentality and inappropriate expressions of authority”.

Before the meeting of the General Synod, two fractious meetings took place between the Archbishop of Canterbury and representatives of groups engaged with Living in Love and Faith. At one of the meetings, with opponents of the introduction of blessings for same-sex couples, two of the participants told Archbishop Welby that he should resign.

At the General Synod in Westminster, members agreed to permit stand-alone services of blessing for same-sex couples to go ahead in trial form, after an amendment was made — after a long debate and by a narrow vote — to the main motion being debated. That amendment, put down by the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, called 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. The final motion was carried in all three Houses: Bishops 23-10, Clergy 100-93, and Laity 104-100.

In the aftermath of the vote, the Church of England Evangelical Council said that it would offer alternative episcopal ministry for clergy and congregations that oppose the changes.

The King opened Parliament for the first time in his reign. Campaigners said that the King’s Speech, which set out the year’s legislative agenda, lacked action to tackle the cost-of-living crisis and climate change, among other matters.

The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced in his autumn Budget that people who did not look for a job for six months would have their benefits stopped. He also announced a rise of 6.7 per cent in benefits and 8.5 per cent in the state pension, both from April. Charities welcomed the rise in benefits and state pension, but said that some of those who might lose benefits were among the most vulnerable.

AlamyThe Minister for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, with the new Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, in Downing Street, in November

The former Prime Minister Lord Cameron was appointed Foreign Secretary, in a surprise move. He replaced James Cleverly, who moved to be Home Secretary, replacing Suella Braverman, who had been sacked. Mr Cameron said after his appointment that the UK had a “moral mission” to help the world’s poorest people, marking a shift in government tone and rhetoric on international development.

There was a “humanitarian pause” in fighting in Israel-Gaza, after a deal, facilitated by Egypt, Qatar, and the United States, was agreed, which entailed the release of some of the hostages seized by Hamas, in exchange for Palestinian women and children held by Israel. The pause lasted for seven days. Church leaders stepped up their opposition to Israel’s bombing of Gaza, drawing attention to the rising number of civilian deaths.


THE first blessings of same-sex couples took place in C of E churches, after the House of Bishops formally commended the Prayers of Love and Faith. The Bishops had voted 24-11, with three recorded abstentions, in favour of commending the collection of prayers. The blessings were sanctioned for use only within regular services and not as a stand-alone service, however. A statement from the Bishops made little mention of the amendment passed at the Synod in November which called on the Bishops to consider a trial period for stand-alone services. It merely said: “The House also continued to discuss separate proposals for special standalone services for same-sex couples to be formally authorised under canon law.”

The Bishops’ decision was made despite a last-minute plea from a group calling itself “the Alliance”, comprising leaders in the HTB network and others, who urged them to delay commending the Prayers until the complete package of the prayers, the full pastoral guidance, and pastoral reassurance for opponents were all presented to the Synod. The Alliance described the Prayers as “a departure from the doctrine to which the Church of England has always held fast”, and called for “formal legal structural provision” for those who objected to their introduction. The General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group, in contrast, described the introduction of the prayers as a “moment of rejoicing”, and invited churches to use them at the first opportunity.

AlamyThe King delivers an opening address at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai, on 1 December, calling for “transformational action” from world leaders and climate delegates to combat climate change

At the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, which began on the last day of November, a new fund to compensate victims of climate change was agreed. The final agreed text talked for the first time about “transitioning away from fossil fuels”, and was hailed as a success by many participants. The Anglican delegation described the wording as “highly welcome” but “low in ambition”.

A “complex matrix of reasons” had led to the disbanding of the Independent Safeguarding Board (ISB), a review by Sarah Wilkinson, a public-law barrister, said. Ms Wilkinson suggested that the termination of the contracts of the ISB members was made “almost inevitable” owing to their “breakdown in relationships” after Meg Munn was appointed as acting chair in March. Her report concluded that the ISB’s legal status and governance structure contributed to creating conditions in which the positions of the board members and the Archbishops’ Council were “not clearly defined”, and this caused tension both among the members, and between them and the Council.

A week after clergy joined tens of thousands of people to march against anti-Semitism in central London, the Archbishop of Canterbury addressed a gathering outside Downing Street, and called on the UK to “clean up our doorstep” by eliminating both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

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