Looking at the issues
No change to the doctrine of marriage
The bishops in their response to LLF stated “we have agreed at this time to maintain the doctrine of Holy Matrimony which the Church has received, and which is set out in its Canons and authorised liturgies” (p7) and they continued “namely that Holy Matrimony is between one man and one woman for life”. That final phrase is, however, only aspect of the doctrine of marriage as both Canon B30, and the Book of Common Prayer it summarises, say much more than this. In particular, as the Bishop of London said in an answer to a question raised in November last year (q38) as to whether Canon B30 “represents the doctrine of the Church” and so “any sexual relations outside of this definition of marriage is a sin”:
Canon B 30 does indeed continue to articulate the doctrine of the Church, including asserting that holy matrimony is the proper context for sexual intimacy.
This view was also clearly stated in the Pastoral Statement of December 2019 (para 9), quoting the last teaching document on Marriage from the House of Bishops. It is referred to in the LLF book (p. 33) and it has in the past been regularly stated by Archbishop Justin as his own understanding. However, the response to LLF simply claims (p. 8) that “while not explicitly stated in the Church’s Canons, for many years the church has taught that the only rightful place for sexual activity is marriage”. At Synod, the Bishop of London seemed (while repeating e.g. in answer to questions 146 & 147 and 150 the current teaching in this area) studiously to avoid referring to the Church’s doctrine in this area. She and others, including the Archbishop of York, have made statements that suggest either that this is no longer the Church’s doctrine or that the bishops are still to decide whether it remains the Church’s doctrine and will do so in their pastoral guidance.
There would, in the light of this, appear to be 3 options open to the bishops:
- In line with past statements and their commitment to maintain the doctrine of marriage to reaffirm this teaching concerning sexual behaviour as part of that doctrine and be faithful to it in the final version of the prayers and their pastoral guidance.
- To seek to revise this teaching concerning sexual behaviour and so renege on their commitment to maintain existing doctrine and either claim they as bishops have the authority to alter the doctrine unilaterally and perhaps by a simple majority or to propose such a change to see if can gain the support of 2/3 of each House of Synod.
- To revise this teaching concerning sexual behaviour and to claim that all previous statements have been in error in stating that it is the doctrine of the Church and defend this rapid reinterpretation and overturning of the supposedly unchanged doctrine.
This is the first of five issues that are important in relation to what the bishops, now supported by Synod, say is the case in relation to their response to LLF, namely that it is and should be
Neither contrary to nor indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England
There are also a number of challenges facing the claim that the proposed prayers are not even “indicative of a departure” from the doctrine of the Church of England. Four, in particular, stand out.
- Marriage and Sex
Assuming it remains the case that the doctrine of marriage includes “asserting that holy matrimony is the proper context for sexual intimacy” (Bishop of London, November 2022) then, as supported by legal advice in 2016 (in appendix to GS 2055, especially para 9) and 2018 there would be major difficulties in using the prayers for any relationship (whatever its goods, disciplines or virtues) that was a sexual relationship but not holy matrimony. While ways around this may be found, they are likely to result in prayers being pastorally unusable on the part of most clergy, couples, and congregations who would wish to use them as those using them generally do not support that doctrine.
The alternatives as noted above are to change the doctrine or to claim it was mis-stated previously. These, however, involving altering the historic and publicly stated moral teaching of the church concerning sexual immorality. We then need to ask, drawing on the work of the Faith and Order Commission in Communion and Disagreement and summarised in the LLF book (230-4), about the seriousness of this change: what level of disagreement do our differences over this matter represent? It would be difficult, given the biblical witness and its consistent warnings concerning sexual immorality, to see this as a relatively unimportant matter or adiaphora.
- Same-sex civil marriage and the doctrine of marriage
As I set out in an earlier article, ever since the introduction of same-sex marriage the bishops, and the Church of England in a legal case, have argued that to enter a same-sex civil marriage is to depart from the church’s teaching whether one is ordained or not (e.g. 2014 statement, paras 21, 26 and 27). In the case of a clergyperson doing so “he or she is fashioning his life in a way that is inconsistent with the doctrine of Christ as expounded by Canon B 30” according to the 2016 legal advice (para 12). It would therefore appear that the proposal that prayers of celebration and blessing may be said to mark a civil marriage between people of the same-sex is also “inconsistent with the doctrine of Christ as expounded by Canon B 30”. That legal advice set out (para 13) the view that this could only change by amending Canon B 30 or issuing a teaching document explaining “that a person who enters into such a civil marriage should not, merely by doing so, be considered as acting in a way contrary to the doctrine set out in Canon B 30”. The attempt by the bishops and their legal advisors to offer an explanation for this shift not only falls well short of either of these routes, a central element of its logic – the separation of civil marriages from holy matrimony, despite the vows at a civil ceremony possibly including 'I do solemnly declare, that I know not of any lawful impediment why I (your name) may not be joined in matrimony to (your partner's full name)' - has, it seems, convinced nobody. The presumption must, therefore, be that the prayers if used in relation to a couple in a civil same-sex marriage (and perhaps even a civil partnership given that legally this is seen as equivalent to a same-sex marriage) are, as proposed, in fact “indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England” until some better legal advice and teaching from the bishops persuasively argues otherwise.
- Prayers distinct from marriage prayers
In her presentation to General Synod, the Bishop of London, stated that the Prayers of Love and Faith enable “welcoming and celebrating the Christian virtues of faithfulness, mutual love and lifelong commitment of so many same-sex couples in our churches and in wider society” and they do so “without changing the Church’s doctrine of holy matrimony” because “they do not use any of the liturgical material of the Church of England’s authorised services of marriage”. Here we have a clear statement as to one of the conditions that the bishops recognise need to be met if the prayers are not to be indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England. Yet the Synod had already been given details “of the original liturgical sources from which the prayers, acclamations and promises in ‘Prayers of Love and Faith’ are drawn” by the Bishop of Lichfield in answer to a question (Q 176) from Andrew Atherstone. These reveal that 15 of the 31 draft prayers are lifted or adapted from the marriage liturgy in Common Worship: Pastoral Services. Putting together this fact from the Vice-Chair of the Liturgical Commission with the criterion presented by the Chair of the Next Steps Group shows that considerably more work needs to be done.
- What does it mean to bless?
There also needs to be greater clarity about the nature of blessing - biblically, theologically, liturgically, and pastorally – and what is being proposed. This is key to the bishops’ response but a matter which was unaddressed in the LLF materials and so is a novelty needing careful scrutiny. There have been a number of claims made and at least five important outstanding issues:
First, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the press conference, stressed that “this seeks to bless people and that's really important”. There can be no objection to praying for God to bless a person – we are commanded even to bless those who persecute us (Romans 12:14) but the prayers very clearly are for the people as a couple and for their relationship. The legal advice acknowledges this even as it seeks to make another distinction by stating “any blessing is of the couple and the good in their relationship, not of the civil status they may have acquired” (para 4). Andrew Davison, author of a book-length study of blessing, wrote an article for the Church Times entitled, “We will bless couples, not just people” in which he was clear:
There have been suggestions that we are blessing people, not relationships. That is not a good distinction to make. Anthropologically, it is not tenable to talk about people or couples in abstraction from their relationships, commitments, or households.
Second, whether it is simply on people or on the relationship is important in relation to the prayers’ compatibility with doctrine because Isabelle Hamley’s paper on blessing which resourced the bishops states that “A prayer of blessing specifically over the relationship would imply a judgement that this relationship is in keeping with what we understand of God’s divine purposes (p. 7, italics added)”. This is at best in tension and perhaps total contradiction to another claim that has been made to defend blessing as not indicative of a departure from doctrine: “God’s blessing…is not a statement of approval” (Bishop of London to General Synod).
This highlights a serious challenge to the approach taken by the bishops of offering prayers with no clear commitments being made by those prayed for (unlike the service of prayer and dedication after a civil marriage). Either it is to be held that praying for people in a particular relationship “is not a statement of approval” in which case it would appear that the prayers could, perhaps should, be offered to everyone with no concern as to the pattern of relationship just as we bless those who persecute us. Or there needs to be some discernment and, in the proper sense, discrimination shown (as, for example, in relation to remarriage in church after divorce). It would appear that – despite the comments above disconnecting blessing from approval and stressing its universality – the bishops are inclined to follow the second path given the Bishop of London responded to Q163 at the February Synod by saying that the Pastoral Guidance “will include setting out unequivocally the necessary qualities for a relationship to be considered chaste, faithful and holy. This will necessarily include ensuring that the relationship does not transgress existing legal relationships, such as a marriage or civil partnership”. The key issue here is captured again by Andrew Davison, a supporter of the proposed way forward:
Nor, ethically, can we relinquish the need to be discerning over what we bless, and what we do not. It won’t work to evade that by shifting from the relationship to the people. I would not bless arms-trading. By no means, then, could I go to an arms fair, and bless it anyway, saying that I’m only blessing the arms-dealer, and not his work or way of life. Blessing requires discernment. I look forward immensely to blessing same-sex couples, but that has to mean that I would not bless a relationship that is clearly abusive, for instance, or openly promiscuous.
If this path of discernment is the one the bishops take then, for the prayers to conform to the amendment, judgments concerning which relationships can be prayed for will need clearly to be consistent with the church’s doctrine of marriage.
Third, those who carefully read the bishops’ response noted that the prayers included prayers of dedication and thanksgiving but prayers for God’s blessing. Some who clearly uphold the doctrine of marriage have highlighted this distinction between prayers of and for blessing in justifying their support for the proposals. Whatever the validity of such a nuanced distinction in principle (itself a matter on which there are major disagreements) or its importance in enabling some bishops to support the proposals, it soon became clear that the Archbishop of York and other bishops were not committed to carefully upholding it and were happy to talk of same-sex couples now being able to receive a blessing or God’s blessing.
Fourth, these developments need to be set within the wider Anglican Communion where the 1998 Lambeth resolution I.10 made clear that the bishops of the Communion “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions”. As recently as their December 2019 statement on Civil Partnerships the bishops (para 18) quoted the previous Archbishop’s statement that “it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same sex unions” and the Primates conclusion that “therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites”. At the Press Conference the current Archbishop claimed the prayers “fall very clearly within” Lambeth I.10 but the reality seems to be quite the opposite and the Archbishop of York, other bishops, and the CofE comms department have described the proposed changes in a way that fall very clearly outside Lambeth 1.10. The logic of the House now appears to amount to, “there is no theological consensus about same sex unions. Therefore, we as a body support commending prayers and forms of service for the blessing of same-sex unions including same-sex marriages”.
Fifth, in determining whether or not, in the light of the above, the prayers are indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England it is important that attention is not paid solely to the words on the page. The current draft wording, by not referring to the couples as married and not speaking of sexual intimacy, could perhaps be argued to be in conformity with the doctrine of marriage. I suspect I could pray many, perhaps most, of the prayers for an unmarried cohabiting couple or a couple in a same-sex civil marriage, if I were doing so privately and in the context of pastoral care and discipleship where I am explaining and commending to them the church’s doctrine of marriage and encouraging them to order their life together in greater conformity to it. But the test of whether a departure from doctrine is being indicated depends on the prayers as acts of the worshipping church and so the context in which, and the people and relationships for which, they are prayed are crucial. The same prayers said in a public service which makes no reference to the doctrine of marriage or teaching about chastity and instead simply celebrates whatever non-marital commitment two people have made to each other, probably in the context of a sexual relationship, are very different. This is particularly the case given the likelihood of the service, perhaps following soon after a civil ceremony of marriage, and involving much of the ceremonial and choreography associated with a wedding (the prayers themselves refer to rings) as is, it seems, the case with such services when they occur unofficially at present as explained in a recent study:
All four priests indicated that all services of blessing they attended or officiated at were seen and discussed as marriages by the clergy involved, the couple themselves and their guests. Typically, Father Peter answered my question about the vocabulary that was used with and around the same-sex couples whose union he celebrated by saying that whereas “publicly it was a service of prayer and thanksgiving, privately we talked about marriage and wedding. The guests talked about ‘the wedding.’ In the reception hall, the decoration, everything was about a wedding” (“Blessing Same-Sex Unions in the Church of England, Journal of Anglican Studies (2019), 17, p. 156).
In summary, if the bishops are to take seriously their own commitment to continue to uphold the doctrine of marriage and not to act in ways indicative of a departure from it then (as Christopher Cocksworth has set out) there are several major theological, liturgical, and legal questions they need to answer. This is particularly so given they are now arguing for developments which they rejected when they sought in GS2055 to uphold the doctrine and to enable “maximum freedom within it”.