The bishops have decided. Or have they?

On Tuesday, 17 January, the College of Bishops of the Church of England concluded their final consultation regarding Living in Love and Faith.  Began six years ago, the ‘Living in Love and Faith Process’, LLF as it has become known, was a church-wide consultation and learning-experience aimed at reviewing the Church of England’s views on human sexuality and same-sex marriage.  One of the issues lurking behind LLF was whether the Church of England would amend its Canons and propose new or revised rites of marriage which included same-sex couples.

The bishops of the Church of England have seemingly decided to opt for the blessing of same-sex couples in church after civil partnerships and marriage ceremonies, but not allow such marriages in churches.  The reality is, because the Church of England is synodal, composed of houses of laity, clergy, and bishops, the 2/3rds thresholds needed to change canons or ratify new liturgies cannot be met with the current membership of the General Synod.  The bishops have seemed to acknowledge this reality by not intending to propose canonical and liturgical changes at this time regarding marriage.  Perhaps this vote counting is reflective of the theological positions of members, pro or con same sex-marriage, but maybe not.

One of the options for the bishops is to offer rites ad experimentum, provided they do not conflict with the doctrine of the church, or copy rites already approved by synod and in use.  Within these constraints it seems the bishops are confined to providing prayers of blessing  to use in church for same-sex couples who have married via registrars – but the prayers cannot use the language of marriage nor seem to simulate a marriage in ritual structure. Or perhaps the bishops will, as a way of gaining a sense of broader ecclesial consensus, commend their work to the Synod and ask for a vote. Either way, what form these prayers are to take is not yet known, as they are due to be released on January 20th (tomorrow) and later proposed to General Synod in the spring.

But what will be blessed?  The official statement from the Church of England and the LLF process speaks of “prayers of thanksgiving, dedication and for God’s blessing for same-sex couples.”  One assumes ‘thanksgiving’ for the civil marriage; One assumes ‘dedication’ of the couple’s love and domestic life together;  One assumes ‘God’s blessing’ upon the couple means what it says.  Yet some are already waiting for theological hair-splitting from the bishops however, expecting that the prayers may be deprecatory invocations rather than imperative blessings, so to side-step any sense that the ministry of the church is involved in the prayers (which is obviously strange from the point of view of liturgical theology).  It also remains to be seen if the prayers of ‘blessing’ are simply for the individuals who have civilly wed, or for their unitive relationship per se.  Perhaps too the prayers could simply ignore the civil marriage context, but such a move would make one ponder what the prayers were actually seeking to express and accomplish.

The point for the bishops is to be seen not changing the doctrine of marriage.  On this front, firstly, officially, the Church of England has never declared marriage a sacrament. Cranmer went out of his way to reform the marriage rite to remove any sacramental references. Furthermore, the 29th Article of Religion, and current Canon B30 never use the term sacrament when speaking of marriage.  Secondly, within the Church of England, the distinction between natural and sacramental marriage is hardly present, though the concepts are present in ecumenical dialogue (Smith, Intimate Diversity, 37-42). Until recent changes in civil law ministers were registrars – now they are celebrants who can legally confect marriage. But the result is the same: When a couple marry (in the UK) in the town-hall they are married in the eyes of the church, and vice-versa. When a couple divorces, the church sees them as divorced. There is no annulment process to deal with a sacramental aspect of the marriage.  But with the introduction of prayers of blessing for civil marriages of same-sex partners (as there is already for heterosexual spouses) the church will seemingly be acknowledging a two-tiered system. Though the language is limited and imprecise in some ways, and requires more than a blog entry to parse out, in blessing same-sex civil marriages the church will be acknowledging that these couples are married naturally, but not sacramentally (for what could it mean to be married outside the church as opposed to within?).  And it must be that, or the church will be guilty of fraud by feigning to acknowledge and bless something it doesn’t actually believe to exist – a ‘marriage’ outside the church.  From this perspective it seems that in trying to avoid changing the doctrine of marriage the bishops are in fact changing the received understanding of marriage in the Church of England.  Theological analysis aside, the practical pastoral implications of the bishops’ decision is vast and not to be underplayed.

As much as theologians define and revisit concepts, the experience of liturgy is what people remember, process, and believe through.  In Italy where I minister, because of state law all couples who wish to marry in the Church of England must first be married civilly anyway. Hence I use Common Worship’s rite of blessing for a couple civilly married.  Although in ‘marriage preparation’ with the couples I explain that they will already be married when they come to the church, without fail, for them the occasion in the church is their wedding day in their minds and hearts.  Though there is no overt exchange of vows, and the rite speaks of the confirmation and benediction of their marriage already made, their love and hope is present on that day in the words being said and ritual being celebrated.  It is in this ‘blessing’ that they find grace present, and where grace is present.  I strongly suspect that this is what same-sex couples will experience as well – no matter how the bishops and their liturgical advisors try to shape a liturgical reality with their choice of words and headings. Liturgy has a way of taking on a life and meaning of its own;  And oftentimes one that we can only dare hope for.  That all the children of God will be able to enter into their parish church, be called by name and witness to their love publicly, will be all the change necessary it seems to me. The rest will eventually come.  Like so much in Anglican faith and practise, changes tend to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.






2 responses to “The bishops have decided. Or have they?”

  1. Alan Griffiths Avatar
    Alan Griffiths

    It is only fair to note that in the 1662 Marriage service, marriage is referred to as:

    … signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Chist and his Church; …


    … an excellent mystery, that in it is signified and represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church:

    This comes close to ‘sacrament’ even though Marriage is defined in the 39 articles as being not a sacrament ‘of the Gospel.’

    The C. of E. is in a real twist about all this.


  2. Fr Richard Duncan Avatar
    Fr Richard Duncan

    There’s quite a surprising (verbal) similarity between the theology of marriage in the 1662 BCP and that of Chaucer’s Parson, who specifically says that “marriage is symbolised betwixt Christ and holy church” and that “matrimony is lawful assembling of man and of woman that receive by virtue of the sacrament the bond through which they can not be separated in all their life”.

    I don’t know whether Cranmer ever read Chaucer – he would go up in my estimation if he had – but the similarity does suggest at least that the mediaeval theology of marriage was in the back of his mind in 1549 and 1552.

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