By Mark Michael
A proposal by the Church of England’s bishops has touched off a major clash over whether to allow services of same-sex blessings without the General Synod’s full authorization. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s credibility as a leader is on the line, as he has floated the idea of early retirement in the face of criticism from all sides of the debate.
In a major concession to progressives, a last-minute amendment allows for stand-alone services of blessing as well as the incorporation of the Prayers of Love and Faith into regular parish liturgies. The amendment, proposed by Bishop Stephen Croft of Oxford, was warmly endorsed by both archbishops, and highlighted as a way to avoid legal conflict over the services by Archbishop of York Stephen Croft in his presidential address on Monday, November 13.
On Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, the synod is scheduled to consider a motion that encourages further work toward full authorization of the blessing rite (called “Prayers of Love and Faith”). Related changes to clergy discipline standards and a provision for differentiation for parishes that maintain a traditional position on same-sex relationships is also envisioned.
It’s not clear what would happen if the motion were defeated by the synod. Welby suggested recently that such an action could “derail the entire LLF process,” referring to Living in Love & Faith, an initiative launched after a 2017 synod conflict ended in stalemate. The bishops are seeking support from synod for an action they believe is within their pastoral discretion, and presumably they can commend the prayers without synod’s support, although a process of mutual discernment has been central to the ethos of LLF.
Welby Under Attack
Welby has recently described himself as a supporter of same-sex blessings, and has often succeeded in defusing tense situations by making emotional appeals and silencing debate. He memorably used these tactics in the 2016 Primates Meeting (the last to include representatives from nearly all provinces) and at the 2022 Lambeth Conference’s discussion of the Call on Human Dignity. But he has been strongly criticized by both conservatives and progressives in recent days for his handling of the situation.
In two back-to-back meetings in Lambeth Palace Library on November 3, the archbishop, described by observers as weary and frustrated, heard complaints from conservative and progressive leaders. The Rev. Lee Gatiss, director of the conservative evangelical Church Society, said on Facebook that Welby asked the group of about 25 participants if he had lost their confidence and should retire early (he reaches mandatory retirement at 70 in 2026). Another participant told TLC that Welby also asked how many still had full confidence in him and wished him to continue. About five hands were raised.
The Rev. Colin Coward, leader of Changing Attitude, a LGBT advocacy group within the church, had mixed reactions to the progressive meeting in the afternoon. He said he was grateful to hear the archbishop describe himself as “totally and unequivocally committed to the goal of a radical new Christian inclusion that embraced LBTQIA+ people.” The archbishop also told the group that he did not believe the current synod would approve same-sex marriage — cautioning against rejecting the bishops’ proposals as not going far enough.
But Coward said that many in the group were troubled by the archbishop’s seeming insensitivity to their concerns. “His inability to recognize the depth of anger and hurt among those gathered in the room and his failure to respond shocked me,” he said.
Similar concerns are behind a November 12 op-ed by prominent LGBT activist Jayne Ozanne, calling for Welby’s resignation. She wrote in The Times:
Welby is also confronted with the problem that few now believe or accept his apologies or promises. The Church of England has recently been beset by a series of scandals and cover-ups, some of which have led to independent inquiries and all of which have highlighted the level of abuse that has been rampant in the Church. While this continues, few will accept platitudes that appear hollow and meaningless.
The burden of office seems to be weighing heavily on Welby. In recent meetings he has appeared tired and short-tempered. Surely it is time for him to step aside and allow someone with a new vision, who can embrace a new chapter led by a new supreme governor and so help shape an institution that can regain the trust and respect of the nation it is there to serve.
Meanwhile GAFCON’s leaders reassured conservatives within the Church of England last week that they stand ready to receive congregations that feel they must leave the church over the issue of same-sex blessings. (GAFCON is a global conservative movement among Anglicans.)
Reactions to the Bishops’ Proposal
The bishops announced October 9 that they plan to commend Prayers of Love and Faith for use in parishes under 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.”
The prayers, they then stated, could be inserted within a regular parish Eucharist or Service of the Word, but there could not be “stand-alone services” to bless a particular same-sex relationship. Croft’s amendment would remove this distinction.
However, the services would still presumably 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 they plan to expand the normal B2 process to include consultation with all dioceses. A first consideration for authorization, a report to the November statement said, would come to the February 2024 synod, but the process would not be complete until 2025 at the earliest.
When General Synod narrowly decided in February 2023 to proceed with same-sex blessings, the bishops promised that the prayers for same-sex blessings would be presented for consideration alongside changes to pastoral guidance favored by liberals (particularly the permission of clergy to enter same-sex marriages), and reassurances of differentiation and legal protection for conservatives.
This promise has not been kept, which has angered leaders on both sides. Four days after the House of Bishops announced its plan, 12 conservative Anglo-Catholic and evangelical bishops issued a strongly worded statement stating that the plan failed “to safeguard the pastoral stability, mission, and unity of the church” because of a lack of theological and legal assurances about whether the Prayers of Love and Faith indicated a change in church teaching about sexual relations and marriage.
A statement by 44 progressive bishops was issued November 1. While “warmly supporting” the use of the Prayers of Love and Faith, “many of us regret that the authorization of the separate Service Structures and Sample Services has been delayed, and we will work within agreed processes to secure that authorizations as soon as possible,” they added. The Croft Amendment would address this concern.
The 44 bishops also said, “we look forward to Guidance being issued without delay that includes the removal of all restrictions on clergy entering same-sex civil marriages, and on bishops ordaining and licensing such clergy, as well as granting permissions to officiate.”
Synod Paper Charts Progress
GS2328, a 108-page paper summarizing the Living in Love and Faith process, details some progress made toward providing reassurance to conservatives and drafting a new Pastoral Provision to replace Issues in Human Sexuality, a 1991 document that continues to bind the clergy in same-sex relationships to celibacy.
GS2328 acknowledges that “the motion, as debated, amended and voted for, suggests there is a majority in favor of some change but there is only fragile agreement about this possibility and about what the content of this change needs to be. This leaves us in what is termed ‘a time of uncertainty,’ where individuals and groups may have a certainty of opinion but corporately, we are uncertain of our forward direction.”
It emphasizes that the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage and its teaching about human sexuality remain unchanged. Because the Prayers of Love and Faith have been crafted to make no comment about a sexual relationship between the people who commit to themselves using them, they have been judged not to constitute a departure from church teaching “in any essential manner.”
The document also lays out a process by which churches could opt into celebrating stand-alone services using the Prayers of Love and Faith. This step would require agreement of the parochial church council and the incumbent, and a registry of parishes offering the prayers would be maintained by the dioceses. The paper further specified that the freedom of clergy to refuse to use the prayers would be respected and that no couple had any right to have their relationship blessed (a right to marriage in one’s parish church exists under civil law in England).
The document notes progress made toward providing legal reassurances for clergy who decline to use the prayers, and lists several possibilities for structural differentiation for conservative congregations that are currently being explored.
These include the development of a collegial system for bishops holding a traditional understanding to minister across diocesan boundaries (like the current Society of St. Wilfrid and St. Hilda for churches and clergy holding to a male-only ministry), as well as the provision of one bishop in support of the prayers and one opposed to them in each diocese (nearly all of the 42 Church of England dioceses have multiple bishops).
A more discursive section outlines principles that would be honored in a new pastoral provision. The Church of England’s doctrine of marriage and sexual relations would be honored, but a degree of conscientious disobedience may also be allowed.
“We consider that what is envisaged by way of pastoral provision — which involves acknowledging and celebrating what is good in same-sex relationships even if the Church is unable to commend every aspect of some relationships — is a new insight into doctrine that can be reflected in forms of worship and that doing so represents a proper degree of flexibility.”