In this article, I offer a summary of what happened at General Synod in February and its procedural consequences.

I then look at the recently announced structures for taking LLF/PLF forward and set them out in the context of the past structures and a review of the past motions of General Synod.

This review shows that taking these motions as the basis going forward is not particularly helpful since:

  • they have either been implemented or in part already been ignored;
  • there is no Synodical decision as to what the Guidance should say concerning the pattern of life of clergy; and
  • it is recognised that both law and doctrine severely constrain possible further changes in relation to standalone services and presenting different guidance for clergy.

Faced with this, I then offer a set of statements which might begin to help us find a way forward together, arising in part out of conversations with various people holding a range of views. These seek to set out (in a way that people of different perspectives might be able to agree with or disagree with and propose changes to) an account that

a. acknowledges honestly our differences and where we now find ourselves in the LLF/PLF process and

b. finds some degree of agreement in relation to principles which might guide how we now address the central divisive questions we currently face in terms of standalone services, pastoral guidance, and structural provision.  

What happened at General Synod?

The decision of General Synod to vote to move to next business rather than vote on the motion (as amended) on Living in Love and Faith (LLF) has seemingly confirmed that the Church of England is now well and truly “stuck”, even more so than it was after the July 2023 Synod, and stuck where really nobody wants to be.

Under Standing Order 33 of General Synod, it is now not in order

to reconsider the original question in the same form or in a form which is, in the opinion of the Business Committee, substantially similar within the remainder of the lifetime of the Synod, except with the permission of the Business Committee and the general consent of the Synod.

For LLF to return to the floor of Synod, the Business Committee needs to have been provided with a new proposal and then “make a report in writing to the Synod setting out a summary of the case for reconsideration and its reasons for giving permission”.

The motion on LLF proposed by the Bishop of Leicester, Martyn Snow, based on his paper (GS 2346, about which I wrote here), read

That this Synod welcome the further work carried out on Living in Love and Faith and the focus on reconciliation and bridge building; and ask that the proposal for a set of commitments through which the whole Church can continue to pursue the implementation of the motions previously passed by Synod on Living in Love and Faith, be brought back to Synod as soon as possible.

Two amendments were carried on a show of hands – to replace “welcome” with “note” and to insert “and welcome the greater emphasis on openness and transparency” after “bridge-building”. Two amendments were defeated in all 3 Houses:

  • To insert “and acknowledge that for many in the Church of England, including members of General Synod, some of the issues raised are not matters on which they can simply agree to disagree” after “bridge-building”.  The vote here was 8-20-2 among bishops, 83-92-2 among clergy, and 86-98-1 among laity (totalling 177-210-5).
  • To leave out “the proposal for a set of commitments through which the whole Church can continue to pursue the implementation of the motions previously passed by Synod on Living in Love” and insert “proposals for a set of commitments together with a settlement based on legally secure pastoral provision”. The vote here was even more strongly against: 8-24-2 (B), 78-98-8 (C), 81-100-7 (L) totalling 167-222-17).

The final vote to move to next business was very clear and united people across the divides concerning how to proceed: 27-4-3 (B), 150-29-9 (C), 145-36-8 (L) totalling 322-69-20.

What are the new LLF/PLF structures?

Two weeks ago on 8th March it was announced how the LLF/PLF work would be taken forward. There will be a new Programme Board comprising the Bishop of Leicester as lead bishop (it is unclear whether attempts to find a replacement to co-lead have been abandoned), bishops convening working groups, and senior staff (presumably including the two interim theological advisers and members of the Legal Office). This is, in effect, the fifth oversight group of the LLF process since 2017 following:

  • the LLF Co-Ordinating Group (November 2017 to November 2020, originally described as working on an Episcopal Teaching Document and working alongside the Pastoral Advisory Group) chaired by the then Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth. This comprised bishops and consultants and oversaw four episcopally-led working groups and produced the LLF resources
  • The Next Steps Group (Nov 2020 to March 2023) chaired by the Bishop of London and comprised only of bishops with Eeva John continuing as a full-time staff member until March 2023.
  • The Steering Group (March 2023-Nov 2023) co-chaired by the Bishops of London and Truro (now Winchester) and involving the two episcopal co-chairs of each of the three implementation groups (with both episcopal and clergy and a few lay members and ToR) that were originally appointed to work until October 2023 and met in April, May and June when they were summarily disbanded before the July General Synod.
  • The Bishops of Newcastle and Leicester became the Two Co-Leads (Nov 2023-Feb 2024) until the resignation of the Bishop of Newcastle. Nick Shepherd was appointed Programme Director and in January 2024 began “Secondment to Archbishops’ Council Central Secretariat responsible for coordinating, integrating and facilitating implementation of work across the Church on the next phase of Living in Love and Faith”.

This new group will oversee what appears to be in effect the resurrection of the Implementation Groups created a year ago. These will now be chaired by just one bishop each and comprised only of members of General Synod who have been invited to apply to be part of them.  The aim is, as in 2023, for these groups to meet three times (or more) before the July meeting but with a residential in early May to produce materials for the May meeting of the House of Bishops and then the July General Synod. As last year, this is an astonishingly tight time-scale to try to involve a large number of busy people in a complex and highly contested process. There will also be more meetings with stakeholder groups as happened prior to the November 2023 and February 2024 General Synod.

Alongside this, the letter to Synod members has also announced that

We will also be putting in place the two ‘formal’ groups that have already been outlined as required following the commendation of the PLF:

Pastoral Consultative Group – to aid bishops, diocesan staff and others with answers to the broad questions that arise from the implementation of PLF and other LLF work. This group will comprise a small number of bishops, supported by consultants.

Independent Review Panel – to hear concerns about the implementation of the PLF and application of the Pastoral Guidance, and to hold bishops and diocesan staff to account. This is likely to have an initial interim stage and be made up of a panel of people with a range of theological positions and professional experience.

Can’t we just get on and implement Synod’s decisions?

February’s proposed motion referred to “the implementation of the motions previously passed by Synod on Living in Love and Faith” and this perhaps gives a signal as to what might set the agenda for this next phase. It is therefore worth recalling what these address as it shows the problems with setting this as a goal. The February 2023 motion stated:

  • “lament and repent of the failure of the Church to be welcoming to LGBTQI+ people and the harm that LGBTQI+ people have experienced and continue to experience in the life of the Church; recommit to our shared witness to God’s love for and acceptance of every person” All agree on this but have different understandings as to what represents failure or causes harm which in part is related to different understandings as to the pattern of life the church must commend and different understandings of inclusion (as discussed in the LLF book, especially at pp. 223-30 on inclusion and Chpt 12)
  • “by continuing to embed the Pastoral Principles in our life together locally and nationally”
    Many believe that in the last year neither the bishops nor General Synod has excelled at accomplishing this aim particularly in relation to paying attention to power.
  • “commend the continued learning together enabled by the Living in Love and Faith process and resources in relation to identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage”
    The bishops have consistently failed to draw on the LLF resources or to make theological learning and explanation a significant part of the discernment process. Although the amendment referring to the reality that for many “some of the issues raised are not matters on which they can simply agree to disagree” was defeated, the fact that 177 people (over 45%) voted for it shows that this area of the nature of our disagreements needs to be addressed and not, as it has been, avoided. Again the LLF materials are helpful as is the work it draws upon from the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) on “Communion and Disagreement” back in 2016.
  • “welcome the decision of the House of Bishops to replace Issues in Human Sexuality with new pastoral guidance”.
    This gives no Synodical guidance as to what the content of the replacement must be.  The fact that the new pastoral guidance already issued includes the clear statement that “The Church of England teaches that Holy Matrimony is a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman, blessed by God in creation and pointing to the love between Christ and the Church; a way of life which Christ makes holy. It is within marriage that sexual intimacy finds its proper place” (p. 1) has, as is now being acknowledged (in Annex B of GS 2346), made it very difficult to see how the current requirements can be relaxed. Any way forward here will need to be guided by work that is being done by FAOC but is only in its early stages.
  • “welcome the response from the College of Bishops and look forward to the House of Bishops further refining, commending and issuing the Prayers of Love and Faith described in GS 2289 and its Annexes; invite the House of Bishops to monitor the Church’s use of and response to the Prayers of Love and Faith, once they have been commended and published, and to report back to Synod in five years’ time”
    The House has now refined, commended and issued the prayers but they have only done so for use in regular services and without therefore commending the outline of services (now understood as “standalone” services) that were offered to Synod in February last year. There is no clear process monitoring their use despite them being commended and published.
  • “endorse the decision of the College and House of Bishops not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage, and their intention that the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England”
    The House has already failed to implement this because the prayers they have commended were judged to be “indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England”. Any plans to change the discipline expected of clergy within the new Pastoral Guidance to allow them to enter same-sex marriages or sexual relationships other than holy matrimony also appear to be incompatible with the decision “not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage”.

The November 2023 motion stated that Synod was

  • conscious that the Church is not of one mind on the issues raised by Living in Love and Faith, 
  • that we are in a period of uncertainty, and 
  • that many in the Church on all sides are being deeply hurtat this time, recognise the progress made by the House of Bishops towards implementing the motion on Living in Love and Faith passed by this Synod in February 2023, as reported in GS 2328
  • encourage the House to continue its work of implementation, 
  • and ask the House to consider whether some standalone services for same-sex couples could be made available for use, possibly on a trial basis, on the timescale envisaged by the motion passed by the Synod in February 2023 (Bishop of Oxford amendment).

The only new substantive content here (there is no acknowledgment that GS 2328 was not implementing the February motion as amended) relates to standalone services which, contrary to the February motion, the bishops were proposing in November to introduce not by commendation but for authorisation only after approval by General Synod under Canon B2 (a process which would take time and likely fail given the need for 2/3 majorities in every House). This amendment from the Bishop of Oxford (and supported by the Archbishops and the Bishop of London) was in effect a request to use Canon B5A as well as Canon B2, something debated over several months with the bishops moving between different options. It is, however, important to note that Synod simply asked the House to consider whether these could be used and the House has done so and reported back to Synod in Annex A of GS 2346. The conclusions there about experimental use under B5A are stark. There is a need to consider:

  • “the pastoral implications of enabling standalone services for a period of time but then removing that permission as the B 2 process starts, and for the duration of the B 2 approval process (which might be up to two years)” (p. 7)
  • “that Canon B 5A has not before been used to introduce new rites to the worship of the Church in the manner that is proposed by the PLF standalone services. As this would be a new (and, for some, controversial) use of the Canon there remains a considerable risk of legal challenge in the courts” (p. 7)
  • “it would not be lawful to start both a B 5A and a B 2 process at the same time” (p. 7)
  • “Overlapping the B 5A and B 2 processes would allow for a period of  experimentation…There is a medium to high risk that conducting an overlapping Canon B 5A and a Canon B 2 process would be successfully challenged in the courts” (p.8, emphasis original) and it is a “Contestable use of the Canons” (p. 13)
  • The advice from the Legal Office is that, reading Canon B 5A and Canon B 2 together, the better interpretation of the text is that the experimental period under Canon B 5A must come to an end before the form of service is submitted for approval under Canon B 2” and “the legal risk would be lower because this would be a much more conventional experimental period” (p.8, emphasis original) although  “Still considerable risk of successful legal challenge” (p. 13). Also, “this process would take longer than others” and “there would remain the significant pastoral consequences as outlined above” (p. 8, emphasis original)

In summary, taking these motions as the basis going forward is not particularly helpful. The February motion has already been rejected (in proceeding to commend PLF despite them being judged as indicative of a departure from doctrine, and in deciding to commend PLF only for use in regular services not as standalone services) and its desire for new guidance says nothing about what that guidance should state and the commitment not to change doctrine gives little or no room for substantively different content to the guidance. The November motion has been implemented in that consideration has been given to standalone services experimentally but no decision has been taken because the legal obstacles are significant.

Is there an alternative? Seeking agreement on where we are and elements of a way forward

So, if the Synod motions are of limited value, what then might help guide us forward? 

It may be that the new groups composed of Synod members will simply bring into the process the conflictual, polarised stances from the floor of Synod over the last year and we have to prepare ourselves for the struggle of a long drawn out process of further heated debates and close votes. This is what was almost inevitably generated by the decision of the House of Bishops last January to offer to General Synod not a range of options or principles for finding a way forward but (optimistically claiming they would “strengthen the mission of the Church and uphold its unity”, GS 2289, p.3) their own, at best half-baked, proposals to be debated and voted upon but lacking any serious theological or legal rationale. The question is whether there is a better way possible and elements of the recent Synod debate suggest there may be a desire to find one.

What follows is an initial attempt to try to describe the current situation in the Church of England in relation to LLF/PLF in a way that might provide at least a “starter for ten” in seeking (a) to acknowledge honestly our differences but also (b) find some degree of agreement in relation to principles which might guide how we now address the central divisive questions we currently face.  

It has been shaped by the sort of work and approach that I believe was used as we developed the original LLF resources and it has been helpfully guided by some recent conversations with people, of varying views, as to what needs to be done. It is, however, very much my personal attempt to articulate where I see the possibility of at least more fruitful conversations. Producing it has given me some hope that such an approach may enable greater, perhaps even sufficient, consensus to emerge in relation to defining some shared goals and then perhaps some possible practical steps forward, though I am very realistic that across the spectrum of views there will be those wishing to reject, reword or add to them. 

Where we now are

1. The House of Bishops has sought to hold people together by affirming doctrine and not changing law. 

Read it all in Psephizo