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General Synod digest: Members warm up for debate on same-sex blessings

24 November 2023

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Members of the House of Bishops in the Synod chamber

Members of the House of Bishops in the Synod chamber

IN AN informal session on the Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) late on Monday afternoon, several bishops involved Living in Love and Faith (LLF) discussions introduced their views on the motion to be debated later.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, began by reading out the full motion on the PLF which the Synod had approved in February (News, 10 February). For some, this had been a “catastrophe”; for others, it amounted to little more than “crumbs under the table”. The process since February had been “painful”, she said, attempting to bring together theology, the law, and pastoral care. She apologised for losing sight of both the real people amid the argument, and the “silent middle” ground.

It was not news that the Church of England — both the Synod and the House of Bishops — did not agree, she said, referring to a group of bishops who recently dissented from the party line on the prayers (News, 13 October).

But a “rich diversity” of interpretations of scripture, culture, science, and theology should be welcomed, not feared, she argued. Practical theology had always been “iterative” and in dialogue: that was how the Bishops had arrived at the theological rationale that underpinned the proposals, the Bishop said.

It would have been wonderful had the LLF process had led to a consensus, but it was not so. The vote in February showed that there was a small majority for some change, but not the two-thirds required for doctrinal change, she said. The Bishops had since been trying to mark out the “widest space” possible for pastoral provision in light of this, but “the reality is, there was not a lot of room for movement.”

Uncertainty and provisionality were the order of the day, as well as considering the tradition of pastoral provision, which sought to “build up and encourage faith” in situations in which the Church did not agree. This would not change doctrine, but, rather, change how doctrine interacted with pastoral practice.

The PLF would celebrate the lives of LGBTQ+ people, offering material for intercessory prayers in regular public worship as well as private conversation, Bishop Mullally explained. There was also an outline of services in which the prayers were the principal focus — what had become known as “stand-alone services”.

Canon B5 would be used to commend the prayers for use in regular services or in private, but not stand-alone services, which would instead go through the full liturgical synodical approval process under Canon B2, she explained. Canon B5A had initially been considered instead of Canon B2: this would have allowed the Archbishops to permit the temporary use of material that had not yet been authorised by the Synod. But this had been dropped because it was felt that it would take too long to authorise the prayers fully after the experimental period of up to five years, and also because there were concerns that this might not provide a sure legal footing for any clergy who hoped to use the services.

Since the House of Bishops had moved to the Canon B2 route, however, there had been significant resistance. Therefore, she now welcomed the Bishop of Oxford’s amendment to her forthcoming motion on the prayers, which would request the House to reconsider some way of introducing the stand-alone services for a trial period after all.

Second, the House of Bishops intended to commend the PLF resources for same-sex couples, which was due to happen by mid-December. They must be used only in regular services that would happen anyway, and in which the prayers were not the principal focus. The PLF could also be used in private conversation and prayer.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally; behind her the Bishops of Winchester, Worcester, and Guildford

As the proposal stood, the stand-alone services would be introduced as liturgical business, and authorisation would be sought under Canon B2, which was the standard process for introducing novel liturgy. This would be time-consuming, Bishop Mullally admitted, but would establish them definitively after input and consideration from the Synod.

It had been asked repeatedly whether the material in the resources section of the PLF were contrary to the doctrine of the Church in any essential matter, she said. The House of Bishops now believed that the legal status of the couple was irrelevant, whether they were in a civil marriage, civil partnership, or neither. No religious recognition was being offered to any such status; nor was any assumption being made about whether the couple were having sex or not.

Previous pastoral statements from the House of Bishops said that offering public services for gay couples would not be right, as some might not be living within the Church’s teaching, she said. But the House now believed that making pastoral provision for such couples was appropriate and not contrary to the doctrine of the Church. If moving away from this was indicative of a departure from doctrine, it was not an essential matter, she argued.

New insights into an unchanged doctrine precipitated new forms of pastoral provision, but “we are satisfied as a House of Bishops that the PLF meet the canonical requirements,” she said. All that was taking place was “enlarging the space” for pastoral provision for LGBTQ+ people. For some, even this went too far, but the House had made a commitment to exploring formal structural provision.

“This is where we find ourselves, but we hope this proposal can help us inhabit this space as best we can, which we can only do with grace,” she concluded. The big headline was not that the Church did not agree, but that its members could still love one another amid disagreement.

First to speak was the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, who referred to his publicly held views in favour of same-sex marriage in the Church (News, 13 January). Pastoral provision could be provided without changing doctrine, he said, and he hoped that the Synod would carry the motion.

Dr Inge spoke of his marriage to a divorcee, noting that this was permitted only owing to a change in the canons. Many Christians, including some Anglicans, could not accept this, he admitted, but he said: “I am so grateful that our own Church is more generous in making pastoral provision in allowing my marriage. I feel like my new marriage has led me out of the wilderness and into something like the Promised Land. I know that extending the same sort of generosity to those whose love happens to be for someone of the same sex would end so much pain and suffering and bring immense joy.”

Dr Inge valued the ministry of those, including bishops, who disagreed, and wanted to continue working and worshipping with them “without any differentiation”.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, one of the bishops who signed the dissenting statement, warned that moving forward with the prayers without finishing work on the pastoral guidance was unwise. Implementing the February motion with theological and legal coherence had proven difficult. “It has felt like driving a car with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake.”

Most members would recognise that there were strengths to be found in long-term faithful same-sex partnerships, but finding ways to celebrate those strengths without indicating a change in the Church’s doctrine had proved “strangely elusive”, he said.

There had been too much focus on finding consensus, Bishop Watson said, which had long since been an impossibility. Some kind of formal, structural, and pastoral provision was therefore necessary to ensure that the “greatest number of people could remain within the Church of England’s tent”. Holding together theological integrity and the highest degree of communion must be the aim, he said.

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, hailed the LLF process as thoroughly Anglican, worked out in community and in deep conversation with scripture, tradition, and reason. Anglican theology was neither a system nor a confession, he said, and could not be easily defined in itself. It would instead be proved by its fruit and its works, Bishop Chessun said, quoting Archbishop Michael Ramsey. This method had shaped how LLF worked and how the prayers had been drafted.

“We have been listening, we are listening, and we will continue to listen. But this Synod needs to move the conversation on,” he said. At the moment, the Church was stuck, and so the listening and theology had become stuck too, he warned. “Move forward with reasonable faith in God’s undoubted love for all.”

The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, acknowledged that the Bishops, Church of England, and Anglican Communion were all “unhappily divided”. The doctrine of marriage was a “beautiful thing” and not something that he could compromise on, he said, despite his desire to celebrate what was beautiful and holy in same-sex relationships. This was perhaps contradictory or paradoxical, he conceded, but the Church was in a “constrained space”.

This was in part because the vast majority of the Church wished to stay together, whether they acknowledged this or not. This was why structural pastoral provision had become so important: “What mechanism can we use to stay together when we are so divided?” he asked. Church unity was a first-order thing, it was not just confessional and credal, but covenantal. It was imperative that some kind of settlement be reached to keep the Church united.

Questions from Synod members were then raised, beginning with the Revd Dr Ian Paul (Southwell & Nottingham), who asked how such contradictory views on doctrine had arisen, given that every cleric had pledged to abide by the faith as received. He also asked how the House of Bishops hoped to avoid the decline that, he argued, every other denomination that had embarked on liberalisation around same-sex marriage had seen.

Given that there had not been a two-thirds majority, why had the Bishops chosen the B2 process for stand-alone services which would need a two-thirds majority to be carried, Ros Clarke (Lichfield) asked.

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone (Oxford) asked what would happen if the stand-alone services were not authorised: would parishes using the prayers in regular services then have to stop?

In response, Bishop Mullally reiterated that no change of doctrine was envisaged, simply “pastoral provision in a time of uncertainty”. Research into churches that had introduced same-sex marriage did not provide neat conclusions about decline, she said. The B2 route had been chosen because it would provide better assurance for those who wanted to use stand-alone services. And, yes, it would need a two-thirds majority, but there was still time for further discernment. Running the prayers alongside this in an experimental period would also inform the B2 debate. Irrespective of what happened to stand-alone services, the wider resource suite of the PLF to be commended shortly by the Bishops would continue to be in use.

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) asked Bishop Chessun how the House of Bishops had been listening to LGBT voices, arguing that these voices “weren’t in the room”. Bishop Chessun said that the Bishops were conscious that some of the actions taken since February’s apology to LGBT+ people had been met with sadness and anger.

The Archdeacon of Bath, the Ven. Dr Adrian Youings (Bath & Wells) asked specifically about what “conscience” meant for archdeacons in the context of pastoral provision, before the Revd Jeremy Moodey (Oxford) asked whether, if the Synod voted against stand-alone services at the end of the B2 process, the prayers themselves would also “fall away”.

Bishop Mullally replied that it was already the position of the Church that priests could say pastoral prayers with same-sex couples, and that this would not change.

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