What the bishops might also have said

A ‘Draft Explanatory Note’ intended to be attached to the House of Bishops’ Response to LLF has come to light. Its stated purpose is to ‘anticipate some likely questions the Response raises’ and to ‘enhance the theological integrity and intellectual honesty’ of the Response. It seems not to have won sufficient support for publication. We publish it here in full, exclusively. It is unsigned, and even after a careful scrutiny of its style, our prose detectorists have been unable to identify any likely authors.

“Draft Explanatory Note to accompany the House of Bishops’ Response to LLF

This Note is not intended to qualify or correct the Bishops’ Response but to anticipate some likely questions the Response raises but does not answer (or even take note of), and to enhance the Response’s theological integrity and intellectual honesty. We hope it will help readers understand what the Response, especially given our own internal divisions as a House, does and does not pretend to do, and to make sense of its intent and significance. Due to circumstances outside our control, the Response was drawn up far more hastily than we would have wished, leaving critically important lacunae that really deserved our concerted attention. Here we address some of the more urgent lacunae (in the Response there are promissory notes regarding others, listed under ‘Future Work’ and ‘Areas for the Church to attend to and develop’, including new ‘Pastoral Guidance’).

We wish to offer five clarificatory remarks.

  1. Legal rationale

In our Response we indicate our collective (majority) view that use of the Prayers of Love and Faith for those who have entered a civil marriage or partnership does not in itself contravene the Church’s existing doctrine of marriage (which, we acknowledge, stood no prospect of being changed at this point anyway, given the composition of General Synod). As we put it: ‘It can be argued that a same-sex couple entering into a civil status which does not claim to be Holy Matrimony should not of itself be regarded as challenging or rejecting the Church’s doctrine of marriage as expressed in Canon B30 (Of Holy Matrimony) and that those who do so should not, therefore, be regarded as acting in disobedience to that doctrine’ (7). This is obviously a critically important assumption for the coherence of our entire project.

One passage may have given the impression that our grounds for confidence on the point arose largely from the Church’s established status (we refer to ‘the complexities that sets the Church of England apart from any of the other churches in the Anglican Communion because of its status as the Established Church’ (7)).

But to be fully clear, our view on this point arose from internal legal advice that civil marriage as now understood by the state has become so markedly different to Holy Matrimony as understood by the Church, that we can now speak of two legal institutions of marriage existing in England (and we admit that this is not a result of Establishment, since the same distinction also confronts other churches holding a traditional view of marriage). That advice suggested that participation in civil marriages or partnerships by same-sex couples did not of itself conflict with the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony. We acknowledge that the way this legal point has been used by us is novel and has never been presented to or defended before Synod. This will no doubt leave many sceptical of its validity. Indeed, we must admit that some among us described it as a ‘theologically dubious’ or ‘specious’ distinction, one that would create the perception of ‘sleight of hand’, even ‘dishonesty’. We admit that its appearance at this precise moment in a longstanding debate about marriage might appear ‘convenient’. We think it is possible that other ecclesiastical lawyers might challenge it. But that was the advice we were confidently presented with at the time; it was all we had to go on (and we do concede it was useful). We do, however, commit ourselves to subjecting it to wider legal scrutiny if Synod approves our proposals, and to revisiting our legal rationale if it is found problematic.

The other important legal matter is our claim (in the ‘Legal Note’ to Prayers of Love and Faith (22)) that the Prayers are ‘commended by the House of Bishops for use by ministers in the exercise of their discretion under Canon B5 of the Canons of the Church of England’. Our legal advice is that ministers may use such discretion because the Prayers qualify as ‘variations which are not of substantial importance’ and are ‘neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’.

We fully understand, however, that many will doubt the canonical validity of ministers’ use of the Prayers, in virtue of the fact that among the same-sex couples invited to receive the Prayers will be those in a sexually active relationship. Understandably, many will assume (and some among us strongly asserted privately) that by ‘blessing’ those engaged in such a relationship (even if not the relationship itself), the minister, and the bishops, will thus be endorsing behaviour contrary to Canon B30. They will claim that, taken together with the larger teaching of the Church on marriage and sexuality, this canon excludes sexual relationships other than among heterosexual married couples.

We would urge you to note that the Prayers themselves do not at any point refer to sexual relationships between the couples presenting themselves, and do not assume that such sexual relationships will be taking place. Yet, of course, we know that many in fact will be; but we have decided not to ask ministers to inquire into that matter prior to offering the Prayers.

We fully appreciate, however, that many will find this line of argument strained, perhaps even dishonest. They will struggle to accept that the Prayers are ‘variations not of substantial importance’. We want to admit, therefore, that we have a great deal more work to do to make this argument credible to the Church (indeed even to ourselves).

Crucially, we acknowledge that our legal concepts must be determined by our theological ones and not the other way round; which leads to our next remark.

  1. Theological rationale

We would draw your attention to this passage in our Response: ‘It has been our work as bishops and teachers of the faith to draw on Scripture alongside tradition, reason and prayer to discern the direction we believe God is calling the Church to take regarding same-sex relationships’ (5). We urge you to accept that we have indeed honestly striven to wrestle with the theological questions we know our proposals raise, sometimes through tears. While some of us did not think it important to provide an explicit theological rationale, most of us did, and many warned that many Synod members, and many in the wider Church, would expect it.

Some held out the prospect that the practice of using the Prayers would over time incrementally swing opinion behind their legitimacy, thus making a theological justification unnecessary. Others suggested that a theological rationale could, and perhaps should, be furnished later, in keeping with the liberationist methodology of theology as ‘critical reflection on praxis’. As it happens, a good number of us on the progressive side would have been willing to endorse Bishop Steven Croft’s argument in Together in Love and Faith as expressing our collective view. By contrast, still others wanted us simply to issue a restatement of the Church’s existing teaching so as to underline our commitment not to be in the business of changing it, notwithstanding our commending of the Prayers. Indeed such a document was submitted by a group of traditional bishops for consideration, but it was decided not to publish it.

But we must simply confess that we were unable in the time available to come up with a sufficiently wide consensus among us on these or any other options. With deep regret, the only solution that could win majority support was to move ahead with the proposal without offering any collective theological rationale in our own name at all.

In all honesty, however, we do acknowledge that, even though we are not advocating a change to Church’s doctrine of ‘Holy Matrimony’, the proposal to introduce the Prayers is (notwithstanding our comments above about the Prayers’ silence on sexual relationships) a radical change to the Church’s pastoral and liturgical practice. A few of us doubted whether it was, but a large majority knew that it would be widely perceived as such, on all sides of the debate and in England and beyond. Such a momentous change does, we admit, demand a robust theological justification issued collectively in the name of the bishops, explaining whether, and where, it may have evolved from or departed from our earlier official collective pronouncements on issues of marriage and sexuality (especially those since 2005, following the introduction of civil partnerships), and why.

We realise it will not be enough simply to draw attention to the array of theological arguments already canvassed in various LLF resources. For, as we admit, ‘The Living in Love and Faith resources do not direct the reader to one conclusion or another – which has been a source of frustration and even disappointment for some’ (5). As those called to be ‘teachers’ of the Church, we are painfully aware of our failure to have been able to produce such a justification in advance of publishing our proposals.

We admit that the upshot is that those who have honest questions about the theological legitimacy of the Prayers will simply have to trust us to come forward with such a justification in the future; at least, if we are able to do so (we admit that the Response does not even pledge to do so). We have in any event promised to address, under the new Pastoral Guidance, the question of ‘the necessary qualities for a relationship to be considered faithful and holy’ (11). We acknowledge that it is hard to see how in answering that question we will be able to avoid endorsing a larger theological rationale for our proposals. We realise that this is a great deal to ask of a Church in which there is already, among some, a serious deficit of trust in the integrity of our episcopal leadership. But ask it we must. We found ourselves with no other choice.

  1. Synodical Process

We must also acknowledge that our inability to come up with an explicit theological rationale for our proposals will inevitably hamper the clarity and quality of debate at General Synod, as many will not know precisely what it is they are voting for or against, or why, or what other implications might follow from it. But we concluded that, after nearly six years of extensive – and for many, very costly – deliberation, we could no longer put off testing the mind of Synod. The cry of pain, and the demand for inclusion, from our LGBTQI+ brothers and sisters were too great.

But the absence of a rationale has meant that the consensus in our House behind the proposals is even more constrained and fragile than it might have been. This means that, regrettably, it will not be possible for us to accept any significant amendments to the motion we move. This has the unfortunate consequence that the Bishop of London, who will move the motion on our behalf, will have to resist any amendments that alter any part of the delicate compromise we have crafted, and that she will have to do so irrevocably even before hearing any speeches for or against any such amendments. Indeed, she will not be able to say anything at all that goes beyond, or backtracks on, what we have already collectively agreed.

We realise that this will give the appearance of inflexibility. Indeed, to some it will likely signify a sheer display of episcopal power. That makes many of us very uncomfortable, but, again, we feel duty bound to test the mind of Synod now on a matter that the majority of us are convinced is an urgent matter of justice that cannot any longer be put off. The only comfort some of us can take from this way of proceeding is that, on this occasion, episcopal power will be deployed on behalf of those who have long been marginalised rather than in defence of the status quo. To allay these fears, however, we pledge on our part not to encourage the use of Standing Orders in a way that could be seen to foreclose debate or force business through.

  1. Impact on the Anglican Communion

Our Response truthfully reports that we have ‘listened to…the voices of our sister churches in the Anglican Communion’; and we intend to go on listening. But we acknowledge that the Communion is, like us, implacably divided on these questions. Several provinces (including the USA, Canada, Scotland and Wales) will rejoice at our proposals, but we know that they align only with a minority of members in the Communion, and a largely western one. We concede that at least two thirds of the Communion’s provinces are deeply opposed to our proposals, regarding them as an unacceptable departure from non-negotiable biblical truths. We know that our proposals will entrench the perception that we, and other provinces that have moved in this direction, have ‘abandoned the truth of the Gospel’ and ‘capitulated to secular culture’. This will be so especially in provinces in the global South, and those associated with Gafcon and other new para-provincial Anglican organisations. And we acknowledge that we have been consistently and unambiguously warned that steps in the direction we propose will further impair our communion with a majority of other provinces. We are painfully aware of the missional and pastoral, and possibly even security, difficulties that our proposals will present to these our dear brothers and sisters in Christ. We are also aware, however, that LGBTQI+ Christians in those provinces report having to hide their sexual identities, and live in fear of rejection by their churches or, worse, persecution from wider society. Some have only found ecclesial welcome, indeed safety, by moving to ‘inclusive’ provinces – often as refugees.

Yet we must honestly admit that by proceeding with our proposals we have made a decisive, if agonising, choice: after extensive deliberation and much prayer, we have resolved, as the legally autonomous Church of England, that it is more important for us at this time to respond to the demands for justice rising up from our own LGBTQI+ members, than to prevent the impaired communion with, or eventual structural division from, the majority of the Communion that we know will inevitably follow if these proposals are accepted by General Synod. This is the direction a clear majority of us conscientiously believe God is calling us to follow in our own context. It is our attempt to do contextual theology in our culture, just as others must do contextual theology in theirs.

We therefore fully accept that many elsewhere will no longer regard the Church of England (and specifically the Archbishop of Canterbury) as qualified to maintain a historic leadership role in the Communion (as ‘Mother Church’). We concede that the Church of England must now accept that it can only be one among many Communion members (if the Communion even survives), no longer entitled to function as primus inter pares. Indeed, out of respect for their consciences, we feel bound to offer to relinquish that function if the Communion collectively so desires, and we pledge to cooperate with and assist it to the best of our ability in any transition to new leadership arrangements.

  1. Implications for Establishment

Prior to the publication of our Response, a number of MPs (including members of the Ecclesiastical Committee) have publicly called on the Church to move promptly towards an embrace of same-sex marriage. Their argument is that the Church of England, as the Established Church, is not entitled to diverge too far from the settled legal principles and moral convictions of the English people, the great majority of whom have now embraced same-sex marriage, and who regard anything less as archaic and discriminatory.

Some MPs have warned that if the Church does not move speedily in this direction (does not ‘get with the programme’, as a former Prime Minister put it in relation to women bishops), Parliament may feel bound to intervene to encourage it to do. It might do so, for example, by removing the Church’s exemptions from performing same-sex marriage contained in the Equal Marriage Act 2013; or even by taking steps towards disestablishment, such as removing bishops from the House of Lords or amending or even abolishing the Enabling Act 1919 by which Parliament delegated the power of self—government to the Church.

The convention since at least 1970 has been that Parliament will not force doctrinal or liturgical changes on the Church. But while these interventions from MPs are irksome to many of us and seem to depart from that convention, we recognise that the Church is finally accountable to Parliament, in the first instance via the Ecclesiastical Committee, and that MPs (especially those on that Committee) are indeed constitutionally entitled to hold us to account in this way. We acknowledge that this is an integral part of English Establishment, and since we have consistently defended Establishment over many years, we accept that we cannot now complain about one of its central consequences.

We actually think it very unlikely that Parliament will abolish the Enabling Act, if only because it will not want to assume responsibility for the substantial flow of complex ecclesial business that is now initiated in General Synod but would then land on its desk. We would also remind Parliament that to remove the Church of England’s exemption from performing same-sex marriages will unleash immediate pressure for other religious bodies to lose theirs too, creating wide-ranging unease.

However, we wish to make it clear to Parliament that we will resolutely defend our right to govern ourselves in matters such as this, which fall squarely within the area of doctrine and liturgy that belong exclusively to the Church. They belong to the Church because the Church is finally beholden in such matters (indeed in all matters) to its own Sovereign, Jesus Christ. We will not allow ourselves to be pushed around by Parliament on this or any other matter. If Parliament then decides that disestablishment must follow, we will consider that a price worth paying for the retention of our spiritual autonomy. Indeed, given these developments, we commit ourselves to establishing an Archbishops’ Commission to review Establishment and explore alternatives.

We hope these remarks will help Synod, and the wider Church, to receive our Response in the spirit in which it has been offered, to recognise its limitations, and to respond to it constructively and searchingly, as we all seek the guidance of the Spirit on these weighty and perplexing matters.

The House of Bishops (undated)."

Author’s note: for the avoidance of all doubt, the ‘Draft Explanatory Note’ is entirely fictional.


Jonathan Chaplin

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