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Seven bishops set out ‘theological vision’ to inform Synod’s next LLF debate

08 February 2024

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The General Synod meets in York last July

The General Synod meets in York last July

IN THE expectation that the road map for the Prayers of Love and Faith will be discussed by the General Synod this month, seven bishops have published a set of “affirmations” as a contribution to the Church’s “theological discernment”.

They include the assertion that the Church is “called to witness boldly to the gospel of Jesus Christ, identifying and rejecting the idols and harmful ideologies of any age”.

Set out as a “theological vision”, the affirmations are supported by the Bishops of Lancaster, Rochester, Islington, Chichester, Guildford, Sheffield, and Southwell & Nottingham. The text states that this is offered “on behalf of a wider grouping within the House and College” of Bishops as “a positive contribution to the Church’s ongoing theological discernment in the Living in Love and Faith project, and as an invitation to ongoing conversation”.

They have been published amid unrest at proposals for a “reset” of the Living in Love and Faith process, including talk of a “settlement” that “allows as many people as possible to remain within the Church of England” (News, 2 February). Currently, the only blessings for same-sex couples which are formally permitted are those that take place within the confines of an existing service (News, 15 December 2023).

This month’s Synod meeting is, it is expected, to be presented with a set of “commitments” intended to “form the basis for a settlement that allows as many people as possible to remain within the Church of England”. At the November group of sessions, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, said that some kind of formal, structural, and pastoral provision was necessary to ensure that the “greatest number of people could remain within the Church of England’s tent” (News, 24 November).

He has co-chaired the “pastoral reassurance” group established to work on “what will be required in order to ensure freedom of conscience for clergy” (News, 5 May 2023), and warned last July that it was “only ten or 15 per cent through the task” (News, 14 July 2023). While elements of the reassurance were presented at the November meeting, others, including “formal structural pastoral provision”, have yet to be agreed.

The publication of the affirmations follows the seven-year Living in Love and Faith process, which culminated in a 480-page book. The group says that they are intended to “present a concise but broad vision of Christian life and discipleship, to bring greater clarity to our points of convergence and divergence, and to encourage and equip those who remain committed to the Church’s inherited teaching”.

They fall under four headings: credal orthodoxy (“what is not found in Scripture cannot be imposed on the Church, and the Church lacks authority to ordain anything contrary to God’s word written”), the universal Church (“We stand alongside all faithful Christians, including fellow Anglicans globally who are committed to holding to the Church’s historic faith and moral teaching”), supernatural faith (“marriage is a dynamic sign of the saving union between Christ and the Church through the Spirit, from which our salvation springs”), and sacrificial discipleship (“Joy and peace paradoxically come through sacrifice and self-denial, not through seeking self-fulfilment or self-expression”).

The text says that the affirmations are to be read in conjunction with an earlier paper, “The Church of England’s Doctrine of Marriage”, offered by the same group in addition to the Bishops of Fulham, Horsham, Coventry, Woolwich, Hereford, Carlisle, and Leicester (News, 3 February 2023).

This paper argued that marriage was “a sacramental sign of something bigger than itself and that signification depends to a significant degree on sexual difference.” This was set against “the more abstract concepts of community, freedom or justice developed by the philosophers of the Enlightenment”.

It acknowledged that “the joining of two people of the same sex in a covenanted union that seeks to deepen Christian faith and life can exemplify a range of virtuous qualities that invite recognition,” and said that the Church must “find ways to recognise and welcome such relationships”.

But, it argued, such a union “must necessarily lack the capacity for procreation without external agency. The focus of fruitfulness that comes from the agency of marriage is, as far as we can see, central to its character as an estate that points to the fruitfulness of the coming together of God and humanity at the marriage supper of the Lamb.”

It warned: “Any change to the doctrine of marriage as a union between a man and a woman would . . . not only unravel the Scriptural story of salvation but risk undermining our understanding of the nature of the Church as it is derived from Scripture and given to us as a revelatory sign.”

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