It looks horribly like the whole LLF process in its current form is going to “all end in tears”
This article seeks to explore why that is the case and why now nobody seems to be happy with how the bishops have attempted to implement the February motion. It begins by reviewing the first three clauses of that motion. It appears that gay and lesbian/same-sex attracted Christians, whatever their theological convictions, are upset and hurt, another example of church actions for which the motion apologised. There are also increasing concerns that the bishops, in the way they are running the process, are not heeding the Pastoral Principles or enabling us to continue learning together in the spirit of LLF.
The majority of the article explores the motion’s last 3 clauses which focus on the Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF). By setting out what was said back in January and February in press releases and by the Archbishop of York it is shown why it’s now ending in tears for those who want change. Multiple key elements of the original proposals are now being withdrawn or looking uncertain and apparent commitments (or widespread expectations) are no longer being delivered. Examples of this are that not all of PLF is to be introduced at the same time in the near future, “standalone” services are not even to be introduced experimentally and are effectively banned, no celebrations of civil marriages, no focus on the couple, no prayers over rings, and no change in the church’s teaching that sex is for marriage between a man and a woman.
Although none of this is explicitly acknowledged or explained (or apologised for) there has been a clear “rowing back” from what was presented as “the fullest possible pastoral provision without changing the Church’s doctrine” combined with a lack of transparency and the appearance of being economical with the truth. These changes, though not how they have been arrived at, can be welcomed by conservatives but they too remain upset. This is in part because of the earlier statements which have not been clearly acknowledged as wrong but primarily because their concern has always been doctrinal and now—after months of denial—the bishops are admitting their proposals are (in violation of the Cornes amendment to the motion and contrary to their stated intention again in July) indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England. The plan is also to proceed, despite past assurances, with the prayers ahead of the full guidance or reassurance being even published let alone agreed.
The guidance itself (which has still not appeared in relation to what replaces Issues despite it being part of the February motion and even hoped for in July) is also a cause of grief. Across the board there is concern about leaks showing the bishops have made decisions about clergy in same-sex marriages but then failed to be open about this with Synod, giving the impression this remains undecided. Here those wanting change are encouraged (though upset at the lack of transparency) but those committed to the current doctrine further upset and therefore cautious about welcoming the changes in relation to PLF.
As we mark the 20th anniversary of Gene Robinson’s consecration which the Primates correctly warned would “tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level” we also now face the prospect of the bishops’ proposals ending in tears in the Church of England. This is especially likely as their work on pastoral reassurance is far from sufficiently progressed to deal with the impact of proceeding with the prayers and guidance or, perhaps, the reactions of those wanting change if all they are offered is what is now being proposed.
The article concludes by showing that the bishops have therefore failed to implement the February motion and are themselves no longer as united and able to argue convincingly that their proposals at least create a space that enables us to “touch and reach the fingertips” of those who hold different views. Rather than supporting a motion which asks the House “to continue its work of implementation” the Synod therefore needs to encourage a fresh approach working to find some sort of settlement.
“It’ll all end in tears” was what many feared in relation to the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process given the disagreements within (and some of the history of) the Church of England and the experience across the wider Anglican Communion in addressing these matters. Now, due to the way in which it has been handled by the bishops, this sadly seems almost inevitable, with this tearful response being shared by people across our deep differences. Already there have been many tears—tears of sadness, tears of rage, tears of pain and hurt, tears of despair—but very few if any tears of joy and this seems likely to continue. It is important to stop and consider why that is where we now find ourselves in the light of what has happened in the course of 2023.
What did Synod say in February?
The wording of the February motion, which the bishops claim to have been implementing in their proposed motion to this November Synod, provides a way into this analysis.
It opens with lament and repentance for the Church’s failure and “the harm that LGBTQI+ people have experienced and continue to experience in the life of the Church” (clause (a)). But, as we will see below, what is now being offered in the paper to Synod (GS 2328), given what has previously been said about the bishops’ plans, is undoubtedly causing more distress to LGBTQI+ people. This response is strongest among those who want change but it is not restricted to them. Sean Doherty, who is himself same-sex attracted and who supports current teaching and practice, responded on Twitter/X:
They have really messed up with this. As you know I’m not in favour of blessings same-sex relationships, but if the church is to do so it must emphatically not be because they approximate but fall short of an ‘ideal’. Nobody is happy with this!
Those who are same-sex attracted and committed to living in accordance with biblical and church teaching have been especially disturbed and discouraged by the proposed changes since they were announced in January.
The motion then talks of “continuing to embed the Pastoral Principles in our life together locally and nationally” (clause (b)). Across the church, however, there are now deepening concerns and major questions as to whether the bishops themselves are really following the Pastoral Principles, particularly the need to “pay attention to power”. These worries are only increasing in the light of the recent leaks concerning voting at both the College and House and the lack of transparency and honesty these reveal in the press release following the meeting of the House on October 9th and in the papers released for Synod. Were this to be happening in our national politics then how the bishops are treating Synod would lead to major questions about ministers misleading Parliament and about their adherence to the Nolan Principles of Public Life.
Clause (c) of the motion commends “the continuing learning together” and the motion’s introduction refers to “the commitment to learning and deep listening to God and to each other”. It is, however, only now, nine months after releasing their proposals, that the bishops have finally offered a theological rationale for their proposed prayers. Although they claim this is simply “articulating the theological rationale that supported the approach taken following the February motion” (Introductory paper, para 5, p.1) the paper was apparently only circulated very recently. What is more, there seems to be no desire on the part of the bishops for this rationale to be a contribution to ongoing learning and discussion or to sustained “deep listening” before rushing ahead with implementing the proposals. This is despite the rationale offering on their own admission a “new insight” (Annex A, para 23, p.9) and certainly one with no clear basis in the many resources found in the LLF process.
The bishops have, secondly, also not issued the legal advice for Synod members to learn together and listen to each other about the impact of, and constraints imposed by, canon law. This is despite it now apparently being significantly different from the summary of legal advice they eventually issued under synodical pressure before the February Synod (GS Misc 1339). They have, thirdly, proceeded without waiting to learn from – let alone to share with the wider church for us to learn together – their own theological commission (the Faith and Order Commission, FAOC). This has been tasked with working on key areas which have been raised by their proposed way forward and were not addressed in the LLF “resources in relation to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage”.
Clause (d) relates to the PG (“welcome the decision of the House of Bishops to replace Issues in Human Sexuality with new pastoral guidance”) while Clauses (e), (f) and (g) relate to the PLF. As it is PLF which is most developed we shall first look at why the bishops’ latest proposals fail to implement the February motion, have upset people across the board, and make it likely that “it will all end in tears” before turning more briefly to the Guidance and (not explicitly mentioned in the motion) Reassurance.
Prayers of Love and Faith: From January to October
What was said about PLF in January and February?
To understand why so many people are now upset, it is important to remember what was repeatedly said when these proposals were first released (italics added throughout to highlight what has now changed). The press release of January 18th (also see the similar press release two days later with the Synod papers) was headed
For the first time, under historic plans outlined today, same-sex couples will be able to come to church to give thanks for their civil marriage or civil partnership and receive God’s blessing.
It highlighted the bishops were reaffirming their commitment to a “radical new Christian inclusion founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it—based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st Century understanding of being human and of being sexual”. What was being offered was, it stated,
the fullest possible pastoral provision without changing the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony for same-sex couples through a range of draft prayers, known as Prayers of Love and Faith, which could be used voluntarily in churches for couples who have marked a significant stage of their relationship such as a civil marriage or civil partnership.
Although same-sex couples still could not marry in a CofE church, they could have
a service in which there would be prayers of dedication, thanksgiving or for God’s blessing on the couple in church following a civil marriage or partnership
The Archbishop of York, expressing “our deep sorrow and grief at the way LGBTQI+ people and those they love have been treated by the Church” confessed, “We are deeply sorry and ashamed and want to take this opportunity to begin again in the spirit of repentance which our faith teaches us. This is not the end of that journey but we have reached a milestone”.
Pressed on the Sunday programme on BBC Radio 4 about what the church now teaches concerning sex he did not speak about marriage but affirmed sexual same-sex relationships:
what we are saying is that physical and sexual intimacy belongs in committed, stable, faithful relationships and therefore where we see a committed, stable, faithful relationship between two people of the same sex, we are now in a position where those people can be welcomed fully into the life of the Church, on their terms…we believe that stable, faithful, committed, loving relationships are good. They are the place for physical intimacy…we want to welcome and acknowledge same-sex marriages in church.
He had spoken similarly at the press conference about “people who have entered into a same-sex civil marriage [who] come to the church seeking one of these services of love and faith” and how “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”.
When it was put to him that “The prayer services that that we’ve seen in the past few days are permitted to include words of commitment and dedication by the couples where they can also symbolise their commitment with rings and words of blessing from the priest” the Archbishop was clear that “I believe this will be a good thing”. At the press conference he was even clearer about what was being proposed: “we are acknowledging the goodness and faithfulness of same-sex, civil marriages and civil partnerships within the life of the church”.
At the February General Synod he spoke of the church “acknowledging the legal and pastoral reality of two forms of marriage in British society” and how “those who have entered into same sex civil partnerships and civil marriages – these couples could now come to church and have that relationship acknowledged, celebrated and the couple received a blessing”.
Why is PLF ending in tears for those wanting change?
When the latest papers to Synod are read, one of the most obvious differences is that nowhere is there any reference to “radical new Christian inclusion”. This is, perhaps, because of a recognition how difficult it would now be to describe the proposals in those terms given how that phrase has been used by the Archbishops and the House in the past. There is also now nothing being based on the sharp distinction between “two forms of marriage”—civil marriage and holy matrimony—highlighted in February.
Although the proposals are still presented as “pastoral provision” they now offer much less than what was presented previously as “the fullest possible pastoral provision without changing the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony for same-sex couples”. No longer is there “a service” which marks a “significant stage of their relationship such as a civil marriage or civil partnership”. Instead, it is made clear in the draft PG that the prayers must only be used “in regularly scheduled Sunday or weekday services” (Annex E, 1.1.1, p.48) and the PLF material “must not be the central focus of that service, or constitute a separate, standalone service” (1.3.7, p.59). What can be included within the regular services also no longer includes prayers over rings.
Rather than focussing on a “significant stage” or now being encouraged to “give thanks for their civil marriage or civil partnership” or “acknowledging the goodness and faithfulness of same-sex, civil marriages and civil partnerships” the emphasis is very clearly now on downplaying, and effectively treating as insignificant or even irrelevant, any legally registered formal commitment:
The PLF Resource Section does not treat those couples who have entered a same-sex civil marriage any differently from the way they treat a same-sex couple who are in a civil partnership or who have not acquired any formal civil status for their relationship. The use of the PLF Resource Section for a couple who have entered into a civil same-sex marriage does not therefore imply that their civil status is something that the Church considers distinguishes the couple from other same-sex couples who wish to dedicate their life together to God. The materials contained in the PLF Resource Section are not a celebration of a couple’s civil same-sex marriage. They are for praying with and for two people who love one another and who wish to give thanks for and mark that love in faith before God (Annex A, para 11, p.7, italics added).
The decision to insist there cannot be “standalone” services is also a major change and it seems it was very much a last minute one. The original February motion looked forward to “the House of Bishops further refining, commending and issuing the Prayers of Love and Faith described in GS 2289 and its Annexes” in clause (e). In July (in GS2303) it looked like this may change with the Archbishops authorizing all the prayers (under Canon B4) instead of them being commended but then it seemed they would do so only experimentally (under Canon B5A) and that the prayers would then have to be approved by Synod under Canon B2.
In meetings with various stakeholders exactly a week before the House met, on October 2nd, it was clear that the plan was to separate off “standalone” structures from the texts of the prayers but also to make such services available immediately under Canon B5A as an opt-in experiment prior to taking this part of PLF to Synod for authorisation under Canon B2. This would have been a departure from the February motion as it introduced a route other than commendation but all the PLF material from February would still be usable at the same time as soon as the prayers were finalised. Although disappointed, those wanting change seemed willing to live with this development. It now appears from leaks to the Church Times that this was the plan unveiled to stakeholders (and presumably also to the Living with Difference group) because it was the overwhelming mind of the College of Bishops when it met on September 18th to 21st.
Asked whether to approve the service structures under B5A the bishops agreed by 75 votes to 22 this was their preference. In contrast, the plan now being pursued, to go straight to B2 and so delay their use until 2025 (assuming Synod authorises) was reportedly rejected by a similar margin of 68 to 28. An amendment (Item 61) to bring the prayers (as a whole, not just as now the services orders) under B2 was defeated at the February Synod with only 3 bishops supporting the proposal, 6 abstaining, and 29 opposing. However, on October 9th, the House voted narrowly by 19 votes to 16 (54% to 46%) to hold off authorisation of the service outlines until B2 was completed. No explanation has been given for this volte face, the extent of which has only become transparent due to the leak.
The effect of this is that any clergy now offering prayers for a same-sex couple in a “standalone” service (i.e. one outside their regular pattern of Sunday and weekday services) or making the prayers “the central focus” of any service will be disregarding the Pastoral Guidance on the use of PLF. They will thereby open themselves up to being reported to their bishop and perhaps being legally challenged or disciplined. It also seems unlikely that the “standalone services” will secure the necessary two-thirds support in all 3 Houses of Synod and thus will fail to be authorised. If they are authorised then it would appear legally that only those authorised forms of service (with “variations not of substantial importance”, PG, 1.3.7, p.59) could be used ie variations within A Service of the Word or Holy Communion.
The notes for these have now had added to them since July that “The introduction—as with any other part of the service—must not suggest that the service is a marriage service or that it is a form of Prayer and Dedication after Civil Marriage or Thanksgiving for Marriage” (GS 2328, Note 3, p.31) and that “Pastoral preparation with the couple should cover the fact that the service is not a marriage, or a Thanksgiving for Marriage or A Service of Prayer and Dedication after Civil Marriage” (Note 7, p.32). The draft PG on use of the Prayers contains a similar statement (1.3.6, p.59). These developments would seriously challenge previous legal advice on the Inclusive Church website and put an end to the various forms of service currently being commended by Inclusive Church and used by clergy in the belief that they are legitimate under canon B5.
Charlie Bell powerfully sums up how all this looks from his perspective and the anger this has aroused:
Read it all in Psephizo