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Bishops’ divisions over same-sex marriage exposed

26 October 2023

MPs question episcopal governance after bishops vote to slow progress on blessings

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A LARGE majority of C of E bishops support 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 Church Times can report.

The House of Bishops, however, voted to slow progress on both issues in a meeting earlier this month, in the face of conservative hostility. The outcome has prompted MPs to question the process of episcopal governance.

Pastoral guidance that would allow priests to enter into same-sex marriages was drafted before the College of Bishops meeting at the end of September. The College includes all consecrated bishops, diocesan and suffragan. At that meeting, three-quarters of the bishops present voted to recommend to the House of Bishops that work should continue on “pastoral provision” to extend it to “clergy who enter into same-sex marriages”. The House comprises all the diocesans and selected suffragans and, as one of the three Houses of the General Synod, has more formal authority than the College.

When the papers for next month’s meeting of the Synod were released last Friday, however, no provision for clergy to enter into same-sex marriages was contained in the sections of the pastoral guidance which were published (News, 20 October).

Instead, the document relating to Living in Love and Faith (LLF) said that “further work” was required on the pastoral guidance for “clergy and lay ministers”.

The Bishops of London and Winchester, who are currently leading the LLF process, wrote: “Given the complexity of these topics, more work still needs to be completed in this area. While we recognise this will be disappointing for many, particularly where there is an urgent need for clarity, it is essential that this guidance is robust and sufficient enough on key questions for long term decisions to be made.”

Documents seen by the Church Times were obtained from multiple sources, and include the results of votes taken in the House and College of Bishops.

It appears that, by the time the issue reached a meeting of the House on 9 October, a decision had been made to split the pastoral guidance into three parts, of which the third — pertaining to the expectations of conduct by clergy and lay ministers — would be deferred for more work.

The process has raised questions about how decisions are made in the Church of England. One bishop told the Church Times: “As soon as you think that you’ve decided something, they come up with something else.”

Voting records suggest that the House held a vote on whether it was of one mind that the pastoral guidance should permit clergy to be in same-sex civil marriages, and that this was passed by 18 votes to 15 — though the House still voted to delay its publication for “further work”.

After a positive, if contested, vote in the Synod in February, there has been a widespread expectation that a change will be made to the Church’s current ban on priests’ entering into a same-sex marriage, as well as immediate approval of services for prayers of blessing. The announcement last Friday that work on this aspect of the pastoral guidance was to continue until next year provoked a strong reaction this week.

“I’ve never known such anger and dismay among Anglicans,” the Labour MP Sir Ben Bradshaw said on Monday, after he published a letter to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, which demanded answers about the situation.

The letter, co-signed by Sir Ben and the Conservative MP Peter Gibson, asserts that what has been announced “backtracks on what was agreed at Synod in February”, and that “what it doesn’t backtrack on completely, it kicks further down the road.”

Speaking to the Church Times, Sir Ben suggested that the majority of the Church was “fed-up with the complete failure of the leadership of the Archbishops and the Bishops, and their repeated pusillanimity in the face of extremely aggressive behaviour of a small group of completely unrepresentative Evangelical conservatives”.

He “confidently predicted” that “Parliament will not stand by.” These concerns came “hot on the heels of the catastrophic failure by senior church officials over safeguarding”, he said.

“There are very strong suspicions that a senior official in Church House wields far too much power, is not answerable, is not accountable, and has once again intervened improperly in this process.”

The move to hold off stand-alone services for the prayers until authorised under Canon B2, which entails a synodical process with final two-thirds majorities for approval in all Houses, also went against the recommendation of most of the bishops.

Voting records seen by the Church Times show that a majority of 75 to 22 at the College of Bishops meeting in September supported a plan to approve the services under Canon B5A, which would have enabled their immediate use as an “experimental” service under the authority of the Archbishops.

At a meeting on 9 October, however, the House of Bishops opted to take a different route, and instead move straight to the full synodical process outlined in Canon B2. The College of Bishops had expressly voted against this, by a majority of 68 to 28.

The decision to reverse this in the House was by a small margin: 19 in favour of the plan to proceed straight to B2, and 16 against.

Although this will delay implementation, it means, none the less, that the votes are likely be taken by the present membership of the Synod. When the Synod voted to approve the Prayers of Love and Faith in February, the motion failed to gain a two-thirds majority in either of the Houses of Clergy and Laity (News, 9 February).

Since the summer, multiple letters from a coalition of opponents to the introduction of the prayers have warned the Bishops that anything other than pursuing authorisation under Canon B2 would be “unlawful, unconstitutional, and illegitimate” (News, 5 July; News, 1 September).

The Church Times has seen further letters written by the group sent to bishops and the Archbishops three days before the House’s meeting, urging them to reject the route offered by B5A, saying that it was “not a safe, effective or legitimate means by which the Prayers can be finalised and adopted for use in the Church of England”.

Last week, two of the signatories to the letters — the former Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and founder of the Alpha course, the Revd Nicky Gumbel, and the National Director of the Church of England Evangelical Council, Canon John Dunnett — were in Cairo for a meeting of the Primates of the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans (GSFA).

The GSFA is a group of Anglican Provinces whose leadership is opposed to any moves in the Anglican Communion away from the 1998 Lambeth Conference’s Resolution 1.10 in its rejection of “homosexual practice as incompatible with scripture” (News, 5 August 2022).

In February, a spokesperson for the GSFA told the Church Times that the CEEC had been invited to take up associate membership of the organisation (News, 20 February). It is understood that the CEEC is still exploring this possibility.

In a communiqué issued on Sunday, the GSFA Primates said that they were “deeply concerned that if the Church of England presses ahead with the proposed changes, this will increase persecution of Christians in many parts of the Global South”.

Mr Gumbel and Canon Dunnett are listed as “observers” at the meeting, while the former’s affiliation is listed as “Alliance” — a reference, it seems, to the part played by Mr Gumbel in the coalition of Evangelical and Catholic groups that were involved in writing the letters and have a significant presence on the Synod.

An earlier version of this story gave incorrect voting figures. These have now been corrected and the story amended

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