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We will bless couples, not just people  

03 February 2023

Andrew Davison finds much to commend in the Bishops’ proposals — but takes issue with some wording and texts to be used


THE Bishops’ “suite” of prayers — known as Prayers of Love and Faith — lie at the heart of their response to the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process (News, 20 January, Comment, 27 January). None the less, for all the prominence of those prayers, and the time and legal scrutiny that has gone into them, they are more important as indications than as texts: more significant for what they represent, suggest, and allow, than they are as literary objects.

That is because the very basis on which they can be used at all — that they are “neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter” — is also what renders them simply indicative. Any other prayers will do that operate with the same doctrinal assumptions. As the Bishops put it, “There is considerable scope for creativity and flexibility available here, provided ministers remain within the discretion set out by Canon B 5.” That, we now know, includes the propriety of blessing same-sex couples.

Only with the prayers of “blessing” or “dedication” does the text make a half-hearted attempt to limit us to something from the published “suite” (rubric at the bottom of page 23), although the comment that you can use any consonant prayer at this point, so long as it’s not one for blessing marriages from the Book of Common Prayer or Common Worship, undermines that (Notes to the Service, §5).

FOR all that it is important to emphasise that flexibility, and our ability to use other prayers, there is much in this collection that strikes me as good, and which I could use in my own chapel setting. Admittedly, I do not think that the Church of England is in a golden age of prayer-writing. None the less, I like the prayers for “companionship”, “grace to live well”, “discipleship”, “for a household and family”, and the second part of “a prayer of commitment”, for instance.

The main need for reworking, at least in my setting, would be to respond to the preference for traditional language that I encounter among couples. If heterosexual couples find something particularly dignified and glorious about being married using words that do come from our liturgical golden age (refracted through 1928-become-Series-One, if they follow my advice), I expect many homosexual couples will want the same for their “big day” (granted that they must settle for a blessing, rather than a church marriage). Let’s not short-change them on that score.

Some work on eucharistic prefaces would be useful. The prefaces for holy matrimony in Common Worship (whether or not the Bishops would like us to use them) do not work for a same-sex relationship. If the Bishops want us to refrain from producing our own prefaces, they will need to supply at least one.

That said, here’s a suggestion. When a devout couple hold their blessing within a eucharist, there is a lot to be said for making it “votive”: a eucharist celebrated with readings, collect, and preface around a theme or devotion. Common Worship (Eucharists for Special Occasions) includes “For the Guidance of the Holy Spirit” and “Social Justice and Responsibility”, for instance. Material from the church year would furnish others: of the resurrection, for instance, or of the incarnation.

ARE there aspects to the prayers that strike me as weaker, or odd? Yes. But, in welcoming the Bishops’ commendation of blessing same-sex couples, and marvelling that the College of Bishops has managed to come to this level of agreement, it is best to let sleeping dogs lie. We have the texts; we do not have to use them as printed, as long as we keep within the doctrinal envelope; let each person follow her conscience.

There has been perplexity on social media about talk of “covenanted friendships”, and the absence of references to relationships as sexual. I agree that looks coy, or evasive, but it’s clear why that “covenanted friendship” is there, and anything to do with sexual bodies is not. There are bishops who have reconciled themselves to these prayers on the basis that all we’re doing is blessing friendships, which we should “charitably” presume to be celibate. To those bishops, I say, “God bless you for finding that way to accommodate yourselves to these developments.”

As for the lack of sexual references, I’m not sure it works that well to bring them into the liturgy anyway. I find Common Worship’s “delight and tenderness of sexual union” at once both more explicit than most people want at that moment, and also rather anodyne: it hardly suggests passion “strong as death . . . fierce as the grave . . . a raging flame”.

SO, LET sleeping dogs lie. But, on the question of what we are blessing, I am inclined to press a point. There have been suggestions that we are blessing people, not relationships. That is not a good distinction to make. Anthropologically, it is not tenable to talk about people or couples in abstraction from their relationships, commitments, or households.

Nor, ethically, can we relinquish the need to be discerning over what we bless, and what we do not. It won’t work to evade that by shifting from the relationship to the people. I would not bless arms-trading. By no means, then, could I go to an arms fair, and bless it anyway, saying that I’m only blessing the arms-dealer, and not his work or way of life.

Blessing requires discernment. I look forward immensely to blessing same-sex couples, but that has to mean that I would not bless a relationship that is clearly abusive, for instance, or openly promiscuous. That aligns with how the Church of England gives permission to bless marriages after divorce, but not if that relationship was the cause of the breakdown of a prior marriage.

Pastorally, cautiously, and with all humility, we have to show judgement, because we are not just blessing people as individuals, but as a couple. Standing before us in church, their relationships stands before us. To say otherwise risks snatching back with one hand what we are newly giving with the other: we’ll bless you, but don’t think that we’ll bless your relationship.

I do not buy the statement in the accompanying Bishops’ letter that, in the Bible, “blessing is given to people rather than things, actions, or ways of life”. Blessings are pronounced in the Old Testament on sacrifices, houses or households, “substance” (hêlô, likely meaning what belongs to you), assemblies, and towns. More widely, blessing is associated with work, nationhood, produce, undertakings, barns, baskets and kneading bowls, land, and abodes.

Just as perplexing is the methodology in the Bishops’ letter, assuming that we can jump straight from the Bible to a contemporary practice of blessing, as if 2000 years of Christian doctrinal reflection is irrelevant. Bring the history of doctrine into the picture, and you have one that has been happy with blessing “things, actions, and ways of life”, as the liturgies and practice of our own church bear witness.

THE legal advice to the General Synod makes an unhappy and unnecessary claim about “only blessing people”. The foundation of that document is the idea that a civil marriage is now different from “Holy Matrimony”. The new prayers do not depart from our doctrine, we are told, precisely because they do not purport to recognise a same-sex marriage as holy matrimony.

That is the “doctrinal envelope” we have to work within. A point in §3 is therefore as irrelevant as it is unfortunate. It tells us that the prayers are also acceptable because they do not claim to bless a civil marriage. But the legal advice has gone out of its way to emphasise that civil marriage and holy matrimony do not amount to the same thing in these cases. Nothing rests on evading the fact that there has been a civil marriage; the prayers just do not claim that civil marriage as a sacramental one (“Holy Matrimony”).

Any suggestion that a blessing after a civil same-sex marriage must avoid blessing the marriage even qua civil is an unforced pastoral error. The Church clearly recognises same-sex civil marriages as civil marriages, and (on terms I personally see no need to invoke at all) finds no fault with them, because they are not “Holy Matrimony” (it claims), nor intrinsically sexual.

So, alongside the intellectually and humanly untenable claim that we are blessing people not relationships, let’s also drop the equally untenable, and entirely unnecessary, claim — unnecessary even within the Bishops’ own logic ­— that we can’t bless a civil marriage qua civil marriage.

Also deserving more attention in this legal advice is the possible implication that definitions of marriage have diverged sufficiently that civil marriage is not automatically holy matrimony any more, even for baptised, opposite-sex couples. Marriage has never needed to be conducted in church to enjoy full Christian status as a marriage (as a sacrament, as I’d put it), not least because, in the West, the “ministers” are the couple, not a priest.

Certainly, if the Church now denies that civil marriages are automatically holy matrimony (even for a baptised, opposite-sex couple), that is a huge development. Should we urge all couples married that way over the past ten years to church to make it “Holy Matrimony”, too?

NOT everyone will go through the door opened by Prayers of Love and Faith, but many will. I rejoice in that prospect, but just as much that it has been achieved with such a remarkable sense of common commitment among the Bishops (and, I hope, among the Church they serve).

As someone involved with Living in Love and Faith from that start, I know that many people deserve commendation for that, but honour is due to the LLF enabling officer, Dr Eeva John, most of all.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Associate Professor in Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge and Dean of Chapel of 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).

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