By Mark Michael
The Church of England’s bishops announced October 9 that they will commend prayers for the blessing of same-sex unions for clergy to use in their parishes. Canonical authorization by General Synod of stand-alone blessing services will be delayed until at least 2025.
Twelve conservative bishops issued a dissenting statement four days later, alleging that the plan fails “to safeguard the pastoral stability, mission, and unity of the church,” while LGBT activists in the church complain that it shows a loss of nerve.
The draft version of Prayers of Love and Faith, released in January, contains 17 pages of prayers and readings for the pastoral care and blessing of people in same-sex relationships. An additional 12 pages of the document provide liturgical guidelines on incorporating the prayers and readings into a Service of the Word or Holy Communion, as well as two sample services.
The bishops’ plan would likely allow clergy to use any of the material in Prayers of Love and Faith’s first 17 pages at their pastoral discretion (and without approval by their local parochial church council) under the terms of Canon B5. This allows ministers to make alterations to existing services, provided that the alterations are “reverent and seemly and shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.”
Liturgies have been formally “commended for use” in the Church of England for nearly 40 years, beginning with the issuance of special liturgies for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter in 1985. In a study of Canon B5, Andrew Goddard, tutor in ethics at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, noted that 26 liturgies have been commended by the bishops since then, but nearly all have been entirely uncontroversial.
The liturgical guidelines section of Prayers of Love and Faith would, however, be subject to the authorization process outlined in Canon B2, which requires two-thirds approval by all three houses of General Synod. The bishops said that they plan to expand the normal B2 process to include consultation with all dioceses, and that it would not be complete until 2025.
Since a resolution commending the bishops’ plan to proceed with blessing same-sex unions only received a two-thirds majority in the House of Bishops at last February’s Synod meeting (and because the current synod members will serve until 2026), it’s not certain that the liturgies will receive formal authorization anytime soon. Yet the prayers they would contain will have been in widespread use across the church for several years.
“It is encouraging the bishops have acknowledged the need for synod to consider the prayers carefully under Canon B2. However, commending the prayers which are the focus of controversy and doctrinal disagreement before the B2 process renders it, and hence the voice of synod, practically irrelevant,” Goddard told TLC.
The bishops had seriously considered using a different process for authorizing the rites in Prayers of Love and Faith, an “experimental use” procedure outlined in Canon 5A, which normally involves field testing trial liturgies in a certain number of parishes in each diocese. This would have temporarily allowed for immediate use of the rites in full, they noted, but would have still been subject to later approval by General Synod (which could vote them down entirely).
The earlier plan to follow Canon 5A had been sharply criticized by a letter sent to the bishops by a coalition of conservative groups in September. They threatened legal action if the bishops did not follow Canon B2 to approve the rites.
In February, the bishops had also promised General Synod to delay proceeding until all parts of the proposal (prayers, pastoral guidance, and reassurance for those who object) had been thoroughly vetted. Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell said then that he could not commend the prayers without pastoral guidance and reassurance for objectors. “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,” Cottrell said in February.
But the bishops’ press release acknowledged that this will not be honored, as it states that while the prayers will proceed, work continues on pastoral guidelines affecting the life and work of the clergy (including decisions on whether they can enter same-sex marriages and must continue to abstain from sex outside of marriage). Further work is underway, it noted, “to provide pastoral reassurance and formal structural pastoral reassurance” for those who object to the changes.
Goddard told TLC that the Church of England’s Faith and Order Commission has not yet completed its evaluation of the prayers and that the working group on pastoral guidelines he had been serving on was disbanded several months ago for lack of consensus.
“The bishops recently asked their Faith and Order Commission [FAOC] to explore a number of doctrinal questions raised by the Prayers of Love and Faith. It now appears they have decided to commend them as not indicative of a departure from the church’s doctrine before that theological work has been done. This represents a disturbing, almost contemptuous, attitude to the work of FAOC and the importance of theology in the worshiping life of the church,” he said.
Twelve evangelical and Anglo-Catholic bishops responded to the press release on October 12, criticizing the lack of consultation with General Synod, and questioning if Prayers of Love and Faith actually meets Canon B5’s bar of not being “indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England.”
“Indeed, legal and theological advice the House has received suggest clearly to us that the decisions of the House may fall short of this commitment,” they added.
“We are also firmly of the view that we need to adhere to the commitment made to bring the Prayers of Love and Faith, the pastoral guidance and pastoral reassurance (including whatever formal structural provision is necessary) to Synod as a single package, rather than doing so in a piecemeal fashion.”
The twelve bishops, who include seven diocesans, three suffragans, and two provincial episcopal visitors, are all members of the 53-member House of Bishops, who represent the larger College of Bishops in governance matters. Earlier dissenting statements about Prayers of Love and Faith have included the twelve and numerous other bishops who are members of the College, but not of the House.
For some advocates of same-sex blessings, though, the bishops’ plan is cowardly. Prominent LGBT activist Jayne Ozanne wrote on X, “This is an absolute farce. The bishops are doing all they can to obfuscate & delay, proving yet again that the @ChurchofEngland does not really truly want to welcome #LGBT+ people. … Fears about hypothetical legal challenges have won out, showing we are an institution that is run by lawyers not bishops.”