The report to General Synod concerning Prayers of Love and Faith includes a paragraph stating:
- The House and College have considered the range of routes presented by the Group including Canon B5 commendation of the Prayers, B4 approval by the Convocations, Archbishops or Ordinary and B2 approval by General Synod. They are particularly weighing up the option of approval by the Archbishops (under Canon B4.2), as an approach that may provide more legal protection for those ministers who choose to use the Prayers. No final decision has been made by the House as to the route by which the prayers will be made available for use (para 13).
Part One: Introduction & Commendation (B5)
The article opens by arguing that just as truth-telling in Parliament and testing whether or not truth has been told, especially by those with power, is crucial for Parliament to fulfil its calling, so truth telling and testing whether truth is being expressed in the church’s worship is crucial for the church to fulfil her calling. That is why so much emphasis is put in the canons on any worship being “neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”. Canon B2 invests the power of approving forms of service and the determination of their conformity to doctrine in the General Synod, the Church of England’s largest and most representative deliberative body. This is not the only route for approving services – canons B4 and B5 offer other options as discussed below – but it is the standard one and for good reasons.
Part One then notes that in relation to questions concerning sexual ethics the General Synod has also passed two significant motions expressing its mind. The 1987 “Higton motion” summing up traditional church teaching has set the framework for all subsequent episcopal statements. A motion in February 2007 also committed the Church of England 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)”. Recent statements by the Archbishop of Canterbury have claimed the proposals are faithful to Lambeth I.10 and highlighted the difficulties when a province committed to it appears to be acting contrary to it.
The rest of Part One then turns to explore the bishops’ proposal, approved by General Synod in February 2023, to commend Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) to the church for use under canon B5. It shows that this is a process that was developed in the mid-1980s but has no formal canonical status. In one sense this route changes nothing as it does not make the prayers lawful or authorise them or determine they are consistent with doctrine. It simply assures parish clergy that if they use them when creating services that they as clergy are authorised to create under canon B5 then they do so with the approval of the bishops. The fact that they are used by the clergy under canon B5 means that it is clergy using them – not bishops – who face the risk of legal action by those who believe the prayers are indicative of a departure from the church’s doctrine.
Commendation, and the judgment of the bishops that the prayers are not indicative of a departure from the church’s doctrine, do however make important changes and are significant episcopal actions when – as here – the prayers are contentious and they give episcopal approval to services previously not permitted by the bishops and seen by many as contrary to doctrine. Commendation is not, however, a guarantee that the prayers are lawful. What is more, this route has previously only been used for uncontentious developments. As demonstrated in a more detailed linked article, even the most potentially controversial use of commendation in the past – that for a service of prayer and dedication after a civil marriage – occurred in a context where the mind of General Synod on the contentious question (remarriage after divorce) had already been clearly established by a vote of over 2:1 in a manner that has no parallels in relation to same-sex unions.
Part One therefore concludes that by choosing the route of commendation the bishops are:
- seeking to appear as if they are implementing significant changes and getting credit from those in church and wider society who support them when in fact the prayers’ legal status is not changed by their commendation;
- using a process intended for, and always previously used for, uncontroversial forms of service despite these prayers predictably proving to be the most controversial prayers introduced in the Church of England for many decades;
- appearing to act as a body in relation to liturgical approval, perhaps even appealing to episcopal collegiality to stifle dissent, when the canons give neither the House or College, on their own authority alone, any role in relation to approval of liturgy or authorisation to determine whether a form of service conforms or not to doctrine;
- claiming the prayers are consistent with doctrine but refusing to secure the agreement of Synod to that judgment by using the normal route for liturgical developments;
- failing to offer a serious theological or convincing legal rationale for changing their previous stance prohibiting the use of such prayers, a stance that was understood to be based on the need for liturgy to conform to doctrine and a consequence of the 1987 General Synod motion;
- failing to give a proper explanation of why the prayers are not indicative of a departure from Church of England doctrine; and
- placing all the risk on clergy in the parishes rather than bearing it themselves.
Part Two: Authorisation under B4
The alternative to commendation is authorisation and this can take four forms, three of which are set out in the rarely used canon B4 where different persons or bodies are empowered to authorise forms of service for different parts of the church. Part Two explores each of these beginning with the narrowest authorisation: by a diocesan bishop for their own diocese (B4.3). Although using this for PLF could be seen as creating a “postcode lottery” with prayers authorised in some dioceses but not others it is noted that such diocesan variation liturgically is permitted by the canons and has precedent. This route would also respect the consciences of diocesan bishops by granting them the authority to determine whether the prayers are compatible with doctrine rather than requiring them to veto their use in their diocese if the prayers were commended by the House of Bishops. It needs to be remembered, thirdly, that were a diocesan not to authorise PLF the clergy would continue to be able – as now and as they would if PLF were commended – to offer services under B5 such as those proposed in PLF or by being placed under a bishop who has authorised PLF.
Most attention is given in this part to authorisation by the Archbishops (B4.2) which the bishops “are particularly weighing up” according to the report to the Synod. Although effective and swift and requiring any legal challenge to be made against the Archbishops, ten areas of concern are raised about this process and its use of archepiscopal power. In summary these are:
- it sets a dangerous precedent of the Archbishops simply on their own archepiscopal authority introducing new liturgy;
- in bypassing General Synod and other bodies this process raises very serious questions about “paying attention to power” and the need for proper theological and liturgical scrutiny;
- it appears to have only been used three times, for uncontentious matters in our national life;
- the Archbishop of Canterbury acting in this way will likely cause more damage to the Communion;
- it makes the Archbishop of Canterbury’s decision not to use the prayers even more strange and ineffective as a self-denying ordinance due to being a focus of unity in the Communion;
- the Archbishops authorising prayers opposed by so many on General Synod is hard to square with their desire to be a focus of unity and could lead to many being in impaired communion with them and strengthen arguments for a new province;
- either all future Archbishops will be required to maintain this authorisation or it could be swiftly removed as soon as an Archbishop is appointed who believes PLF is indicative of a departure from doctrine;
- it would move the bishops’ approach from the most decentralised form of authorisation (commendation to parish clergy) to the most centralised (two Archbishops);
- it sits uneasily with the inclusive participation of LLF for final authorisation to be by two Archbishops; and
- there is no need to rush to authorisation as clergy would continue to authorised to act under B5 but if the Archbishops wish to act they could do so under canon B5A and authorise on a limited experimental basis while using canon B2 to determine final authorisation.
The third route of authorisation by convocation (B4.1) would involve many more people than the other two but would still exclude laity and may lead to different outcomes in each province.
All these routes remove legal threats to local clergy and redirect them to the authorising agent but they also remove local clergy’s rights to develop their own services under B5 for services covered by B4 authorisation. Most importantly, they bypass General Synod and locate the application of the crucial doctrine test in some other body, perhaps in the hands of only the two Archbishops or a diocesan bishop. Furthermore, it would appear that across all 3 routes the number of forms of service currently approved by these means can be counted on the fingers of one hand and all those services are uncontentious and very focussed and limited in their use.
Part Three: Authorisation by General Synod (B2)
Given the problems with the other routes, Part Three argues for the importance of General Synod in determining liturgy and whether or not any liturgy passes the truth-telling test of conformity to the church’s doctrine. This is why B2 and authorisation by General Synod – the normal, standard route of liturgical authorisation which, when successful, offers “a clear and robust outcome” (GS2055, para 41) – is what is needed for PLF. This:
- secures the consensus of the widest group;
- engages and gains the consent of the most representative body of the church for the form of service, in contrast to all the other routes;
- thereby helps preserve the unity of the church;
- ensures proper scrutiny of the forms of service before authorisation;
- makes the service available across the whole of the church;
- gives the highest security and protection to all clergy using the form of service that they are not liable to legal action; and
- it does this, in large part, because it definitively establishes that the form of service passes the crucial doctrine test.
The only serious argument for not using B2 is that it has various safeguards, particularly in relation to conformity to doctrine, which at least parts of PLF may well not pass. These, including the need for a two-thirds majority in all three Houses, are explained and explored and it is argued that seeking to bypass these by using a route other than B2 carries major risks. This is because the B2 means of Synodical scrutiny and enhanced majorities have been put in place for good reasons and are generally respected – particularly in matters of controversy – as the means best able to secure a number of good ends in the life of the church and thereby enable her flourishing. These ends include:
- as wide a consensus as possible for developments;
- keeping worship, which is at the heart of our calling, faithful to speaking the truth of God and speaking truth to God;
- enabling public discernment on doctrinally disputed matters;
- securing widely-recognised doctrinal consistency and coherence and/or careful and considered (rather than hurried and unaccountable) doctrinal development;
- the involvement of (and so ownership by) laity and clergy not just bishops and Archbishops;
- fostering trust in the church’s institutions of government and confidence in its leadership; and
- limiting the threats to unity.
The decision about B2 or not B2 is, therefore, not simply a minor legal technicality. It is a decision – faced with our deep disagreements over sexuality – about the sort of church we want to be or not to be.
Read it all at Psephizo