Explainer: Church of England will have ‘experimental’ same-sex marriage services

Church of England Synod Chamber

A narrow vote of the Church of England General Synod (church parliament) this week has given the go-ahead for “experimental’ services of blessings for same-sex couples on a trial basis. This is despite the General Synod having voted at their February meeting that there should be no change to the church doctrine of marriage – which includes marriage being the only place for sexual intimacy.

The vote will allow the bishops to introduce stand-alone services of same-sex blessings, which include marriage-like vows and readings. The Church of England has been engaged in a multi-year process of investigating its attitude towards LGBTQIA members called Living in Love and Faith. As reported by The Other Cheek, the paper at General Synod supporting the introduction of prayers of blessing claimed that companionship and support in same-sex relationships would be blessed but sex is not mentioned in the services.

“Synod, which has been meeting in London this week, voted in favour of a motion containing an amendment tabled by the Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, to bring forward the standalone services based around texts known as Prayers of Love and Faith,” an official press release states.

“Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) is a collection of prayers, readings and other resources for praying with and for a same-sex couple who love one another and who wish to give thanks for and mark that love in faith before God.”

The introduction of experimental standalone blessing services squeaked through the Synod by one vote in the House of Laity. “During the debate, a significant amendment calling for a trial period for stand-alone services was added to the motion by the barest of margins, being carried by just one vote in the House of Laity, 99-98, with two recorded abstentions,” the Church Times reported. “The House of Bishops broadly supported the amendment to their own motion, voting 25-16, and among the Clergy it was carried by 101-94, with one recorded abstention.” The main motion then passed Bishops 23-10, Clergy 100-93, and Laity 104-100. It is expected that the experimental services will be authorised by the Archbishops (the Church of England has two) later this year.

However, after two years, the authorisation of experimental services lapses – and to get the services adopted permanently will require a two-thirds vote in General Synod. At present, evangelicals and other conservatives have a blocking majority.

Evangelicals are campaigning for some form of structural differentiation, perhaps a system that gives them separate bishops.

Evangelicals push back

Drawing attention to the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in supporting the change, Mark Thompson, the Principal of Moore College wrote “The behaviour of the Archbishop of Canterbury in recent months has been nothing short of scandalous. Not only has he betrayed his ordination vows, as the delegates at GAFCON in Kigali earlier this year recognised, but he has recklessly pursued an agenda contrary to the Scriptures and the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ despite urgent and repeated warnings from the vast majority of Anglicans worldwide not to do so.

“… The bigger question now, though, is not how can Justin Welby recover from this (short of wholesale repentance I cannot see how he can) but how do faithful men and women within the Church of England continue to pursue the goal of re-evangelising the United Kingdom in the wake of what he, the Archbishop of York, and collectively the House of Bishops have done? This is, after all, the urgent need of the moment. Men and women all over Britain are heading blithely into judgment while ignoring or ridiculing or even openly defying the only one who can save them. How can we sit by and just watch that happen while we fight among ourselves?”

Lee Gattis of the Church of England Evangelical Council responds on TWR.

The Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) has responded by announcing two of a series of practical responses:
• Spiritual oversight: “CEEC will respond to requests for spiritual oversight from those who now feel themselves to be in impaired fellowship with their diocesan bishop(s). Obviously, any clergy person or PCC will still look to their diocesan bishop for legal and formal oversight – though we recognise that any structural rearrangement needed to address the deep division in the Church of England would be likely to impact this.

Clergy and/or parishes, seeking alternative spiritual oversight must continue to be accountable for safeguarding to their diocesan bishop and safeguarding officers.

We are pleased that a group of Honorary Assistant bishops have agreed to provide this spiritual support for clergy and congregations and some serving bishops may choose to join their number. We are also intending to commission ‘overseers’ to create more capacity to provide this support and accountability around the country. We have appointed a diverse panel of experienced leaders from across the evangelical constituency spanning charismatics and conservatives, egalitarians and complementarians, to discern whom God might be calling to such an overseer role. This panel will be chaired by CEEC President Julian Henderson (the previous Bishop of Blackburn) and includes two other Honorary Assistant bishops…

“This provision is both informal and temporary and will serve as a stepping-stone to the formal and permanent provision which we hope and pray will be agreed as part of a new structural arrangement and settlement.”
Evangelical stewardship: “CEEC is launching on Monday, 20 November, a new national Fund called the Ephesian Fund. The Ephesian Fund will enable people in churches across the dioceses to continue to support orthodox Anglican ministry when, in good conscience, they might otherwise withdraw or reduce their giving to their parish church as a result of their bishop’s support for the Prayers of Love and Faith initiative.

“PCCs [Parish Councils] will also be able to pay part or all of their voluntary parish share (also known as ‘quota’) via the Fund – thus enabling their share to be used to support only local churches who stand with them in the historic Anglican and biblical position on sexual ethics.”

And some good news

Nicky Gumbel of Alpha fame posts on FB “Jesus is alive! Churches are growing! Congratulations! Thrilled to see this @htbchurch packed out with young people.” He’s referring to St Mary’s Southampton, which had just 25 worshippers five years ago. He points to this story on the Church of England site.

Saint Mary’s Southampton is looking at ways of accommodating more people after its 10:30 contemporary Sunday service grew to 350 people – including around 50 children.

“Rev Jon Finch, Vicar of Saint Mary’s, who joined the church in 2018 after it had been in vacancy, said he had been surprised by the rapid growth of the congregation so soon after Covid restrictions were lifted.

“’We have a phenomenal team, who are very dedicated,’”’ he said. ‘“’We are not doing anything new – the message is not changed. What we are doing is trying to be radically hospitable.

“’We are not trying to just build a church, we are seeking the renewal of the city. We are saying that our lives as Christians are bigger than just ourselves and the church, it is about playing our part in the social, cultural and spiritual renewal of the city. We are passionate about working alongside and learning from the city’s most vulnerable.’

“Saint Mary’s runs a social supermarket and a café in partnership with other agencies and provides classes in areas such as IT, CV writing and mentoring for people seeking employment.

“It has three Sunday services in different traditions. Its weekly attendance at the church stands at around 600 people with more than 300 having been through the Alpha Christian enquiry course and 32 adults baptised. More than half of its congregation is under 35.

“Saint Mary’s was made a resource church after receiving a Strategic Development Funding grant in 2018. It has also been a means for further revitalisations: in 2021 a team from Saint Mary’s went to Totton in Southampton to relaunch another church, St Win’s, with two further revitalisations planned for this year.”