What follows explores ten questions relating to the theological rationale that has been offered for the proposed Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) in Annex H of GS 2328. It argues that a theological rationale needs to state and justify any theological changes from past teaching and show that there is an adequate theological basis for the proposed practical changes being proposed in PLF (§1). It concludes (§10) that it ultimately fails to achieve these goals.

Its central rationale is that of “pastoral provision in a time of uncertainty” which has been described as “a new insight into doctrine” and “a change in how doctrine and pastoral practice relate to one another” (§2, §3.1). Multiple different ways of describing the features of this “pastoral provision” (PP) and its relation to PLF are noted (§3.2-5) as is the intention for PP to also provide a theological rationale for the unpublished pastoral guidance and planned reassurance (§3.6). It is argued that PP’s complexity, acknowledged novelty, and the lack of time for it to be theologically stress-tested make it questionable that it is currently robust enough a concept, especially given it is being used to justify PLF which is indicative of a change in doctrine (§3.7).

The relationship of PP to doctrine is that doctrine remains unchanged although there is some confusion about what exactly is meant by this and in particular whether that means PP can only justify developments which are not indicative of any change in doctrine at all or whether the key test is that any change must not be “in any essential matter” of doctrine (§4.1-6). The rationale would appear to be arguing the former (§4.7) but in that case it cannot justify PLF (§4.8).

In commending PP, an inevitably brief and selective overview of recent CofE and wider Anglican documents is used to argue for a “trajectory” in relation to pastoral responses within received doctrine which PP is said to continue. This is a novel and in at least some respects highly debatable proposition. Even if accepted, it is not shown that PLF is the only or best or even a valid development of this trajectory, particularly in as much as it introduces previously prohibited liturgical innovations (§5). 

Within this trajectory particular attention is given to the relationship of PP to “pastoral accommodation” (PA) but the claim that PP is simply an extension of PA rather than a break from it (§6.1-3) is questioned. This is because PA is focussed on caring for all people including those whose lives do not conform to church teaching. PA is not about accommodating beliefs or behaviours or about managing moral or doctrinal disagreements and as PA bears witness to church doctrine it cannot be indicative of a departure from it (§6.4). The claims about PP and about PA are then examined in relation to three central elements in the rationale’s account: goods (§7), sin (§8) and uncertainty (§9).

In relation to PP’s affirmation of goods in same-sex relationships and its relating of these to the goods of marriage (§7.1-3) it is argued that more work needs to be done concerning the validity of detaching goods (e.g. faithfulness) from the estate of marriage and applying them in a somehow equivalent way to individual instances of non-marital relationships (§7.4-7). A seeming interchangeability of the language of “goods” and “virtue(s)” is also noted as problematic (§7.8).

In relation to sin, PP’s proper emphasis that all people and relationships are marred by sin (§8.1-2) and its admirable focus on grace (§8.4) needs to engage more with the critiques that sexual sin cannot be ignored so as to focus only on goods and that PLF lacks a positive vision of chastity or an account of repentance and obedience (§8.3-5). In addition, conservative critiques which are appealed to in order to explain why doctrine is not being changed and PP instead being offered as a rationale also apply to PP and to PLF but go unanswered (§8.3). PP therefore seemingly offers a mirror-image of the rationale’s critique of PA: it is so focussed on goods that it fails to recognise and properly acknowledge and address what the church teaches is sin (§8.6).

In relation to “uncertainty” there needs to be a clearer defence of appealing to this as the defining characteristic of our situation and a sharper definition of what is said to be uncertain (§9.1-3). The critiques that are offered of alternative ways forward in dealing with our “time of uncertainty”—“no change” and “forcing change”—are shown to apply also to PLF (§9.4) whose manner of introduction is not obviously marked by the “provisionality” and “humility” it claims for itself (§9.5), especially given the importance of liturgy in Anglicanism and the existence of processes to change liturgy (Canon B2) that address the challenge of a divided and uncertain church (§9.6).

It is therefore concluded that, despite its creativity and identification of some key areas requiring theological work, Annex H needs significantly more time, reflection and refinement. It currently appears too much like a theological justification subsequently developed for an approach reached on other non-theological grounds and continuing to evolve in its details detached from this stated theological rationale (§10.1-2). It does not offer any theological answer as to why doctrine is not changing and it does not adequately demonstrate that PLF’s liturgical changes do not in fact also indicate changes in doctrine (§10.3-4). These problems in turn raise concerns about how PP might be utilised in relation to guidance and reassurance and highlight questions as to why these proposals and their theological rationale are not being introduced together with the prayers (§10.5). Rather than proceeding with PLF on the basis of this rationale it would be better for the church’s unity and well-being to follow one or more of the following alternative paths: (a) pausing to review and improve the theological rationale and then proceeding in all three areas simultaneously on the basis of what may be agreed, (b) recognising that in relation to how we pray as a church canon B2 is our well-established way of acting in “a time of uncertainty”, (c) acknowledging that we have competing certainties and contradictory theological rationales for them and these need to be given some degree of distinct ecclesial identity while maintaining as high a degree of communion as possible with theological integrity between their respective adherents (§10.6).

You can read the full article or download it as a PDF here: What is the theological rationale for PLF and is it convincing PDF