Can we square the Living in Love and Faith circle?


In his recent critical profile of Archbishop Justin Welby, Giles Fraser recalls interviewing him in 2012 when he wrote of the then Bishop of Durham whose name was becoming prominent as a likely successor to Rowan Williams,

“On the subject of women bishops he speaks of the need to square the circle, reconciling those who think it a theological necessity and those who think it a theological impossibility. How do you do this? ‘Well, you just look at the circle and say it’s a circle with sharp bits on it.’ I laugh. So does he.”

It increasingly appears that a similar “look…it’s a circle with sharp bits on it” approach is what has been attempted in the bishops’ response to Living in Love and Faith (on which see Bishop Christopher Cocksworth’s reflection). They are claiming to uphold the doctrine of marriage while introducing developments which until now (as in the earlier proposals of GS2055 back in Jan 2017) have been held to be incompatible with it. In the couple of months since this geometrical novelty was introduced, however, despite the claims of some, more and more are realising that just as mathematically the possibility of squaring the circle was eventually disproved, the bishops’ proposals will likely prove impossible to implement.

There are three “sharp bits” which the bishops introduced in order to address the deep disagreements present among themselves and the wider church and to create the illusion of having squared the circle:

  • An account of blessings
  • An account of civil marriage and holy matrimony
  • An ambiguous unclarity concerning sex outside marriage

Although getting through General Synod, the proposals have failed to convince many (about 45% of the clergy and laity in Synod). Their sharp bits now risk producing a tear in the fabric of the Church of England and perhaps finally shredding the already severely torn fabric of the Anglican Communion (given the response of the Global South, reaffirmed in a recent Holy Week letter from its Chairman Archbishop Justin Badi, and the gathering of GAFCON which though clearly distinct has significant overlap in leadership with the Global South).

1. What does it mean to bless?

First, the bishops in offering draft prayers of love and faith, included prayers of blessing (though initially these were described as “for blessing”). 

Here the trick was that although this crosses a red line for many (not least because of the wording of Lambeth I.10), it can be argued that this was simply a blessing of people and need not (despite popular usage of “blessing” in society and the church) imply approval. In the words of an article written for the bishops by Isabelle Hamley and influential in persuading some who were otherwise reluctant to take this step:

  • in Scripture “it is people that are blessed primarily…even when their actions might cause concern” (p. 3) and
  • “the action of blessing represents a reflection of God’s intent that another person flourish, and a prayer for them to come into God’s life in all its fullness, as defined by God (and therefore ‘holy’)” (p. 5). 
  • thus “a service of blessing could recognise the goods of same-sex relationships and bless the people within the relationship” (p. 6) 
  • we would be offering “prayer for growth in holiness” (p. 7) 
  • without this being “a prayer of blessing specifically over the relationship” which “would imply a judgement that this relationship is in keeping with what we understand of God’s divine purposes” (p. 7). 

Looked at in this way it is possible for some still to see the circle of received Christian teaching on the basis that, in the words of the Bishop of London to General Synod, “God’s blessing is an expression of God’s desire to see people flourish. It is not a statement of approval, but of God’s lavish love which we are commanded to channel equally lavishly”. 

However, the “sharp bit” of blessing people in non-marital, including same-sex, relationships led to others seeing the square they wanted of the church being more affirming of same-sex unions even if they were not yet called marriage. This was also how many, including the Archbishop of York, encouraged people to view what was on offer, thus alienating those committed to upholding the church’s teaching including, it appears, some bishops initially persuaded to support the proposals.

A key question then becomes “for which patterns of relationship might it be acceptable to use these prayers?”. In particular, there are questions concerning those same-sex relationships which are, in law, recognised as marriage and questions concerning use of the prayers for any sexual relationship which is not holy matrimony as the church understands it. These are the next two “sharp bits”.

2. How does civil marriage relate to church teaching about marriage?

Secondly, the bishops – in a major and largely unexplained volte face from previous statements – sought to offer a new interpretation of civil marriage in the light of it being extended to same-sex couples. Initially there were tentative statements from

  • the bishops themselves (“It can therefore be argued that the 2013 Act resulted in there being two institutions in the law of England, both of which for legal purposes amount to “marriage” and have the same consequences in civil law, but which have distinct definitions: civil marriage which is gender neutral and Holy Matrimony which requires the couple to be respectively male and female…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), GS 2289, p. 7, italics added) and 
  • church lawyers (“because what is capable of constituting a marriage for the purposes of ecclesiastical law (the union of one man and one woman) now differs fundamentally from what is capable of constituting a marriage for the purposes of the general law (the union of two persons without regard to their sex), there is a good case for saying that the institution of Holy Matrimony and the institution of civil marriage are now distinct, even though legal incidents are generally the same for both”, GS Misc 1339, para 5, italics added) 

Quickly these became much firmer assertions. A clear distinction is now being drawn between civil marriage and holy matrimony in order to justify public prayers of blessing for couples in same-sex marriages (possibly even immediately after their civil ceremony). Previously the bishops had stated that to enter such marriages was clearly “at variance with” and a “departing from” church teaching (see my fuller discussion here). 

This sharp distinction is one which few find convincing for various reasons. The lawyers claimed that now in ecclesiastical law and in general law concerning marriage “the two definitions are mutually exclusive and this can be seen as having resulted in there now being two different institutions by the name of “marriage”” (GS Misc 1339, para 6). This seemed to treat all civil marriages since the introduction of civil marriage as excluded from the church’s definition of holy matrimony. 

Contrasting “civil marriage” and “holy matrimony” and thus having no overlap in terminology has become a key feature of this particular “sharp bit”. Nevertheless, this cannot hide the fact that few in church talk of “holy matrimony” rather than “marriage”. Nor can it deny the reality that the vows in the civil ceremony, including for same-sex couples, can take the form ‘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)’. 

The new legal advice effectively suggests we treat civil marriages (certainly if they are between two men or two women) as we have treated (not without controversy) civil partnerships. They are simply a legal status between two people with no more connection to the church’s doctrine of marriage than say becoming joint owners of a house. This can certainly “be argued for” but few see it as providing even “a good case for” the proposals let alone a legally and intellectually watertight one. I suspect that even those who wish the church would affirm the square of same-sex marriage do not find this “sharp bit” added to the circle convincing. They seem, however, willing to accept it if it has to be the means of removing the previous legal blockages to the blessing of civilly married same-sex couples within the Church of England without changing its doctrine of marriage.

3. What is our sexual ethic?

Thirdly, the bishops presented the draft prayers and their decision to replace Issues in Human Sexuality with no clarity as to whether the church’s existing sexual ethic (as affirmed for example, in the 1987 General Synod motion and in Synod’s 2007 motion not to do “anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions (1978: 10; 1988: 64; 1998: 1.10)”) would continue to be upheld or altered by the bishops. 

The Bishop of London (who is the lead bishop for LLF) said five times in her written answers to questions (Questions 144, 148, 149, 151, 155) at the February General Synod that “the Prayers of Love and Faith are silent about sexual intimacy”. She also, however, made clear that “The draft Prayers of Love and Faith do not change the Church’s teaching on Holy Matrimony” (Q151) and that the House of Bishops “has not retracted” the teaching that “the only rightful place for sexual activity is Holy Matrimony” (Q150). 

Here is where there is currently perhaps most confusion as to whether we are really being offered the same circle as before or something which has morphed, or is at least morphing through adding “sharp bits” to it, more into a square.

There were some grounds for thinking such shape-shifting is occurring in the bishops’ paper. In a number of places it could be read as suggesting that they are no longer saying that sex is for marriage and that for the unmarried holy living requires abstinent singleness. Instead it could be understood that the bishops were in the process of making a paradigm shift to focus instead on the qualities and virtues of a relationship as the determinant as to whether it could, in the eyes of the church, legitimately be sexual. This is a possibility in, for example, the following places where they write of:

  • how, recognising “the diversity of committed relationships that exist both in the Church and in wider society today” they “joyfully affirm and want to acknowledge in church, stable, committed relationships between two people – including same-sex relationships” (p. 1)
  • clergy being able to “pray God’s blessing on two people in an exclusive committed relationship” (p. 2)
  • wanting to “find ways of affirming same-sex couples – inside and outside the church” (p. 4)
  • “responding to the goodness of relationships between two people who are committed to one another in love and faith” (p. 5)
  • the new prayers being “to celebrate committed relationships between two people” (p. 6)
  • doing more work on “everyday faithful relationships” which would be affirming of “‘gospel values’ that can orient growth in virtues of all who live in committed sexual relationships: virtues such as love, faithfulness, self-giving, mutual trust and truthfulness” (p. 17)
  • enabling people “to inhabit committed sexual relationships in a way that is hopeful and life-giving, and that provides a stable context for the flourishing of family life” (p. 17)

At the press conference launching the prayers the Bishop of London spoke of “a range of views” among the bishops on whether sex should take place only in marriage. She acknowledged that in the various forms of “faithful, lifelong relationship between two people” which the prayers were designed for “some will be sexual, some will not, some will be friendship, and some will be sexual”. The Archbishop of York went further saying “I believe the great gift of sexual and physical intimacy to be cherished belongs in stable, loving, committed relationships. And therefore, I will celebrate the fact that people are living that way and expressing their intimacy that way”. A few days later, asked “Is it still church teaching that gay sex is a sin?” he replied, 

Read it all in Psephizo