Andrew Goddard writes: in the first of three articles, I highlighted the challenges that now face the post-LLF process in ‘squaring the circle’ of different commitments made in our understanding of blessing, the nature of marriage, and our agreed sexual ethic. In this second one, I explore the question of our disagreements and what might be needed to address them.
One of the features of the bishops’ proposals and the reactions to them is that everyone is now acknowledging that we clearly and deeply disagree. In the words of the Bishop of London to General Synod,
As bishops we have been seeking the mind of Christ in the uncomfortably sharp disagreements that we have about same-sex relationships.
Despite this, and the oft-repeated recognition that the proposals go too far for some and not far enough for others, remarkably little has been said about the nature and the implications of our disagreements.
There has, however, already been much work done on disagreement within the Church of England, notably the 2016 FAOC report on Communion and Disagreement, summarised in the LLF book (pp. 230-4), made the focus of its final conversation, and central to the fifth and final session in the LLF course. This work has acknowledged that conversations often get stuck and it becomes “very difficult for those involved to hear and respond to one another” because “people disagree not only about the issue at hand, but also about the category of disagreement that they are having” (LLF book, p. 231). It also recognises that the issues we are now seeking to make decisions on are exactly this kind of disagreement: one “where we can’t even agree on how deeply our disagreement cuts into our ability to be church together” (p. 232).
In the light of this work on disagreement we could now acknowledge that
all Christians would probably agree that there are some disagreements that do impair our ability to live and work together—disagreements that require some kind of practical differentiation even if we remain in a single church together…
…most Christians would probably agree that there are some disagreements that push such impairment to breaking point (p. 233).
We could even also recognise that we are perhaps now finding ourselves in one of these two situations in the Church of England in terms of responses to LLF. The recent Kigali Commitment shows that both GAFCON and the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans (GSFA) view the Anglican Communion as clearly in one of these two places due to the Church of England’s actions.
Instead, however, these matters are, it seems, the proverbial elephant in the room. We avoid talking about the nature and implications of our disagreements by means of repeated calls to “walk together” in the midst of and despite our disagreements. Indeed, one of the arguments advanced for what the bishops are proposing is that this is the best, perhaps only, way to “walk together”. To quote the Bishop of London again:
In proposing our way forward as bishops, what we have done is chart a path that navigates the realities of the disagreements among us in a way that enables us to walk together – acknowledging its discomfort and ensuring that individual conscience is protected. One way of describing this way forward is to see ourselves standing in different places – and finding a point that each of us, by stretching out our arm, can touch and reach the fingertips of the other. It will be uncomfortable for everyone, but it is about creating a space for the Holy Spirit to move among us and to continue to guide us and shape us into the likeness of Christ.
What are our disagreements?
There are, as LLF showed, multiple theological disagreements which feed into these discussions. For example, concerning how we read Scripture and view its authority and also how we interpret particular experiences and patterns of life in the light of our understanding of God’s good purposes in creation and redemption and the effects on humanity of the Fall and our sin. At present, the focus of these disagreements relate to what our doctrine should be in relation to marriage and, as part of that or derived from it, what patterns of sexual relationship should be viewed as a way of holiness fitting for a disciple of Christ. Here those pressing for change wish the church to embrace two new understandings:
(1) a doctrine of marriage as a gift of God that opens marriage up to two people irrespective of their biological sex rather than restricting it to one man and one woman and/or
(2) a doctrine of marriage that does not view marriage between a man and a woman as the divinely intended pattern of relationship for sexual intimacy.
These are the two central issues on which we are currently divided as we seek in the LLF process to navigate different responses among Christians to changing patterns of sexual relationships in society and in particular the introduction of same-sex marriage.
The bishops’ declared intention not to change the church’s doctrine of marriage or marriage liturgy so as to include same-sex couples has removed (1) from the current discussion in terms of the church’s formal teaching. It has, however, not in any sense foreclosed ongoing debate on this within the church. In addition, the question of our understanding of marriage has now become refocused on a new question:
(1a) can the church commend, celebrate and bless civil marriages between two people of the same sex (perhaps claiming that it is only blessing the people in such civil marriages rather than their relationship or legal union) and
(1b) can the church, given those ordained affirm they will “endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people”, allow clergy to enter same-sex civil marriages and treat them simply as legal unions?
In relation to (2) the question can be framed as
(2a) can the church cease speaking of all sex outside marriage as falling short of God’s purposes (or, in other words, as sin) and instead commend, celebrate and bless non-marital, including same-sex, sexual relationships, if they embody certain qualities (again perhaps claiming that it is only blessing the people in such relationships rather than the relationship itself or its sexual aspect) and
(2b) can the church, given the canons require that a “clerk in Holy Orders shall…at all times be diligent to frame and fashion his life and that of his family according to the doctrine of Christ, and to make himself and them, as much as in him lies, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ” (Canon C26.2) allow clergy to live in such relationships?
These have now become the focus of contention: are these developments consonant with the church’s doctrine? Or are they indicative of a departure from that doctrine and so either cannot happen or require a change in the church’s doctrine of marriage (or canons and liturgy relating to ordination) before they can be approved?
It would appear therefore that the focus is shifting away from what our doctrine should be to what our doctrine actually is and, closely related to that, what actions therefore indicate a departure from our doctrine.
The disagreement is, in other words, now being presented more as a matter of interpretation and application of existing doctrine than a fundamental disagreement over the substance of doctrine. But that is, of course, at best a partial truth. At worst it is a deception sitting uneasily with the pastoral principle of admitting hypocrisy given the underlying fundamental disagreements that clearly exist over what the church’s doctrine of marriage should be.
The challenge is that those who are pressing for changes (1) and (2) in doctrine (and the consequent sexual ethic), having failed to achieve this in relation to marriage as a male-female union, are now arguing that previously prohibited actions are, in fact, not really prohibited by the unchanged doctrine and so can legitimately be introduced into the church.
Thus it is claimed in relation to (1) that the doctrine of marriage has no bearing on the question of entering the status of a same-sex civil marriage. The answer to (1a) and (1b) is therefore that, contrary to all previous legal advice and episcopal statements, the church can now authorise blessings of same-sex marriages and permit clergy to enter them. Similarly, in relation to (2), it is claimed that the restriction of sexual intimacy to marriage is not, contrary to past episcopal statements, actually part of the doctrine of marriage but has always been some lower level category of current episcopal teaching or guidance. The answer to (2a) and (2b), it is therefore being claimed, is that liturgically celebrating non-marital sexual relationships and allowing clergy to enter these is not contrary to or indicative of a departure from that doctrine; these innovations can be introduced simply by the bishops changing their past episcopal teaching or guidance.
What are the practical options going forward?
As the wording of these questions makes clear, these matters lie at the heart of the work of two of the three new working groups: that examining the wording and rubrics of the proposed draft prayers has to consider (1a) and (2a) and that working on the promised new pastoral guidance has to consider (1b) and (2b). How, in the light of our disagreements, might it be best to proceed?
The most obvious solution is to clarify what our doctrine is, decide whether or not that doctrine should be changed in some way, and then determine whether or not any of the proposals are indicative of a departure from the doctrine.
If the doctrine is to change this is something which the bishops cannot do simply on their own (though it is less clear what the situation is if is claimed that what is happening is simply a reinterpretation and new application of the current doctrine even when that means the working, de facto, doctrine is changed in significant ways). Leading canon lawyer, Professor Norman Doe, explains in his Legal Framework of the Church of England (Chpt 9 at p. 258) that although the bishops have particular responsibilities in relation to doctrine due to their episcopal ordination, they cannot unilaterally alter it:
General Synod is the only authority within the Church of England competent to alter the legally approved doctrines: no doctrinal development may occur unless the three Houses of General Synod consent to it. Indeed, it has been understood judicially that General Synod possesses in law an unlimited power to change the church’s fundamental doctrines, provided the required procedures are followed. The procedures are rigorous and, by requiring the participation of the whole church as represented in General Synod, they give juridical expression to the theological principle that doctrines ought to be derived from a consensus fidelium.
Doe continues to quote the General Synod’s constitution (paragraph 7) whose current wording is reproduced here (in Appendix D). This has a number of detailed checks and balances (including potential separate referrals to Convocations or House of Laity) to prevent doctrine being changed too easily. Illustrative examples of the ways in which there is special protection of doctrine can also be found summarised in the authoritative work of another leading canon lawyer, Mark Hill:
A Canon which concerns worship or doctrine may not be submitted for Royal Assent unless it has received final approval in Synod with a majority in each house of not less than two-thirds of those present and voting (Ecclesiastical Law, 4th edn, 2.26) and
Synod may approve, amend, continue, or discontinue any form of service, provided that it is of the opinion that it does not represent a departure from the doctrine of the Church and that any such decision is finally approved with a majority in each house of not less than two-thirds of those present and voting (ibid, 5.03).
Following this logic, in order to clarify the doctrine of the Church, the proposed prayers would best be brought to Synod not with a view to the bishops commending them under Canon B5 but under Canon B2 in order for there to be an authorized form of service. This is because
The final approval by the General Synod of any canon, regulation, form of service, or amendment thereof conclusively determines that the Synod is of the opinion that it is neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter (Hill, 5.01 cf Canon B2.1).
The difficulty for those wishing to proceed with the prayers is that it seems, given the voting at the February Synod, the current Synod falls well short, in both the Houses of Clergy and Laity, of the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the current proposed draft prayers. A refusal to use the Canon B2 route, however, means that whether or not any prayers are indicative of a departure from the Church’s doctrine will remain undetermined even were the bishops to commend them. This is because the bishops alone cannot determine whether this test (inserted, arguably in an even stronger form, in the Cornes amendment at the February General Synod) has been passed simply by stating that it is their opinion the prayers are not indicative of such a departure.
It would also appear, as Russell Dewhurst has argued, that even were the bishops as a House or College to state their collective view that the prayers were neither a departure from the church’s doctrine nor even indicative of such departure, this judgment (unlike that of General Synod by a majority of two-thirds) would not be binding on every bishop. In particular, the question remains unanswered as to how each diocesan bishop – as “the chief pastor of all that are within his diocese, as well laity as clergy…” called to “teach and to uphold sound and wholesome doctrine, and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions” (Canon C18.1) and “the principal minister” with “the right, save in places and over persons exempt by law or custom, of…ordering, controlling, and authorizing all services in churches, chapels, churchyards and consecrated burial grounds” (Canon C18.4) – would respond.
Canon B5.4 is clear that
If any question is raised concerning the observance of the provisions of this Canon it may be referred to the bishop in order that he may give such pastoral guidance, advice or directions as he may think fit, but such reference shall be without prejudice to the matter in question being made the subject matter of proceedings under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963
Russell Dewhurst therefore writes of the prayers, if simply commended by the bishops, that “it appears that a bishop may be able to veto their use under Canon B 5(4)” because, in the light of B5(4),
If a question is duly raised and the bishop chooses to give direction, rather than guidance or advice, then the duty of canonical obedience may be engaged. If this is so, then failure to follow the bishop’s direction would be a breach of ecclesiastical law and a disciplinary offence. This would seem to indicate that, if a question is raised, the bishop would be able to direct a minister not to use Prayer of Love and Faith, or indeed any other variations which the bishop believed were inappropriate, in a given context or generally.
If this is the case then the apparent desire of the bishops (expressed in the Bishop of London’s words at General Synod) to bring back to Synod “very clear proposals [of prayers] that can be used consistently across the dioceses in the Church to protect those who wish to use them and those who do not wish to use them” is going to be difficult to guarantee if any bishops believe the prayers are indicative of a departure from the Church’s doctrine of marriage. This may open the question as to whether consideration might be given to some other route such as approval of a service, under certain conditions, by the Archbishops or, if they wish, by any diocesan, under Canon B4 or B5A. The difficulty remains however that these too would also lack any authoritative determination of doctrine as this can only be gained by proceeding under Canon B2.
The same problem of consistency across dioceses looks like it will also prove difficult to achieve in relation to the new pastoral guidance. This is because the deep disagreements found in Synod and the wider church are also present among the bishops. It is clear that the bishops are keen to develop and implement pastoral guidance which will be “consistent across dioceses and reflect the doctrine and ecclesiastical law of the Church of England” (in the words they use to describe the planned Pastoral Consultative Group that will “lead…the production of the new pastoral guidance” and “support and advise bishops and dioceses on pastoral responses”). But the different and incompatible answers that bishops will give to (1b) and (2b)—for example whether those in a same-sex marriage should or should not be able to be ordained—means that it is very hard to see how any new guidance to replace Issues will be able to be implemented, in good conscience, by every bishop.
This means that we are likely to face not only the difficulty that bishops are not of “one mind” but that they will not be able to agree a way to walk forward together which they can all, in conscience, implement within their episcopal ministries. This could apply in relation to the prayers and/or the guidance. If the bishops, by a majority, reaffirm the current negative answers to (1b) and (2b) then some bishops may nevertheless seek to advance changes within their own dioceses. If the bishops, by a majority, offer new and affirmative answers to those questions (by, for example, permitting the ordination of those in sexual relationships other than marriage) then some bishops may reject such developments. As the Communion Partner bishops have done in North America they may well insist on exercising their own episcopal ministries in conformity with the current understanding of the church’s doctrine of marriage and the mind of the Anglican Communion as expressed in Lambeth I.10.
Furthermore, even if the bishops can agree a uniform way to move forward, whatever it is there are likely to be in all dioceses a (perhaps significant) number of clergy and parishes who will disagree with the proposed outcome. At least some of these are likely – even more so if there are a range of diocesan approaches—to wish to receive their oversight from someone who shares their understanding, whether that is maintaining the current teaching and discipline or wishing to embrace new patterns of liturgy or expectations of how clergy order their households.
This leads into the task of the third working group and suggests that this is not simply going to have to consider “pastoral reassurance” for those clergy deeply unhappy with an agreed nationally consistent way forward. Nor is its work likely going to be restricted to the implications of this for the relationship of clergy and parishes to their bishop(s), itself a significant challenge. This group is likely going to have to consider how the Church of England responds to a situation where its bishops are no longer even claiming to be adhering to a consistent, nationally agreed pattern of episcopal ministry which they all believe is in conformity with the Church’s agreed doctrine in relation to these matters. The next article will explore these questions of differentiation.
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.