By Rosie Dawson
The Church of England’s General Synod has approved a motion welcoming bishops’ proposals to offer prayers of blessing for same-sex relationships, while resisting calls to introduce marriage for gay couples.
The decision has prompted some individuals on both sides of the debate to say they cannot remain within the Church of England.
The Motion as Approved
That this Synod, recognizing the commitment to learning and deep listening to God and to each other of the Living in Love and Faith process, and desiring with God’s help to journey together while acknowledging the different deeply held convictions within the Church:
(a) lament and repent of the failure of the Church to be welcoming to LGBTQI+ people and the harm that LGBTQI+ people have experienced and continue to experience in the life of the Church;
(b) recommit to our shared witness to God’s love for and acceptance of every person by continuing to embed the Pastoral Principles in our life together locally and nationally;
(c) commend the continued learning together enabled by the Living in Love and Faith process and resources in relation to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage;
(d) welcome the decision of the House of Bishops to replace Issues in Human Sexuality with new pastoral guidance;
(e) welcome the response from the College of Bishops and look forward to the House of Bishops further refining, commending and issuing the Prayers of Love and Faith described in GS 2289 and its Annexes;
(f) invite the House of Bishops to monitor the Church’s use of and response to the Prayers of Love and Faith, once they have been commended and published, and to report back to Synod in five years’ time.
(g) endorse the decision of the College and House of Bishops not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage, and their intention that the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England.
For an analysis of the debate, see “What exactly happened at Synod on the Prayers for Love and Faith?” by Ian Paul.
“Orthodox provinces in [the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches] are not leaving the Anglican Communion, but with great sadness must recognize that the Church of England has now joined those provinces with which communion is impaired,” a GSFA statement said.
“The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in leading the House of Bishops to make the recommendations that undergird the motion … cause the GSFA to question his fitness to lead what is still a largely orthodox worldwide communion.”
The bishops’ proposals, published in January, arose from a five-year process called Living in Love and Faith. The motion before synod began with a call for the church to repent of its treatment of LGBT people. It asked synod to welcome the bishops’ decision to replace Issues in Human Sexuality (1991) with new pastoral guidance, and to welcome Prayers of Love and Faith once the drafts have been refined and published.
The debate was scheduled to last for five hours. In the end it lasted for eight, running into a second day. Bishop Sarah Mullally of London, who led the bishops’ Next Steps Group, referred to the “uncomfortably sharp disagreements” among its members.
“We do not agree about the nature of holy matrimony. We do not agree whether the biblical theological understanding of marriage can be extended to same-sex couples,” she told synod.
Nevertheless, she said, the bishops had recognized “the urgent necessity for pastoral change in welcoming and celebrating the Christian virtues of faithfulness, mutual love, and lifelong commitment of so many same-sex couples in our churches.” She said this is what Prayers of Love and Faith would enable the church to do.
Synod tabled 28 amendments to the motion and passed just one, which stipulated that any future prayers for blessings should not depart from the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage. The motion was eventually passed by 250 to 181, with 10 abstentions.
As anticipated, the proposals were a step too far for some and not far enough for others. The Robert Lawrance, a parish priest who favors same-sex blessings, said the proposed prayers “risk creating a fog that will please no one” and will leave people on all sides dissatisfied.
Members spoke with passion and personal testimony. Several spoke of the cost to gay people of not having their relationships recognized by the church or of not being allowed to minister within it because they were married to someone of the same sex.
Ros Clarke called the proposals “an outrageous piece of formalized homophobia,” adding: “What we have in front of us is a report that calls us to celebrate, welcome, and affirm same-sex relationships, just not as much as opposite-sex relationships. It says we’ll bless people, but we won’t marry them. Without any attempt at rationale, this is quite simply discrimination.”
An amendment brought by the prominent LGBT campaigner Jayne Ozanne to introduce legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry in church was defeated, and illustrated the extent of divisions within the synod. One bishop broke ranks to vote for the amendment. Among clergy, 79 clergy supported it and 105 were opposed. In the House of Laity the margin was tighter, with 89 votes in favor, 102 against.
The synod also heard from single gay and heterosexual people who have chosen to remain celibate in accordance with their reading of Scripture, and who see any change in the church’s position on same-sex relationships as undermining their sacrifice.
They included Sophie Clarke — due to marry in two months — who said she would be devastated if her decision to remain celibate until after her wedding had not been necessary.
“The message will be, you needn’t have bothered,” said the Rev. Vaughan Roberts of St. Ebbe’s Church in Oxford, who described himself as same-sex attracted. “If these proposals proceed, we will be allowing clergy to bless sexual relationships outside of marriage between a man and a woman, and that will mean a de facto change in our doctrine.”
The Rev Dr. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, acting archdeacon of Liverpool, challenged the idea of the Church having a fixed doctrine of marriage. “In the early Church debates, marriage did not mean sex. Marriage meant the state’s socioeconomic status of being a householder. Slaves could not get married. … For most of Christian history, we had no marriage liturgy. … So as a historian, no, the church has not taught consistently for 2,000 years that sex outside marriage is a sin. Let’s be honest that for much of our history, discussions about marriage have not been about sex, primarily, but about power.”
The synod heard from several speakers who were concerned about the effect of synod’s decision on the wider Anglican Communion.
“We are throwing our brothers and sisters under the bus,” said the Rev. Folli Olokose, vicar of St. Mary Oatlands, who was born in Nigeria. “We are putting a nail into the coffin of the Anglican Communion. Let us consider the cost.”
Busola Sodeinde, a church commissioner, asked for more consultation with primates from other Anglican provinces. “There is an arrogance which I recognize, maybe unintended, of onetime colonialism, which insists that Western culture is progressive while dissenting voices in Africa and everywhere else are silenced,” Sodeinde said. “I want to address the impending racial injustice, disunity, and racial segregation in the church if we were to introduce same-sex blessings without further consultation.”
In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury came close to tears as he spoke of his love for the Anglican Communion and the dangers faced by Christians in parts of it. “There is nothing in my life or heart or prayers that comes as high as the safety of the people I love in the Anglican Communion,” he said. “We must also do what is right here.”
The Most Rev. Samy Shehata, Archbishop of the Anglican Province of Alexandria and a visiting speaker, warned synod against crossing a red line.
“Blessing same-sex unions will alienate 75 percent of the Anglican Communion,” he said, “Please, please, do not surrender your unique position as the mother church of the Anglican Communion.”
The synod heard the first real intimations that some conservatives are beginning to seek — and bishops beginning to consider — a form of negotiated settlement to keep conservatives within the church.
Ed Shaw, co-chairman of the Church of England Evangelical Council, told Jayne Ozanne that he looked forward to the day when she could marry in her local Anglican church according to her conscience, but added: “I’m afraid that will have to be in a different part of the Church of England.” Shaw said he seeks “imaginative new structures that will permanently protect our different consciences.”
The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, said he would not be able to commend Prayers of Love and Faith without adequate pastoral guidance and pastoral provision. “I think we need to get together and sit down and start talking about what kind of reassurance could there be. Disagreement doesn’t have to lead to division.”
He asked Bishop Mullally, on behalf of the House of Bishops, to reassure synod that there would be discussions about some kind of settlement. Mullally replied that chief among the bishops’ concerns as they continue their work will be the question of “how we continue to guard the conscience of those for whom these proposals go too far.”
An exhausted-looking Welby left synod to prepare for a meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Ghana, which begins on February 11.
Mullally and Eeva-Maria John, enabling officer for Living in Love and Faith, took home bouquets of flowers. They will be back at work soon, preparing for the synod’s next meeting in July, when members will be presented with the pastoral guidance that will accompany the revised Prayers of Love and Faith.