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Letters: General Synod Should Decide Same-sex Rites

By Douglas LeBlanc

Multiple parties in the Church of England, through a letter first reported by Francis Martin in the Church Times, have urged its College of Bishops to leave the approval of blessing rites for same-sex couples under the authority of General Synod. The Church Times also reported that 22 bishops (nine ordinaries and 13 suffragans) commend the same arguments.

The initial letter, signed by 27 people representing 11 ministries that cross traditional lines of piety, includes several well-known figures within the Church of England:

  • Prudence Dailey, MBE, former chairman of the Prayer Book Society;
  • The Rev. Canon John Dunnett, chairman of the Evangelical Group of the General Synod;
  • Fr. Adam Gaunt, chairman of the Catholic Group in General Synod;
  • The Rev. Nicky Gumbel, retired vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton and president of the Church Revitalisation Trust;
  • The Rev. Dr. Rich Johnson, national leader, New Wine;
  • Tom Middleton, director of Forward in Faith and secretary of The Society’s Council of Bishops.

The support by Gumbel and three other leaders of Holy Trinity Brompton is unusual. That evangelical powerhouse has mostly avoided the spotlight as the church has debated marriage and sexual morality.

For many years, HTB presented a conservative understanding of sex in its published materials recommended through the Alpha Course. But it downplayed those elements in recent years, as described by historian Andrew Atherstone in Repackaging Christianity: Alpha and the Building of a Global Brand (Hodder & Stoughton, 2022).

The initial letter concentrates on arguments that General Synod is the proper body to authorize same-sex blessings. “Introducing a suite of liturgical resources for those in same-sex partnerships can be done fast or it can be done well. But it cannot be done both fast and well,” the letter says.

“We want to be clear,” the 27 signatories add. “This proposition of a better way forwards is still honouring the spirit of the vote at February’s General Synod. It is not about rowing back from what was voted on.”

Still, the letter offers some criticisms of steps the church has taken since General Synod’s vote in February. It argues that the church’s actions will be “unlawful, unconstitutional, and illegitimate if the Prayers of Love and Faith are made available by anything other than Canon B2,” the canon under which General Synod would approve the rites.

It questions a distinction that leaders have made since General Synod’s vote: “Whether the prayers constitute a change in doctrine or a change in teaching (a distinction we are not yet convinced of), it is necessary to secure the agreement of Synod through the normal route for liturgical developments. This is Canon B2.”

It questions another distinction mentioned frequently in communication with archbishops of Global South provinces: “Current proposals resort to the obscure theological gymnastics of separating civil marriage and holy matrimony into two separate and unconnected legal institutions, despite all previous theological and legal statements stating that both are to be seen as relating to the one institution of marriage.”

The Church Times says the 22 bishops who affirmed the letter are outnumbered.

“It is understood, however, that a larger group of bishops, believed to number more than 40, have warned against subjecting the prayers to a long, uncertain, and, they argue, unnecessary synodical process,” Martin wrote in the Church Times. “Instead, they call for the prayers to be approved by the Archbishops under Canon B4.2.”

The Church Times report added that a former Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt. Rev. Paul Bayes, “reacted to the publication of the letter from leaders of 11 C of E organisations by urging the College of Bishops to ‘hold (or discover) their nerve.’ … ‘This will only go on, and become more shrill. Marginal people in the LGBT+ community don’t have this sort of resourced, organised, amplified voice; but it is they who pay the price for the way things are.’”

Even so, the 27 leaders’ leader raises further points that do not depend on numerical support for their substantial points.

“Many of the Canons of the Church of England, along with clause (g) in the Living in Love and Faith motion at February’s General Synod (the Cornes amendment), state that any prayers or service must ‘not be contrary to, or indicative of, a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England.’ This means there must be no indicative changes under the guise of extending or developing the existing doctrine of marriage. We consider this situation has arisen here,” the letter says.

“As recently as November 2022, [London] Bishop Sarah [Mullally] stated in Synod that marriage between a husband and wife is the proper context for sexual intimacy. It is therefore unclear to us if/why this view has now changed. Ultimately, what we are discovering is that there has been a failure to offer a clear theological rationale for changing the current teaching on marriage and sexual intimacy that has been held down the centuries and across the globe.”

These are the nine dioceses whose bishops supported the letter urging that General Synod make the decisions on rites: Blackburn, Carlisle, Chichester, Coventry, Guildford, Hereford, Rochester, Sheffield, and Southwell and Nottingham.

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