The Church of England’s proposal to half bless same-sex couples

Canterbury Cathedral

How do you introduce prayers to bless same-sex couples while keeping a traditional marriage doctrine intact? The latest Church of England paper proposes to do that by blessing the “good” in same-sex relationships and defining sex out of what is being blessed – at least in the fine print.

It gives a new meaning to the old movie title “No sex please, we’re British”, or should that be, “Let’s not mention sex, we’re British?”

The latest proposals are in a General Synod (church parliament) paper called “GS 2328 Living in Love and Faith, SETTING OUT THE PROGRESS MADE AND WORK STILL TO DO.”

The lengthy paper, produced as part of the reports sent to General Synod members before a meeting in November, from the House of Bishops is signed by Sarah Mullally, Bishop of London, and Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Winchester.

It sets out a proposal from the Bishops to
• Commend a series of “prayers of love and faith” that bless same-sex and other couples for use within existing services. This uses the powers of the Archbishops to commend prayers for use in the Church of England.
• Bring a set of formal services that include the prayers to a later meeting of the General Synod to be authorised – a conservative minority could block them if they can muster more than a third of voters.
• Separately bring forward services for “covenanted friendships” for non-sexual relationships.
• Report that they are discussing guidelines for relationships and possible ways to give some differentiation to conservatives who oppose the new prayers

But the thinking behind the Bishops’ proposals – suggesting that the prayers and new services will bless part of the relationships between people of the same sex, but not their sexual relationships, will draw criticism from both the progressive wing of the church (who want to move towards same-sex marriage eventually) and the conservatives (who believe that the Bible prohibits same-gender sexual relationships.)

The Bishops are trying to deal with division in their own ranks and the church. “while the bishops and Synod had agreed to these next steps forward, there remained significant disagreement across the Church of England and within the House and College of Bishops. This is not just about the Prayers of Love and Faith but about matters of theology and ecclesiology.” 

The only change conservatives gained at the last meeting of General Synod was a significant one. It bound the Bishops to not introduce change contrary to church doctrine.

This set up a dilemma for the bishops. How do you introduce prayers for same-sex blessings but not change church doctrine?

In this paper, they describe their proposals as pastoral and claim not to be changing the doctrine of marriage.

An argument is being made for a theological rationale of ‘pastoral provision in a time of uncertainty’. This is based on the trajectory of pastoral provision which already exists within our Church and tradition, which does not change doctrine in any essential matter but changes our practical pastoral response and the way we relate within the Church and outwards to the world.

So we change some things we do practically, but we’ll say it is not a change in “essential doctrine.”

What the Bishops say about the prayers

The Bishops describe the purpose of the prayers as “To celebrate in God’s presence the commitment two people have made to each other is an occasion for rejoicing. The texts are offered to express thanksgiving and hope, with prayer that those who are dedicating their life together to God may grow in faith, love and service.

They claim the prayers are not about same-sex marriage: “Secondly, we are equally clear that the PLF Resource Section does not treat the relationship of the couple as being Holy Matrimony. They are not being commended for use in a way that does that or gives that impression. The material contained in the PLF Resource Section intentionally does not differentiate between couples who have and who have not entered into a civil same-sex marriage. That is because the PLF Resource Section is being offered for the purposes explained in the previous paragraph; they are not being offered to be used as a thanksgiving for marriage or a service of prayer and dedication after civil marriage and do not refer to or take account of, a couple’s civil marital status.”

The Bishops also claim that sexual activity is not being blessed: “It is our intention, when we commend the PLF Resource Section, that ministers who wish to use them may do so without there being any assumption that a couple are or are not in an active sexual relationship. Again, we have considered relevant theological and canonical issues in coming to that position.

“The Church’s doctrine remains as set out in Canon B 30 (Of Holy Matrimony); we have been clear that we have no intention of changing that doctrine. We also note that the Church’s teaching on sexual relations has been treated as being part of the Church’s doctrine of marriage. We are not proposing to change that teaching.”

In a section on theology, the paper states, “The PLF fall short of speaking of the entire relationship as a way of life, which makes them very different to marriage. They are more restricted, more modest, and acknowledge what we can unambiguously affirm as good: faithfulness, lifelong commitment, mutual love and flourishing, fruitfulness, stability. They are silent on those things on which church has not found a place of consensus.”

Not a settled position, but a contradictory one

The bishops describe the prayers as “prayers on the way” in a manner that suggests that further moves will happen. “They are ‘prayers on the way’: the way of people seeking to grow in God, but also the way of a Church seeking to discern how to respond well to the diversity of the Body, and to the complexity of a rapidly changing social context.”

Both conservatives and progressives will see the position set out in the paper as unstable. Evangelicals and others will see this paper as smuggling in approval of gay sex while saying the change is modest. This is clear in a summary of the paper’s position – which makes clear the central contradiction of blessing couples’ relationship when they are living in what historical Christianity describes as living in an unbiblical manner.

  • That it is not intended to change the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage;
  • That the Church’s teaching on sexual activity is regarded as part of that doctrine;
  • That the PLF are intended to recognise and respect that doctrine;
  • That the PLF affirm the goods in same-sex relationships, including stability, faithfulness, exclusive, lifelong commitment etc.;
  • That the PLF say nothing about sex but many same-sex couples will be in active sexual relationships.

In discussing safeguards for those for and against the new prayers and possible new services, the paper refers to provisions applying during “the time of uncertainty”, which implies the church will move to a settled position. In using language like this, conservatives may conclude that these prayers will form the first stage in accepting same-sex marriage,

Conservative bishops dissent

Twelve bishops, ten from the House of Bishops (the C of E has a complicated system of setting up the House of Bishops) out of 46 currently in that body have issued a statement of dissent. These conservative bishops all the changes should come before the general synod. That body has a portion of conservative members that could block the changes. (The paper reports the intention of the House of Bishops to bypass the synod in commending the prayers.)

“Sharing the profound concerns of many in the Church of England and in the wider Communion, with heavy hearts we find it necessary to dissent publicly from the decisions of the House [of Bishops.]” the conservative bishops say,

“The decision to commend the suite of prayers for use in public services bypasses those procedures and does not permit the General Synod to consider the full significance of the prayers. Nor can Synod determine whether the bishops have fulfilled their intention (supported in February) that the final form of the prayers should not be ‘indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England’”.

A lament from a celibate gay Christian

David Bennett, an Australian Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Faculty of Theology and Religion, posted a response to the PLF. It takes some reading but offers a deep response to the prayers.

“As I read the prayers of love and faith, my heart breaks. I want to celebrate the good in gay relationships even if I think for a Christian, they are non-sacramental and therefore sinful. I want to celebrate covenant friendships and the love of steadfast friends. These prayers, however, are sterile. They are the worst of any way forward because they entirely deny the suffering of queer people — our difference of alignment to the created ordering of marriage and the grief and dilemma that puts us in. There is no theology of love that works to meet that dilemma. Instead, it is erased and dismissed with the sentimental naïveté of some 1950s cover. No definition of friendship as the greatest love and repentance from our idolatry of marriage. No recognition of the fraught place, sacrifice and deep suffering of faithful gay Christians who have lived out their Eros for God by denying themselves, picking up their cross and trusting that God will give them a name better than marriage and kids (Isaiah 56). No recognition of the damage of liberal and conservative culture warring and false solutions. No deep working on the dialectics of grace and truth, inclusion and holiness, fellowship and solidarity. No work on queerness and alterity.

“Just stale prayers. These prayers attempt to cover that queerness over, provide no theodicean response to the dilemma we are in to trust God and give a counterfeit version of marriage and blessing to us with almost no theological justification and without the 2/3 majority General synod requires for any practice which undermines, affects or changes doctrine as it has been traditionally handed down and received. These prayers lead in a direction where many gay people will go before the Throne of the Holy One with nothing – with a confused belief they were living in a way that was pleasing to God but really was not in alignment with God’s sacramental will in creation as vindicated and affirmed by Jesus and scripture. That is cruel, inhumane, and not of the Living God. That is pastoral negligence of the greatest kind.”

Image: Canterbury Cathedral Credit: Antony McCallum/WyrdLight.com

One Comment

  1. Sorry to tell the goodly bishops, from both the main body and the dissenting 12, but they have completely lost me with their welter of words and qualifying codicils. They suggest the church will allow prayers for a couple, but they aren’t ‘blessing’ prayers, for a deep relationship which isn’t marriage, and must not have a physical aspect to it. But who, apart from the two people involved, is going to know, and how? Let’s be practical – it smacks too much of ivory towered academic theory to attract much attention or compliance. I’m straight, by the way, and after 50 years of chaos and confusion caused by different unrealistic Christian assertions about sex, marriage and love, have simply given up bothering to listen any longer. My sanity is more important.

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