Church of England agrees to trial services for same-sex couples

The Church of England’s General Synod meeting November 13-15 continued their deliberations on the Living in Love and Faith process.  The College and House of Bishops, as part of LLF process, drafted services of blessing for same-sex couples and proposed them to General Synod for feedback in January, which I wrote about on PrayTell at the time here and here.  Originally the bishops contemplated authorizing the prayers and services under Canon B5(A), which allows for experimental liturgies to be used in churches on the authority of the bishops alone.  After the meetings of General Synod held in February and July of 2023 the House of Bishops decided in October to separate the permission to use the Prayers of Love and Faith from the stand alone ‘wedding-like’ services.  The bishop’s new course of action was to submit the stand alone services for formal approval by General Synod under Canon B2 as an officially recognized liturgy, requiring years more work, and a two-thirds majority in all three houses to gain approval. The Prayers of Love and Faith would still be permitted for use under CanonB5(A) on an experimental basis. A provisio was added, however, clarifying that the primary focus of the service could not be the blessing of a same-sex couple. 

On November 15, the final day of debate, the bishops’ plan was amended by a margin of one vote in the House of Laity. As a result, Synod ok’d and asked the bishops once again to authorise stand alone services of blessing under Canon B5(A), ad experimentum, and bring them into use as soon as possible. 

Although little was made of it during synodal debate, the draft collection of prayers and services proposed by the bishops in the spring and  this autumn differ.  As the bishops have sole authority to determine the content and form of the prayers under Canon B5(A) it is possible more changes will take place before the final publication of the stand alone services ad experimentum.  Comparing the two drafts now available one notes the modification of explanatory notes, especially focused upon what the service is not (“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”), and, the clear instructions to the minister not to insert liturgical material from authorised forms of the wedding services. 

The greatest modifications relate to liturgical symbolism. In the new draft service an explanatory note has been inserted in the introduction regarding use of rings and candles. It is specified that rings may not be exchanged.  The prayer of blessing of rings being worn by the couple remains, but the rubric in the first draft service indicating that the couple are to extend their hands together toward the minister during the blessing has been deleted. In addition, the original draft included an optional rite in which the couple could exchange lit candles with accompanying prayers. In the most recent draft all mention of the exchange of candles and the associated prayers have been eliminated.  This deletion means that the only use of the language of ‘taking and receiving’ lifted from the marriage service’s exchange of rings is gone.         

Reviewing the second draft of services and the bishops’ accompanying explanatory notes, there is the awkward sense that the liturgy is now preoccupied that two persons are not seen to be celebrating something like a marriage, and in so doing creating a category of human rapport, that is more than friendship, but less than marriage – which rings very different than the tone struck by the Archbishop of Canterbury in January. The bishops are clear that they are not intending to change, nor are they changing, the definition of marriage, nor proposing a type of para-liturgy meant to mimic marriage. At the same time, from the point of view of liturgical structure and symbolism most of an Anglican wedding service is present in the draft service: a Eucharistic context, the blessing of a couple, the blessing of rings they wear as a sign of their promises and covenant (optional), the lighting of a candle (optional), and prayers for family life. 

As I noted in January, much of the work of distinguishing the proposed trial services of blessings for same-sex couples from a marriage service is left to language (what words are included, and what words are excluded). This continues to be the case (and even more so) in the current draft. Many of the traditional goods of marriage are referenced in the prayers. Much ‘this-is-not-marriage’ language has been added to the rubrics in an attempt to control perception. And yet one of the touchstones of contemporary liturgical method is the understanding that liturgy is so much more than language.  So it seems self-evident that the proposed services are structured as they are precisely because of the marriage rite and its symbolism – because the liturgy is seeking to speak about profound human relationships and the unity of two persons.  This shared structure and symbolism must mean something as an act of prayer, both in addition to and independent of the language used within the service and its explanatory notes – whether one thinks such a correlation is a good or bad thing.   

So, have we in the Church of England now set off on a new season of pastoral liturgy regarding personal relationships? It is not clear to me. Above I called the draft services awkward.  And I do think they are for the following reason: For many, perhaps for most, be they bishops, clergy, or laity, I do not believe that the true goal of the Living in Love and Faith process, or the resulting liturgical materials being created and given for use ad experimentum, was to convince either Christian LGBTQI+ persons or others that a committed relationship between two persons of the same sex, is good and holy, but just not the same as a heterosexual marital relationship.  Rather, the debates within Synod continue to reflect an either/or proposition: such relationships are not worthy relationships at all, or they are the same as heterosexual marriage and should be celebrated sacramentally as such.  In a sense, I doubt that anyone on any side is actually looking for the so-called services of blessing now being put forward, nor are they looking to affirm the idea of good-but-different. In this light the services proposed are a liturgical answer to a question no one has asked.  As a result the prayers and services will likely be used as pastoral triage.  If they do not come across as such it will depend in great part upon the liturgical authenticity of minister, the couple, and those joining them in prayer.

It seems to me that at best the new services of blessing ad experimentum represent a bracketed time in the theological and liturgical development of the Church of England.  Any formal recognition of these services under Canon B2 will not pass Synod any time soon. Any change to the canonical understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman will not pass Synod any time soon. The latter change will be needed to authorize any service that approaches the idea of ‘marriage equality’ as it’s generally meant by the public – but a step that some provinces in the Anglican Communion have already taken.

So at this point the bishops in the Church of England have probably done as well as they can, and have gone as far as they can, all things considered. But I am hopeful that something more is happening in a Pauline sense; That mutual forbearance is being embraced; That the strong are limiting themselves on behalf of the weak; That an ecclesiology that priortises the pastoral as the privileged space in which faith is worked out and theology is done is taking root. And that our going forward in this globalised age takes account of a larger church and world so that we seek and see common steps. I don’t think it is happenstance that the Trans-affirming approach that the Church of England embraced has now been taken up in part by the Vatican.  Or that the German Roman Catholic bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann has given permission for the blessing of same sex couples in his diocese along the lines of that just proposed by the Church of England.  This kind of walking together, as time consuming, self-limiting, and as frustrating as it can be, both within churches and between churches, is the only way forward in an era defined by fragmentation if we are concerned as well about our Christian witness. So we keep on hoping and walking, in search of dignity, truth, and unity.