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Same-sex couples set before God and the community

27 January 2023

Drawing on theology of blessing, Andrew Davison suggests how the Bishops’ prayers might be used liturgically

WE CAN bless same-sex couples. That is the Bishops’ conclusion from the Living in Love and Faith process (News, Leader comment 20 January). Their new “suite of prayers” suggests various ways to pray with same-sex couples. Since services of blessing have been the sticking point up to now, however, dropping that prohibition stands out as the most striking development. Ministers will have latitude about how to go about them. Christians have a long history of thinking about blessing; so here are some suggestions for putting together a service, drawing on some of that theology.

A blessing is many things. As a good place to start, a blessing speaks well of something. That’s there in the roots of the Latin word (benedicere) and the Greek (eulogein). Approaching blessing as “speaking well of” helps us understand the otherwise perplexing idea of “blessing the Lord” (how can we bless God?), since in praise we speak well of the Lord.

A blessing also recognises and proclaims something as part of God’s good creation. There is therefore value, at a service of blessing, in saying something specific about what we are blessing and recognising as good — these people, their relationship, their story — whether in the sermon or the opening words. In speaking well of creation, we also speak well of the creator. A service of blessing should include praise, and draw our minds back to God, as the source of all things: not least as love’s deepest origin and furthest goal.

There is also to blessing something of setting before, setting apart, and setting within. We can use a church building as part of our witness to that. When we bless an object — perhaps a new chalice for holy communion — we place it before God, typically on the altar or communion table. When we bless a couple, we also set them before God and the community, and before the minister, as representative of both. Here, too, the altar is a potent symbol of offering up and receiving back.

THAT is setting before. Blessing is also setting apart, as a designation and prayer for holiness. God is supremely holy, set apart from all things in perfection. For whatever we bless — things, people, places, or endeavours — we seek some created participation in that holiness.

In human relationships, that “setting apart” involves faithfulness and forswearing. Every “turning towards” — towards God, towards the other person — is also a “turning away”; we see that in religious vows, in other commitments to celibacy, and in marriage. Introducing the new prayers, the Bishops talk about faithfulness and a lifelong character. It is right for that to be enunciated and celebrated in a service such as this.

Blessing sets apart, for God and for another. In a marvellous twist of Christian theology and experience, however, we find that the most intense forms of setting apart also involve receiving back and setting within. A cloistered nun is set apart, but for a life of the deepest intercession within and alongside the Church. Ordination also sets apart, but for active ministry. The Bishops’ new prayers witness to this, and blessing of a couple should weave together this setting apart with this setting within: exclusive commitment in love, on the one hand, and available service in love, on the other.

WHATEVER we bless, we place within the frame of the Christian faith and story. When the couple are committed believers, we can therefore link the blessing to their baptismal vocation. For those whose faith is less sure or developed — and I hope that many of them will also come to church for blessing — that decision is also a profound act of “setting within”: they, too, seek to place their love, lives, family, and aspirations within a Christian frame.

In either case, as the new prayers remind us, the couple are not isolated individuals: they bring their families, friends, and wider vocations with them. The scriptural readings are a central part of this work of “setting with” the faith and story, as are scriptural allusions in the prayers (and such allusions have traditionally been a notable mark of prayers of blessing).

With a blessing, we speak well of God’s creation and its flourishing, but historically they have also recognised fragility and danger. Blessings have been prayers for protection and strength. The blessings of homes and journeys are good examples. The preface to the 1662 marriage service is admirably clear about the dangers that beset human relationships. Although we might want to moderate the language of “brute beasts”, the new prayers rightly reflect a need for God’s strength and protection, and we won’t do any favours by omitting this element, as one part of the whole.

That is only a start. The Church of England is heir to rich theologies of blessing. This has much to offer, for those who will embrace this development in our liturgical and pastoral life.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Associate Professor in Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College, and is currently a fellow of the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton. He is the author of
Blessing (Canterbury Press, 2014) (Books, 19 February 2016). Next week, Dr Davison suggests improvements that could be made to the Bishops’ prayers.

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