In this essay, the author writes purely in a personal capacity.
By Christopher Cocksworth
The Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process crossed an important threshold at the February sessions of its General Synod. LLF began its life six years prior. The 2017 February synod narrowly chose not to take note of a House of Bishops proposal concerning same-sex relationships. The bishops’ decision to hold to the traditional doctrine of marriage while at the same time offering generous pastoral provision that stopped short of blessing same-sex relationships failed to achieve a majority in the House of Clergy. It was a moment of some trauma that led to the Archbishops’ call for a “radical new Christian inclusion in the Church … founded in Scripture, in reason, in tradition, and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it.”
That challenge gave birth to what later became known as “Living in Love and Faith: Christian Teaching and Learning About Identity, Sexuality, Relationships, and Marriage.” LLF has been a remarkable ecclesial venture. People of different theological views and of different sexual and gender identities have engaged with each other in respectful ways seeking to understand each other — and their Christian reasoning — better. It has required a commitment to seek the mind of Christ together not only about matters contested for some decades by Christians but also how they may live truly and authentically together in one Church bound together by their common faith in him. The project has encompassed three distinct phases: compilation of teaching and learning resources whole-church engagement with them, generally in small groups; discernment and decision by the College of Bishops, culminating in a Response from the Bishops to LLF, including Prayers of Love and Faith, presented to the February synod; and a motion.
Although LLF has been a wide-ranging and ambitious project on identity, sexuality, relationships, and marriage, the focus of the synod motion was on same-sex relationships. The doctrine of marriage as the joining together of a man and a woman in a lifelong, exclusive relationship was affirmed. At the same time, draft Prayers of Love and Faith were offered “as resources in 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.” The provision included two “Sample Services,” one of the Word and the other eucharistic, showing how the prayers could be woven together in a service of “Dedication and Thanksgiving for a Couple,” with the inclusion of one of two prayers for God’s blessing.
On one level, it is a modest and subtle liturgical provision. Most of the prayers themselves — all of them optional — are without controversy and the two prayers for (for not of) God’s blessing seek to bless not the relationship itself, whether civil marriage, civil partnership, or an otherwise committed and faithful relationship, but the people, that they may — as one of the prayers puts it — “rejoice in hope and be sustained in love.” Moreover, an important note states that the prayers are “‘neither contrary to nor indicative of any departure from the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter,’ including but not limited to the definition of marriage in Canon B30.”
It can be seen as a genuinely Anglican attempt to hold different positions together in a broad liturgical revision anchored in fidelity to the doctrine of marriage and to respond to clear pastoral need. It is proper that the virtues of many same-sex relationships should be recognized and appropriate forms of prayer offered with sensitivity and generosity. The provision reached for ways to do so.
It is true that some evangelical bodies were geared up for resistance to almost any form of pastoral provision for those in same-sex relationships. But it is also true that the proposed provision has united a broad alliance of evangelical networks, and some significant catholic voices, in suspicion, bewilderment, consternation and, among most the evangelical spectrum, rejection. Among explanations for this antipathy are:
- the accompanying response from the bishops to LLF which set a number of hares running;
- statements made in press conferences that used language of blessing in a more unguarded way than the provision itself;
- communications of individual bishops welcoming probable, in their minds, future changes to teaching practice including, in the not-too-distant future, to marriage;
- an assessment that the two prayers “for God’s blessing,” though careful, still cross critical boundaries;
- a perception that when the prayers are formed into a service and performed liturgically, especially with the blessing of rings, they could appear to be a quasi-wedding;
- a fear that the prayers were a harbinger of more to come.
There are other causes, though, that have something to do with ecclesial processes. Great care had been taken in producing the resources, encouraging engagement with them, bringing the bishops through a process of discernment to a point of decision. Some form of diversified consensus on key intentions of the provision seemed to have emerged. Then, however, we — and I say we because I am a member of the College and House of Bishops, and I accept my share of responsibility — allowed ourselves to hurry the last and vital stage. We did not give the time and attention to hone the response and scrutinize the prayers with the great care that was needed for documents put into the synodical process and, in so doing, to check whether there was a sufficiently common mind among us to find secure expression in common texts.
Furthermore, we promised pastoral guidelines on the practical outworking of the provision, with all their complex legal and theological questions, at a later point, rather than offering them alongside the liturgical provision. The result was that the response and prayers raised more questions than they answered, questions that could not be answered by the entirely reasonable probing of the synod. As well as other consequences, it soon became clear that different bishops had, after all, different understandings of what was being provided.
So where are we now? The prayers are only drafts. They have not been commended. So we now move into the fourth stage of LLF. It is likely to be the most difficult. The risk of sustained and systemic disruption to the life of the Church of England has risen, the knock-on effects of the Synod vote to the structures of the Anglican Communion are already being seen (as evidenced by the recent meeting of ACC), and the Anglican contribution to the unity of the universal Church has become less clear. Although among some in the Church of England respect for the bishops and trust in their processes has increased, among a significant proportion of others, trust and confidence in their bishops has eroded. But careful work on this next stage of LLF could rebuild some of the trust and repair tears to the fabric of our common life and so avert lasting damage.
There are legal questions:
- Is the provision genuinely consistent with the doctrine of the Church of England, and does it pass the strict canonical test it has set itself?
- Is its distinction (novel for the Church of England) between civil marriage and Holy Matrimony secure?
There are practical questions:
- How is the conscience of clergy and parishes who find themselves unable to use some or all of the liturgical provision to be respected?
- What level of pastoral provision will be needed for those who could not use them, and should it involve, as many are arguing and as the Archbishop of York conceded in the debate, serious forms of structural differentiation?
- Will clergy of the same sex be free to enter into civil marriage?
There are theological questions:
- Can the distinction between blessing a couple as people before God, rather than their relationship, carry the theological weight that is placed upon it?
- What is the provision saying or implying about the permissibility or otherwise of sexual intimacy in relationships of the same sex, and in opposite sex relationships that the Church does not recognize as marriage, and what is its theological case?
- How will the Church of England explain to other churches of the Communion, and its ecumenical partners, and the other major religions of its land, what exactly it is commending and provide the necessary theological reasoning?
Ecclesial questions are raised about how, in exercising leadership, the bishops tend — as they did in the first two phases of LLF — to the ecology of the church of which their order is only one part.
Liturgical questions are raised by all four areas.
Whatever one’s hopes for the outcome of these deliberations — more conservative or more progressive — they are essential, and without the most careful attention to them, the use of the provision faces legal challenge, the implementation of the proposals risks pastoral chaos, and the reception of the provision in the Church of England, the Anglican Communion, and the worldwide Church of God will be confused.
The LLF project is founded on the hope that the One who desires that we are where he is, one in him with the Father, so that the world may believe (John 17.24), will calm troubled hearts and guide us into the ways of peace and truth. There is still a hill to climb – as Jesus knew to his great cost – before that hope is fulfilled. That is the challenge for the next stage of LLF.