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Same Sex Blessings in the C of E: ‘The Bus Rolls On’

The Church of England’s General Synod has narrowly backed standalone services for blessing same-sex unions alongside a provision for conservative parishes to register for delegated episcopal oversight.

Opponents expressed frustration that synod’s July 8 meeting in York was unwilling to wait on a ruling by the church’s Faith and Order Commission on whether the services are consistent with the church’s doctrinal standards.

“The destination has been made clear. The bus is traveling the route, stops are mapped out; but it is going in one direction — that has been made explicitly clear — and right now it feels like some of us are being run over by that bus. I also hear that for some people it is going far too slowly,” said Helen Lamb, a lay synod member from the Diocese of Oxford.

Originally standalone services were only to be permitted under the church’s regular provision for approving new liturgies, which requires a two-thirds majority. But synod signaled its support for proceeding with standalone liturgies last November, a decision settled by a single vote.

Same-sex blessings using the liturgies of Prayers of Love and Faith have been permitted within regular services since mid-December 2023, under the provisions of Canon B5, which allows ministers to make alterations to existing services that 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 Rev. John Dunnett, national director of the Church of England Evangelical Council, said the resolution’s pastoral assurances for conservatives were insufficient, and vowed to proceed with plans for unilaterally creating a third province within the church, as outlined in a June 26 statement by the Alliance, a network of evangelical and Anglo-Catholic ministries.

The final vote on the resolution to approve the House of Bishops’ paper GS 2358 was 22-12-5 in the House of Bishops, 99-88-2 in the House of Clergy, and 95-91-2 in the House of Laity.

Bishop Martyn Snow of Leicester, the lead bishop for the Living in Love and Faith process, told synod members to expect revisions to the code of conduct for clergy, including an authorization for clergy to enter same-sex marriages, in February 2025. He also said that the church would then enter a three-year “discernment period” to monitor the changes, which would place final decisions in the hands of new General Synod members, who will be elected in 2026.

Bishop Michael Beasley of Bath and Wells said, “For many, it is the absence of such clarity that is causing such rage and distrust around our process. Now I know there is colossal pressure to get the Prayers of Love and Faith done. With all of us here, I would love us to be able to to move on to something else, but we know, from our national life, where a desire quickly to cut to the end of a process gets us. Until the doctrinal work is undertaken, this motion is not oven-ready.”

“A week ago, I was speaking at the [Provincial Synod] of the Anglican Church in North America,” said the Rev. Vaughan Roberts of the Diocese of Oxford Diocese. “But at the same time, I was conscious that elsewhere in America there was another assembly, the Episcopal Church. Those two churches are completely divided — that could happen here. And what we’re about to decide — if you vote in favor of this motion — could catapult us in that direction.”

“Let’s not get so tied up in law and doctrine that we lose sight of the people who are at the heart of our discussions,” countered the Rev. Brenda Wallace of the Diocese of Chelmsford. “And let’s have the generosity to reach out with Christ’s loving arms and embrace them with love and faith. We’ve talked a lot about trust, so let’s move forward with trust that our God of love loves all God’s children and wants them to live in relationships which are life-giving, life-enhancing, and blessed by God and by the church.”

Archbishop Steven Cottrell of York, who pledged in February 2023 that he would support same-sex blessings only in conjunction with changes to the clergy code of conduct and pastoral reassurances for conservatives, hailed the resolution as an Anglican compromise.

“No parish, no priest, has to offer these prayers. But once the detail has been worked out — not yet done, we’re still on the journey — standalone services can take place. And for those who for reasons of conscience and theological conviction cannot support this, delegated and extended episcopal ministry for pastoral care, sacramental care, and teaching ministry will be put in place. What’s before us isn’t what everyone wants, as it’s not really what anyone wants, but it is an Anglican way forward.”

Safeguarding Updates

Synod members commended the progress being made toward an independent review process for the Church of England’s safeguarding work. Last February, Synod had pushed back against proposals from Professor Alexis Jay, the former chair of the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse, which called for the immediate establishment of two independent bodies to oversee safeguarding, urging more consultation with various stakeholders.

The Rt. Rev. Joanne Grenfell, Bishop of Stepney, reviewed the work of a Response Group, which had been gathering feedback from across the church, and was evaluating several models that would provide appropriate scrutiny and a more manageable reporting process. She promised that a final plan, with estimated costs, would be presented at the February 2025 synod meeting.

On July 7, synod members defeated a motion that called for the Archbishops’ Council to launch a new investigation of abuse within the Soul Survivor network by its former leader, Mike Pilavachi. Multiple men have accused Pilavachi of subjecting them to wrestling and full-body massages during their involvement in the prominent youth evangelism network.

The Rev. Robert Thompson, a synod member from the Diocese of London, argued that the investigation led by the National Safeguarding Team and an independent inquiry commissioned by Soul Survivor failed to properly consider “the wider cultural and systemic contexts that allowed this abuse to occur, to continue, and to go unchecked for nearly 40 years.”

Grenfell challenged Thompson’s motion, arguing that the previous investigations had been extensive and expressing concern that his proposal “looks to me to be a bit of a sideswipe at church-planting and missional communities,” which Thompson denied.

Last week, Archbishop Justin Welby took the unusual step of withdrawing a Lambeth Award he had given to Pilavachi in 2020 for “outstanding contributions to evangelism and discipleship amongst young people.”

Affirming the Dignity of the Disabled

In a nearly unanimous vote on July 7, General Synod challenged “the common assumption that bringing a disabled child into the world is a tragedy to be avoided,” and called on healthcare providers, as well as dioceses, parishes, and chaplaincies, “to consider how they might better witness to the human dignity of disabled children, including the better pastoral advice and support they might offer to their parents and families.”

Debate on the motion was led by the Ven. Pete Spiers, Archdeacon of Knowsley and Sefton, who was born disabled due to Thalidomide. Spiers said he was grateful that his parents did not have access to the prenatal screening commonly provided in Britain today, so avoiding the dilemma of choosing whether to abort him.

“With the right support at the right time, it is possible to help pregnant mothers and their unborn children to carry on with their lives and be happy,” Spiers said. No matter what parents decide, he added, “love, compassion, and grace are needed more than anything.”

Several deaf members of synod echoed Spiers, saying that their parents had chosen to bear them despite learning of their disability. Elaine Heath, who is deaf, said that she had refused prenatal testing for her children, trusting that a disabled child “has a right to live.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that several tests had been offered while his wife, Caroline, was carrying their daughter Ellie, who is neurodivergent and lives with them at Lambeth Palace. They refused the tests, he said, because there was a presumption that a termination should promptly follow any discovery of disability. Members of the Welby family are grateful, he said, for 32 years of life with their “exceptionally precious” child.

Clergy Rest Time

On July 6, Synod members supported a proposal to give Church of England clergy a statutory right to 36 hours of rest time per week, expanding an earlier provision of 24 hours of uninterrupted rest time per week.

“We are clarifying and raising awareness in the church that in order to care for our clergy, we need to ensure they feel able to take long enough periods of uninterrupted rest each week,” said Alison Coulter, a lay canon from the Diocese of Winchester who proposed the motion.

Addressing the clergy in the meeting, she added, “You are a precious resource and have given up much to serve us, so our priority needs to be to care for you.”

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