Australia’s Anglican ‘blessing’ liturgy; What is it?

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The same-sex marriage blessing liturgy presented to the Wangaratta synod for their approval (and due to be presented to the upcoming Newcastle synod) is not a new piece of work but, rather, heavily dependent upon other similar liturgies first developed more than 20 years ago in the 1990s and earlier.

Students of this topic will be aware of a number of significant books in the field, not least Elizabeth Stuart’s Daring to Speak Love’s Name (1992) and Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild’s Human Rites (1995). Both books contain a great number of different suggested prayers and liturgies for same-sex blessings and other occasions.

Stuart’s work is particular helpful for outlining just how much the “ask” of homosexual couples has changed over the decades,

Very few lesbian and gay people would want to describe these ceremonies and the relationships they celebrate as ‘marriages’. Some would want to disassociate themselves from an institution which historically has been based upon structural and legalized inequality, specific gender roles, and which seems to impose at least a degree of conformity and uniformity and unrealistic expectations on those who enter it. And, of course, as a modern institution marriage seems to be in a state of grave crisis — even though very many marriages are happy and successful. From a theological perspective as well, gay and lesbian relationships cannot be described as ‘marriages’.

Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman, generative in character, which traditionally represents the relationship of Christ to the Church. Whereas it is perfectly possible for lesbian and gay relationships to fulfil the other purposes of marriage given in the ASB [Alternative Service Book – the 1980 Church of England prayer book] — mutual comfort, bodily union and the building up of community — they cannot fulfil all these criteria for they are not between members of opposite genders, the relationships are not generative in character and they have never been symbolic representations of Christ’s relationship to his Church.

STUART, DARING TO SPEAK LOVE’S NAME. PP18-19

Viewed today, this is a remarkable statement. We have come full circle with the Wangaratta/Newcastle liturgy seeking to recognise and affirm a homosexual relationship as “marriage” even while attempting to distinguish a “blessing”.

So where does the liturgy that Wangaratta have approved come from?

There are two very clear related sources. The first is a well-known liturgy used and promoted by the Parish Church of St Mary & St Nicolas, Spalding in the Church of England (the “Spalding Liturgy”). The Australian liturgy draws very heavily from this.

The Spalding Liturgy is a greatly reduced version of a longer “Pastoral Liturgy for the Blessing of Same-Gender Partnership” by Jeffrey Heskins from his book Unheard Voices, (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2001), pp. 227-231 (the “Heskins Liturgy”). Heskin’s work can also be seen incorporated into the suggested liturgical resources provided by Inclusive Church. All these resources present frameworks and varied suggested prayers for “blessing” services, the outline of which look very similar to marriage services. So, for example, this suggested structure from Stuart (which the Heskins liturgy follows):

Opening hymn/scriptural sentences

Introduction

Prayers

Declarations of hope

Charge to witnesses

Readings and Psalms

Promises

Exchange of rings or gifts/candle-ceremony/signing of will

Blessing

Address/sharing of thoughts

Hymn

Prayers

Eucharist or Symbol of communion

Final Blessing

Hymn and signing of certificate/card

STUART, PP24-25

The relationships between the Heskins liturgy, the smaller derived Spalding Liturgy and the final form in the Australia Liturgy is best demonstrated in a detailed table. I have laid out the entirety of each liturgy to show where one draws from the other:

View this document on Scribd

There is obviously a lot going on here but some initial observations may be helpful:

  1. As already noted, the Australian usage of these liturgies is to affirm a “marriage”. This is a long way from the original intention of those liturgies which often sought to distinguish such relationships from heterosexual marriage.
  2. Nevertheless, while the service claims not to be a “wedding” it still follows the typical structure of a wedding. Notably, the precursor liturgy by Heskins has both “Questions of Intent” and “Promises” which to some extent mirror the consents and promises of the marriage service. There is an exchange of rings or tokens and further prayers.
  3. At the same time the liturgy shows a clear struggle to reconcile it’s description as a blessing of marriage with the Bible texts that it uses. Marriage services draw directly and unsurprisingly from key texts such as Genesis 1&2, Matt. 19 = Mark 10 and Eph. 5. We have already seen this dilemma expressed by Stuart (“…they have never been symbolic representations of Christ’s relationship to his Church”) and the awkwardness of this contradiction cannot be resolved and is only avoided by the liturgy.
  4. Given this tension the liturgy focusses instead on broader language of a more generic “love” of God and of “covenant”. Rhys Bezzant’s excellent article “To what end? The blessing of same-sex marriage” in the recently published Marriage, Same-Sex Marriage And The Anglican Church Of Australia: Essays From The Doctrine Commission more than adequately addresses this inevitable shift of description of marriage from recognition of a creation ordinance with very specific definitions and models of love to a less marriage-focussed “blessing”.
  5. The Australia liturgy replaces “We thank you for your unique and personal gifts to every one of us in our minds, our bodies and our spirits;” in Heskins’ opening prayers with “We thank you for the physical and emotional expression of that love;” which can only be read as a clear affirmation of same-sex sexual activity.
  6. To introduce the Promises, the minister is required to say “As you have entered into a civil marriage…”. The notion of a “civil marriage” is a new concept for the church which simply recognises “marriage”. Again, as with 3. above there is a confusion here – on the one hand proponents want to argue that homosexual marriage is simply “marriage” just as a heterosexual partnership is and yet the liturgy makes artificial distinctions within the concept of marriage.
  7. The “promise”, “Will you, N, continue to give yourself to N, sharing your love and your life, your wholeness and your brokenness, your failure and your success?” is resonant of the couplets in the full marriage vows (e.g. for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health etc). While not identical, they present themselves as having the same purpose; to state a commitment to the other in no matter what the circumstances of life.

No doubt there is further work and analysis that can be carried out on this liturgy. Yet even at first glance it is increasingly obvious that the liturgy presented to us by Wangaratta is, one might say, of a schizophrenic nature. It wants to affirm the relationship it purports to bless as “marriage” and yet it cannot with integrity use the Bible’s language about marriage. With the next breath it wants to distance itself from marriage as a “blessing” (i.e. not an actual marriage) but it has the structure and many of the forms of a marriage service. It derives its basic structure and provenance from a theology that saw gay and lesbian relationships as “very different” (Stuart, p.19) from marriage and yet it wants to anchor itself in and be identified with marriage.

Ultimately what Wangaratta have given us is confusion. It is a confused liturgy with a confused theology; setting itself up as principled and yet immediately undermining itself in its political pragmatism. Rather than advance the cause of the affirmation of same-sex relationships in the Anglican Church of Australia is has only ended up showing us just how inconsistent the argument is.

It wants to have it’s wedding cake and not be seen to be eating it and ends up achieving neither.