Andrew Goddard writes: Following General Synod, the House of Bishops has to decide (perhaps this Tuesday, 12th December) on two key matters relating to Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF): whether and when to commend the Suite of Prayers for use in regular services under Canon B5 and how to proceed with the “standalone services” that they have said they will introduce through Canon B2, in particular whether to allow them to be used (perhaps by means of experimental authorisation under Canon B5A) prior to their authorisation by General Synod.
What follows begins by sketching the evolution of PLF from its sudden conception about a year ago, through each of the three meetings of General Synod, to where we are now. This highlights that although the wording of the prayers has remained much the same, there have been a number of crucial changes in how they are framed, their legal basis, and their proposed means of introduction. Three key distinctions are then introduced that need to be kept in mind in seeking to test the coherence of the current proposals and the credibility of their claims to be a good and legal way forward. It is then argued, by exploring four of the key questions arising from these distinctions, that in fact whatever coherence and legal foundation PLF originally had this is now severely weakened and in some cases has almost vanished in the current proposals. This is primarily due to a number of the changes that have been implemented at speed with unforeseen consequences. These create great legal risk for any use under Canon B5 and point to the importance of authorisation by the standard route of Canon B2.
How did we get to where we now are? The Evolution of PLF
The bishops approached their College meeting a year ago in December 2022 with a range of 7 options (none of them fleshed out in draft prayers) which they sought to reduce in number so as to present them, together with their rationales, to the February Synod to test the mind of Synod. By mid-January, however, a number of these had been brought together and given expression in PLF comprising a suite of resources and two service structures with illustrative examples of how these could be combined. Although presented as not requiring any change in doctrine or the law, this contradicted the guidance given to the bishops in December 2022 concerning the doctrinal and legal consequences of some of the options now embraced within PLF. This development appears to have become possible due to the sharp contrast that was drawn between civil marriage and holy matrimony. Strong claims were made about the significance and novelty of what was being proposed even though the route of commendation meant that strictly the proposals must always have been legal under B5. The bishops were also clear that although only PLF was published, it belonged together with the proposed new Pastoral Guidance to replace Issues in Human Sexuality. With one significant amendment, Synod passed the proposed motion supporting the bishops’ proposed way forward.
Over the next 3 to 4 months a new consensus began to emerge that PLF should only be used for legally registered relationships and should probably be authorised by some means (perhaps by the Archbishops under B4.2) rather than commended. There were also some serious challenges to the lawyers’ separation of civil marriage and holy matrimony. One of the consequences of all these matters being in flux was that in contrast to February 2023 when PLF had a clear legal note (supported by a fuller paper from the Legal Office), the notes for PLF in July had replaced this with a placeholder.
By the time of the College’s mid-September meeting, theological and legal questions about the civil marriage/holy matrimony argument combined with growing pressure for authorisation under Canon B2 and led to what would prove to be significant changes. PLF was divided into parts with the main body of the resources again being proposed for commendation within “regular” services but the outline services being rebranded as “standalone” services. These it was argued should indeed be authorised under B2 but perhaps with an authorised experimental period under Canon B5A. It appears that the College voted by over 3 to 1 for this way forward and stakeholders were briefed this was the likely outcome by the Bishop of London. However, when the House met only a week after those briefings, it decided (reportedly by a narrow 19-16 vote) against the use of Canon B5A. This “straight to B2” option for “standalone services” was proposed by the Bishop of London (despite her briefing meetings only a week before) and strongly urged on the House by the Archbishop of Canterbury but came under rapid and heavy critique when it was published in the papers for the November Synod. This led to the Bishop of Oxford proposing his amendment which sought to reopen the question of making services available without waiting for completion of the B2 process. A radically different proposal was now secured in the House of Bishops when voting publicly compared to their private vote in early October, with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of London among those changing their stance. The passing of this amendment (by the narrowest of margins in the House of Laity) means the House will now revisit the B5A option once again.
A further significant development in the November 2023 papers was the abandonment of the argument concerning civil marriage and holy matrimony and the setting out of a new theological rationale. This rationale reaffirmed that marriage is the divinely intended relationship for sexual intimacy. These changes resulted in the bishops having to accept that PLF used for a sexual same-sex union would likely be indicative of a departure from the Church’s doctrine and so seriously weakened past legal advice and left the bishops relying on the departure not being in any essential matter. The new legal advice has never been released but appears much more cautious and in November the placeholder “Legal Notes” section was not filled out with more details but removed entirely.
How can we understand the law and the current situation with PLF?
To understand these various developments more fully and to evaluate their legal status carefully it is necessary to focus on three key distinctions.
First, rather than talking of “commendation” (contrasted with “authorisation”) it is best to distinguish between forms of service authorised in accordance with Canon B1.2 and the discretion granted to ministers under Canon B5. The concept of “commendation” does not appear in the Canons. This fact that commendation by bishops has no legal basis or status is often forgotten or even not known.
Second, there are two distinct forms of discretion set out in Canon B5: “variations which are not of substantial importance” within any authorised form of service (B5.1) and using suitable forms of service for occasions where no provision is made in authorised services (B5.2). The greater significance of this second discretionary category is signalled by it only being granted to the minister with cure of souls not simply the minister taking the service.
Third, there is the novel distinction now introduced (with no basis in the canons or much explanation by the bishops) between “regular services” and “standalone services”. The House of Bishops now argue that the PLF suite can be used within “regular services” without authorization, but use within “standalone services” must be authorized.
Drawing on these three distinctions and relating them to where we now are in PLF there are at least four key questions that require careful consideration in evaluating the current PLF proposal.
What can be said about where we now find ourselves and the legal challenges facing the bishops’ proposals?
The first and crucially important question that needs to be answered is whether PLF is now being commended for clergy to use with the more limited discretion granted under B5.1 (variation in an authorised form of service) or that granted under B5.2 (introduction of a new form of service for on occasion for which no authorised provisions are made). Once that is clarified the second related question needs to be asked as to whether or not PLF can now be said to have a strong legal basis given the specific constraints of each of these options within Canon B5 and what is now being said by the bishops. The difficulty here is that there are arguments both for and against each of these options and some serious questions about the legality of each as well.
The case that PLF falls under B5.1 is that it is clearly a variation in an authorised form of service, especially now it is restricted to a regular service. This “regular service” would be, for example, A Service of the Word or Holy Communion (into which the PLF materials are inserted). The case against this however is that the Pastoral Guidance is clear that it must be the minister with the cure of souls who exercises their discretion (“Using commended prayers as part of regular worship can only happen at the discretion of the minister with the cure of souls” (1.1.8, p.51)) and under B5.1 the discretion is that simply of the minister conducting the service.
If PLF is viewed as a variation under B5.1 it is now on very shaky legal grounds as such variations can only be “not of substantial importance” (Canon B5.1) or “minor” (1974 Worship and Doctrine Measure). Now that it is clear how much opposition there is to the PLF and that they are indicative of a departure from doctrine it is very hard to see them as meeting this canonical requirement.
Alternatively, use of the PLF suite within a “regular service” may fall under Canon B5.2. The argument in favour of them being commended for use under B5.2 is, as noted, that the guidance identifies the minister with such discretion as the one with the cure of souls. It would then have to be argued that the occasion “for which no provision is made” in authorised liturgy is prayers relating to the celebration of a same-sex couple’s relationship. The difficulty here is that the PLF are now only to be used in a “regular service” such as Holy Communion or Morning Prayer (an existing occasion) not in “a standalone service” of Prayer and Dedication for a Same-Sex Relationships (a new occasion). This highlights the shaky legal grounds of appealing to B5.2 because it was clearly intended to be used to create a new service (such as “The Funeral of a Child” or “Services of Prayer and Dedication after Civil Marriage” or “The Reconciliation of a Penitent”) which is precisely the use of PLF under Canon B5 that is now no longer being commended by the House of Bishops but brought for authorization under Canon B2.
In summary, if one speaks of “commendation for use under B5” in general terms and there is no distinction between “regular” and “standalone” services and no acceptance that PLF is indicative of a departure from doctrine (as in February and July) this question is less pressing. Now, however, it requires a clear answer and then a clear legal justification that is not simply in terms of “but its departure is not in an essential matter”. That justification needs to show either that the PLF suite is a variation “not of substantial importance” under Canon B5.1 (and the Pastoral Guidance changed to remove the right of the minister with the cure of souls to exercise discretion which will create its own problems in relation to pastoral reassurance) or that the PLF suite is an “occasion” under Canon B5.2 for which no provision is made in authorised liturgy, even though only commended for use within an existing authorized service. If the House of Bishops cannot provide these clear answers, it would appear impossible for the PLF suite to be within “the discretion permitted by Canon B5” (Canon B1.2) and so it will instead have to be authorized by some means where clearly Canon B2 is the standard and appropriate pathway legally.
As this confusion reveals, a third key question is how to understand the new distinction between regular and standalone services. The difficulty here is that the terminology suggests a single test which might be described as “calendrical” – that is, a “regular service” is part of the regular pattern within the life of the worshipping community, while a “standalone service” is arranged for a particular occasion as it arises. There is, however, an additional test. This is because if a proposed service passes this calendrical test then further questions arise about the centrality of the PLF prayers within that regular service. Again, the Guidance is clear that “Where material from the Resource Section (commended material) is used in a public service, it must not be the central focus of that service” (1.3.7, p.60) and the bishops state that PLF should only be used “in acts of worship where Prayers of Love and Faith are not the principal focus or form”. There are, however, elements in the suite which are not consistent with this. To select special Bible readings (and thus also shape the sermon) to focus on the couple being prayed for is very difficult to square with this test. The same applies, for example, to the proposed bidding prayer which is included in the PLF suite as a “Prayer of Gathering”. In fact, it is explicitly quoted in the “standalone” service orders (Annex D to GS 2328) to show “what these services set out to do”: “Dear friends in Christ, we gather with N and N to celebrate with them their love, faithfulness, and commitment. We come to hear God’s holy word, and to surround N and N with our love and prayer as they seek the blessings of God’s kingdom in their life together”. Its use, therefore, in a regular service would render any such service (even if a “regular” one in the parish’s life) a “standalone” service which the bishops have said requires authorisation.
As it stands, if the House of Bishops commend the current PLF suite for use under Canon B5, they would be significantly blurring the distinction they are now attempting to draw between “regular services” and “standalone services”. This would simply sow further confusion.
This leads to the fourth question which is why the PLF suite with material indicative of a departure from the church’s doctrine can avoid authorisation and be commended for use under Canon B5 yet an outline service order adapting those already authorised for A Service of the Word or Holy Communion (into which the “commended” PLF suite will be inserted) requires authorization. The bishops appear to be saying that they will invite General Synod (over a long process to which they are now adding involvement of Diocesan Synods as well) to strain out a gnat (by authorizing outline services, with no content), while the bishops themselves are inviting the Church of England to swallow a camel (by commending prayers indicative of a departure from our doctrine).
It is clear that while the text of the PLF has been fairly static, the recent attempts to distinguish “regular” from “standalone” services, and to propose using different canonical routes for each, creates new challenges which have not been answered. These challenges have multiplied as the House of Bishops’ previous arguments advanced in defence of PLF’s legality have been effectively withdrawn even though new legal advice has not been shared and the legal note in the draft materials has faded from being full and clear in February to non-existent in November. Alongside this the extent to which PLF indicates departure from doctrine (contrary to the February Synod motion and the stated intention of the bishops in July) has now been openly acknowledged.
The bishops, by commending, put themselves at no legal risk when the services are used. That legal risk is borne by the minister(s) involved. By actively encouraging the use of such services (which have been occurring to some degree already in certain parishes when clergy have concluded they have freedom under canon B5) but refusing to authorise them they have deeply divided the church and sadly made it more likely that those offering services will face legal challenges. They have, however, been acting at pace, on the basis of uncertain theological rationales and changing legal advice. They have not fully shared the latest version of that legal advice and withdrawn previous legal advice in consecutive drafts. As a result they have been significantly altering the shape of their proposal and accompanying guidance as to the use of the prayers. If they proceed to commend the PLF suite now then anyone using the prayers faces a number of potential challenges which the bishops have created but of which they seem to be unaware. Certainly they have given no clear answers let alone a rationale or legal basis: Are you exercising your discretion under Canon B5.1 or B5.2? If under B5.1 can this alteration to the normal form of service and the inclusion of these prayers (admitted to be indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England) really be justified as “minor” and “not of substantial importance”? If under B5.2 then are you not rejecting the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance because this is no longer a “regular service”?
If the bishops announce this week that they have implemented their earlier in principle decision to commend PLF they will, in effect, be giving the Church of England (and wider Anglican Communion) an early Christmas present. What sort of present is it? It is already clear that it is one which a significant proportion of the church do not want and will not even open though they are worried that some in their immediate family will be urging them to do so. Many of those recipients of this gift have major questions as to what has made the bishops think it one suitable to give and are considering how it affects their own relationship with bishops and the other gifts they offer going into 2024. It now also appears that those who will be pleased to open and enjoy this gift (even if they wished for a better present and find this one is, other than its purple wrapping paper, a poorer version of something they already had) will find that what they have been given is severely faulty, perhaps even dangerous to use. That raises the serious risk that the next stage in the evolution of the PLF could be not another revision but the recall of the product.
Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Assistant Minister, St James the Less, Pimlico, Tutor in Christian Ethics, Westminster Theological Centre(WTC) and Tutor in Ethics at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. He is a member of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and was a member of the Co-Ordinating Group of LLF and the subgroup looking at Pastoral Guidance.