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Two C of E Bishops: Same-Sex Liturgies ‘Illegal’

By Mark Michael

Two evangelical Church of England bishops have advised their clergy not to use the Prayers of Love and Faith recently commended by the House of Bishops for blessing same-sex unions. Bishops Paul Williams of Southwell and Nottingham and Rob Munro of Ebbsfleet wrote in December 12 ad clerum letters that they believe the liturgies violate the church’s canons, leaving clergy who use them vulnerable to legal challenges.

“Their use is divisive, their legal status is questionable, the implications of their use will confuse clear biblical teaching, and there is not the necessary completed guidance and provision for conscience that is needed,” wrote Munro, who serves as bishop visitor for conservative evangelical churches across the Church of England. “My strong recommendation is that you not only do not use the prayers, but also consider carefully how you will respond to those who choose to do so.”

Williams claimed that the legal guidance provided to the Church of England’s bishops (which the bishops refused to release in full to General Synod) actually indicated that the prayers suggested a change in the church’s doctrine of marriage. This would make their use illegal under the terms of Canon B5.3, the mechanism the bishops have chosen to commend them.

“The bishops have been advised that it is likely that such use is indicative of a change of doctrine. As your bishop I simply cannot advise you to use prayers that indicate a departure from the clear teaching of the Church of England. In addition, the legal and theological advice I have seen has not convinced me that this change is not ‘in any essential matter’ (Canon B5.3),” he wrote in the letter.

Munro further urged the parochial church councils (PCCs) of churches under his care to pass resolutions that state that their refusal to use the prayers, suggesting as a resolution text: “This PCC, recognizing the considerable hurt and divisions that this issue has caused, is resolved not to use the Prayers of Love and Faith, and requests the bishop suitable provision for our conscientious position with respect to any impaired fellowship that may result from their use elsewhere.”

Williams said that if clergy wished to use the prayers, they should consult with their churchwardens and parochial church councils, and closely follow the House of Bishops’ guidance on their use, “mindful still that the intention of the bishops is that the doctrine of marriage be unchanged and therefore care needs to be taken with the context in which the prayers are used.” Parishes currently in vacancy, he said, could not use the prayers.

Munro ministers to parishes at the discretion of diocesan bishops, an arrangement nearly identical to delegated episcopal parochial oversight in the Episcopal Church. He said that this arrangement “is not a sufficient provision for what are in effect moral objections,” and urged churches to indicate their desire to participate a more formal and permanent form of differentiation by registering with the Church of England Evangelical Council.

He acknowledged that the bishops’ decision had deeply distressed many of his parishes, but urged them: “Do not leave the Church of England now. … I have found Jesus’ command to the church of Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29) a particular challenge: Jesus calls out the church’s leadership there for tolerating false teaching on sexual immorality from a prophetess Jezebel, with a warning of his judgment; but to those who are faithful to his biblical teaching (v. 24) he says, ‘Only hold on to what you have until I come.’ He doesn’t call for them to abandon the church despite its leadership’s errors, only to persevere in the truth.”

In the Diocese of Chichester, probably the Church of England’s only diocese in which all bishops have publicly committed to traditional teaching about marriage, Bishop Martin Warner, an Anglo-Catholic, registered his dissent from the majority decision, but stopped short of discouraging the use of the liturgies or questioning their legal standing.

Warner said that his vote against commending the liturgies was “a vote in favour of patience, clarity, and reassurance, and of unity of purpose and understanding.”

“We do not have clarity about the stages of authorisation that still lie ahead for the prayers and for the services that have not yet been released, nor have we completed and agreed the theological rationale that will undergird Pastoral Guidance on the use of those services. We are also unclear about what ‘formal structural pastoral provision’ would look like, though many believe this will be essential in holding us together. I also believe that proceeding in the face of clearly divided opinion will weaken the Church of England’s unity.”

While expressing strong opposition to the House of Bishops’ decision, conservative bishops like Munro, Williams, and Warner can only discourage use of the liturgies. Church of England dioceses, unlike those of their Episcopal Church, do not have diocesan constitutions and canons. A decision made by the House of Bishops or General Synod is binding on all.

While bishops may approve forms of service for local use that they believe to be “neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter” (Canon B4), they do not have the power to forbid services commended by the wider church that they believe fall short of this standard.

The Church of England’s disciplinary system for clergy “does not cover offenses including doctrine, ritual, or ceremonial,” Colin Podmore, former secretary of synod’s House of Clergy, told TLC. “There is no functioning means of disciplining the clergy with regard to matters of doctrine, ritual, or ceremonial.”

The House of Bishops’ vote on December 12 commends the Prayers of Love and Faith for use by clergy at their discretion beginning Sunday, December 17, but only within the context of regular worship services (like the blessings of the birthdays or anniversaries of parishioners that are common in some churches). Commendation of the rites as “stand-alone services” is likely to come in the spring under a different legal provision, Canon B5A, which allows for experimental services for a period specified by the archbishops.

Canonical authorization of the prayers would require two-thirds approval by all three houses of General Synod. Given that a measure to commend the liturgies passed by single-digit majorities in the Houses of Clergy and Laity last month, such approval is highly unlikely during the tenure of the current General Synod, whose members will serve until 2026.


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