By Mark Michael
After many hours of intense debate, the Church of England’s General Synod on November 15 narrowly approved a proposal by its bishops to allow clergy to bless same-sex relationships. The motion, which was strongly endorsed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and most other senior bishops, passed 23-10 among the bishops, 100-93 in the House of Clergy, and 104-100 in the House of Laity.
The outcome of the Wednesday vote was much closer than last February, when the synod signaled its support for the liturgical resource that contains the blessings, “Prayers of Love and Faith,” especially among the bishops. Then, just four bishops had voted against the resolution.
General Synod had even more narrowly approved an amendment favored by progressives earlier on Wednesday that went beyond the bishops’ original proposal to restrict the use of the blessing prayers to regularly scheduled worship services.
Stand-alone services to bless particular relationships will now be allowed for a limited period, as proposed by the Rt. Rev. Stephen Croft, Bishop of Oxford, who last year became the first of the Church of England’s sitting bishops to publicly endorse same-sex marriage.
Croft’s amendment was passed by one vote in the House of Laity, 99-98, with two recorded abstentions. It passed in the House of Clergy 101-94, but was more broadly supported among the bishops, who approved it 25-16.
“The outcome of this vote was met with gasps around the chamber, and a coordinated protest from the public gallery, with shouts that the synod was ‘serving Satan,’” Francis Martin wrote in The Church Times.
The first authorized blessings using “Prayers of Love and Faith” can be held in mid-December, so long as they are situated within regularly scheduled worship services. The bishops will still need to determine the conditions under which stand-alone services will be allowed, and for how long.
The Church Times has suggested that the stand-alone services will be allowed under Canon B5(A), which gives the Church of England’s two archbishops permission to approve liturgies for “experimental use.” This would make Archbishop Welby the direct cause of a step by his church that has created an unprecedented degree of dissension within the Anglican Communion of which he is the spiritual head.
“Prayers of Love and Faith” remains officially unauthorized. To become an official liturgy of the Church of England, it would need to be approved by two-thirds of all three houses, an outcome that seems very unlikely during this synod’s membership, which will last until 2026.
The progress report prepared by the House of Bishops repeatedly emphasizes that rites in “Prayers of Love and Faith” are distinct from marriage liturgies, and that there has been no change to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage and sexual relations — which is that sex is reserved for the marriage of a man and a woman.
The report also includes a several-page summary of legal guidance obtained by the bishops that suggests the blessings are “neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter,” a necessary condition of their use under the terms of the church’s Canon B5.
The claim has been highly contested, and legal action against the church on these grounds had been threatened by conservatives last August. Jayne Ozanne, one of the church’s most prominent LGBT activists, had previously alleged that the bishops’ decision to not allow stand-alone services immediately suggested that “fears about hypothetical legal challenges have won out, showing [the Church of England is] an institution that is run by lawyers not bishops.”
One of the 17 amendments hotly debated by synod, proposed by Clive Scowen, a London barrister and member of the House of Laity, required that the bishops release the legal guidance they had obtained to the public. Scowen suggested that the guidance may not be as supportive as the bishops’ report had suggested. His motion was defeated in all three houses, though 10 of the 24 bishops voted to release the legal guidance.
Two amendments about structural differentiation, which many conservatives see as essential, were debated at length, but neither was carried. An amendment proposed by the Rev. Vaughan Roberts, a conservative evangelical who leads one of the largest churches in the Diocese of Oxford, urged that action on the liturgies be delayed until synod had “considered proposals for structural provision,” lest further action “tear the fabric of the Church of England.”
The Church of England Evangelical Council, one of the most outspoken conservative groups in the current debate, seems poised to take its own action toward differentiation. In a statement released shortly after the decision, the Rev. Canon John Dunnett, the CEEC’s national director, said the synod’s decision “follows a process that has been widely observed as unduly hasty, incomplete, and haphazard.”
“Sadly, today marks a ‘watershed’ moment, in that it appears that the Church of England no longer sees Scripture as our supreme authority,” he added. “In the next few days CEEC will announce a series of provisions for orthodox evangelicals and work to do all it can to ensure evangelical life and witness in the Church of England continues for years to come.”
For his part, Roberts’s bishop, Stephen Croft, proposer of the successful amendment, told The Church Times he was glad the Church of England was “still on track for there to be significant change in terms of radical inclusion.”