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Same-sex provision needs more work, General Synod will be told

20 October 2023

Bishops argue that changes constitute ‘pastoral provision’, not a change in doctrine

Max Colson/Church Times

Groups discussed Living in Love and Faith during the February Synod this year

Groups discussed Living in Love and Faith during the February Synod this year

IMPORTANT decisions, including whether priests are permitted to enter into same-sex civil marriages, and how to provide for those who oppose the introduction of blessings for same-sex couples, can be made only after “further work” by the House of Bishops, it was announced on Friday.

At a press conference looking at the papers for next month’s meeting of the General Synod (13-15 November), the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, insisted that neither item was being put off.

“It’s not deferring, but it’s recognising that, in terms of moving both those forward, not just more work, but — certainly in terms of the formal structural pastoral reassurance — more listening, needs to be done,” she said.

The agenda for this group of sessions is dominated by LLF: one and a half of the two-and-a-half-days are allotted to it.

Despite this, the actual motion to be debated does not contain any substantive steps, and the Synod will be asked merely to “recognise the progress made by the House of Bishops towards implementing the motion on Living in Love and Faith passed by this Synod in February 2023” (News, 9 February).

Asked how the Bishops expected to reach a better position from which to make any progress, given the dissent in their ranks, Bishop Mullally said: “These are difficult decisions. They will be always be difficult decisions. I think our view is that this time of uncertainty is helpful in recognising that pastoral provision needs to be made, as, whilst individuals may be certain, the Church is not.”

A timetable published on Friday suggests that “policy development” on further pastoral reassurance will be undertaken, and proposals brought to the Synod next July.

A 108-page document, “Living in Love and Faith: Setting out the progress made and work still to do” (GS2328), was published on Friday. It contains a partial draft of new pastoral guidance, as well as a theological rationale for some of the changes proposed.

The document also contains an outline of other aspects of pastoral reassurance which the Bishops are willing to consider for opponents of any innovation. These include the appointment of an independent reviewer. The timetable suggests, however, that members will have to wait until February 2024 for detailed proposals, and that these are unlikely to be in place until after a November 2025 meeting of the Synod.

In an introduction to the document, Bishop Mullally outlines an argument for “pastoral provision in a time of uncertainty”. The phrase, repeated several times in the document and quoted at the press conference, seems to be an attempt to encapsulate the approach that the House of Bishops is taking: acknowledging that the Church is divided, but seeking to justify the limited introduction of blessings for same-sex couples in the near future.

After a meeting of the House of Bishops on 9 October, it was announced that the Bishops had agreed “in principle” to commend the blessings, part of Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF), for use within existing liturgies, but that stand-alone services would require authorisation through Canon B2, which involves the full synodical process (News, 10 October).

Cognisant of opposition to the introduction of the Prayers, including that of a minority in the House of Bishops (News, 12 October), the first of nine annexes to the document outlines why the proposal “does not change doctrine in any essential matter but changes our practical pastoral response and the way we relate within the Church”.

The concept of the prayers’ being “pastoral provision” is central to the rationale for the assertion that the “essential doctrines of the Church of England are safeguarded”. The paper states: “We consider that what is envisaged by way of pastoral provision — which involves acknowledging and celebrating what is good in same-sex relationships even if the Church is unable to commend every aspect of some relationships — is a new insight into doctrine that can be reflected in forms of worship and that doing so represents a proper degree of flexibility.”

This accords with an acknowledgement, in the same annexe, that “the PLF say nothing about sex but many same-sex couples will be in active sexual relationships.”

The new paper does contain clear guidance on how the PLF should be used, including an “expectation” that the incumbent priest in a parish consult the PCC, although there is no legal requirement to do so.

It repeats that no priest will be obliged to use the prayers, and this applies to a situation in which he or she is part of a team in which the incumbent approves their use.

The guidance also indicates that, if stand-alone services are authorised by the Synod, they will be used on an “opt-in” system that would require a formal agreement between incumbent and PCC.

 

THE blessings remained on track to be commended after the November meeting of the Synod, Bishop Mullally said last week, though the exact date remains unclear.

A key precondition is the publication of pastoral guidance related to the use of the prayers. A draft of this was included in the document released on Monday. But it comes with the proviso that this work does not yet cover the question whether priests are permitted to be in same-sex civil marriages.

The implementation timetable included in the document suggests that a “proposal/update” will be provided at the Synod’s meeting next July. A further annexe includes a statement that the “House of Bishops’ intention is that this further work will consider whether the rationale of pastoral provision might provide a basis for allowing clergy to be in same-sex marriages.”

Accompanying notes make clear that the pastoral guidance is conceived as a “living document” and will be subject to additions and modifications. It is formulated in a question-and-answer format, with a stated intention that it be “accessible and pastorally sensitive rather than clinical and purely factual.

“However, because of the nature of providing guidance, and the complex space of disagreement we inhabit, readers may find the tone to be more restricted than what we would have liked to model,” it continues.

GS 2328 can be found on the Church of England website.

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