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LLF road map to ‘rebuilding trust’ set out at General Synod briefing

09 February 2024

Sam Atkins/Church Times

Synod members vote during last November’s sessions in London

Synod members vote during last November’s sessions in London

A FRESH way forward on Living in Love and Faith (LLF) will be presented to the General Synod later this month, in the hope of “rebuilding trust” lost over the past year.

The now sole lead bishop for LLF, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, explained his new “broad Church” approach at the Synod press briefing in Church House, Westminster, on Friday.

His former co-lead bishop, the Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, resigned from the position last week over the appointment of a new interim theological adviser who has expressed conservative views on sexuality (News, 2 February).

Bishop Snow said that, even though he had not himself voted for the Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF), he was now committed to delivering on the decisions already taken by both the Synod and the House of Bishops.

But this progress must not be made at the expense of the Church’s unity, he warned on Friday. “Proceeding by narrow majorities with votes being won by one or two votes will leave us with serious problems in the years to come. We need the rebuilding of trust.”

He was bringing to the Synod ten “commitments” around which, he hoped, the Church could unite, despite its deep disagreements over sexuality and marriage.

To model the transparency that he hoped to cultivate, the Bishops had included, for the first time, legal advice given to them in their paper on LLF, he said.

These annexes set out the different options open to the Bishops for the remaining elements of the LLF package still to be implemented: stand-alone services of blessing for same-sex couples, and pastoral guidance on whether gay clergy are permitted to enter into same-sex civil marriages.

Synod members, Bishop Snow said, should now be able to appreciate the difficulties that the House of Bishops found itself in implementing the Synod’s narrow votes in favour of the PLF. “Some of this is not straightforward and will need hard work,” he said.

Rather than simply force votes on each remaining open issue and proceed on small majorities, the Synod should choose a path of “reconciliation”, and coalesce around a settlement acceptable to as many factions as possible.

In his LLF paper, Living in Love, Faith, and Reconciliation, Bishop Snow writes: “We are at a crossroads — either we have reached the point of separation, accepting that our opponents should not be part of the Church — or we must shift the debate to the question of how we live well with difference.”

This lasting settlement must recognise the “yearning of the middle ground”, he writes: the “vast majority” of churchpeople who want LGBTQ+ people to accepted and valued recognise that considering changes to doctrine will inevitably be a slow and thoughtful process.

“Our argument therefore is for a renewal of the ‘broad Church’ approach in which the gifts of different traditions are valued, honoured, and exchanged in a healthy way.”

Among the ten commitments are promises of freedom of conscience for clergy to use or reject the PLF as they wish, with the support of their bishops, and a moratorium on reopening the question of same-sex marriage in church for the remainder of this Synod (until 2026).

There are also commitments to bringing in the stand-alone PLF services on an experimental basis, but not before the pastoral guidance and reassurance for conservatives have been finalised.

The eighth commitment is to “explor[ing] the process” for allowing priests and lay ministers to enter into same-sex civil marriages, with the proviso that individual bishops would be free, on conscience grounds, not to ordain or license any such clergy.

Finally, the bishops make a commitment to exploring “the minimum formal structural changes necessary to enable as many as possible to stay within the Church of England”.

The annexes of the paper include detailed discussion of two of the most contentious issues still to be determined in the LLF process: how to provide the stand-alone services of blessing for same-sex couples, and how to change the pastoral guidance so that gay clergy can enter into same-sex marriages.

The legal advice to the House of Bishops indicates that using Canon B5A — which permits the Archbishops to authorise new liturgies for a trial period, and which was endorsed by the Synod in November’s debate (News, 23 November 2023) — to introduce stand-alone services would be novel and raise a “considerable risk of legal challenge in the courts”.

Furthermore, the full Canon B2 synodical authorisation process could not begin until the experimental phase had finished. During the two-year synodical proceedings, stand-alone services would not be permitted. This raised difficult pastoral concerns, and would also significantly lengthen the time before stand-alone services could be authorised permanently.

Whether preceded by a trial period or not, using Canon B2 to authorise the services synodically would ultimately require a two-thirds majority vote in each House of the Synod, a bar that no LLF motion has yet come close to reaching.

The alternative method of using Canon B5 — simple commendation by the Bishops — was the initial plan, and has already been used to introduce the PLF in regular services, the paper notes.

But using this for stand-alone services would create significant legal risks for priests, the advice continues, as commendation by the House of Bishops does not determine whether the services are lawful and not contrary to doctrine.

“The bishops have listened and take very seriously the concerns around ministers bearing the legal risk of using the PLF,” the paper says; and this is why alternative routes are now being explored.

Other options include Canon B4.2, which allows the Archbishops to authorise new services for their own provinces; or Canon B4.3, which gives diocesan bishops a similar power over their dioceses. Both routes could still leave the Archbishops or bishops personally liable to legal challenge, the advice notes.

The second annex to the paper dives into the question of allowing clergy to enter same-sex marriages, saying that this is no less complicated.

There was a narrow majority of 18-15 (with two abstentions) in the House of Bishops in favour of permitting gay priests to marry, but no decision has yet been made on how this can be put into practice. “The question of how to do this, pastorally, theologically and legally, is not straightforward,” the document says.

Three options are being considered, each with compromises. One would be for the bishops to declare formally in a teaching document that civil same-sex marriage was not at odds with the Church’s teaching on holy matrimony. The advice says, however, that there is a “significant risk” that this would be seen as a change in doctrine, which the House and Synod have already said that they do not want.

The second option would be for the Bishops to permit gay clergy to marry as a purely pastoral accommodation during a “time of uncertainty”, but this would expose clerics to potential legal cases in the courts.

Third, the Bishops could uphold teaching that same-sex civil marriage remained outside the bounds of C of E doctrine, but agree simply not to enforce discipline in this area. This route, however, would not prevent individuals’ bringing Clergy Discipline Measure proceedings against gay married priests; nor would it stop a postcode lottery developing, whereby conservative bishops continued to enforce the discipline while liberal dioceses did not.

The paper concludes without recommending any of the options set out for either authorising stand-alone services or permitting gay clergy to marry. It also does not offer any detail on what settlement will eventually be offered to conservatives, although Bishop Snow said that he hoped to bring “outline” proposals to the Synod in York in July.

There are also other LLF elements still to be implemented, the document continues, including the appointment of an independent reviewer to monitor usage of the PLF (an appointment should be complete by the end of the year) and establishing a Pastoral Consultative Group to advise clergy and bishops on issues surrounding marriage, sex, and identity. The group’s membership should be identified by the summer, and it is expected to start work by the end of the year.

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