Andrew Goddard writes: The commendation of Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) as 2023 drew to a close marked a significant development in the life of the Church of England. Whatever one thinks of that step, multiple aspects of the process that led up to it were for me more concerning and revealing about the current state of the Church and its senior leadership. As we enter the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and as the College and House of Bishops gather, a year on from deciding to set a direction for the church in relation to the LLF process, it is good to take stock by looking back on what has happened. This is important also in helping us decide how best to move forward as there are still major decisions to be taken and there is now new leadership—the Bishops of Newcastle and Leicester—for the work. A much fuller account, with more specific references and sources for each area outlined below, is available as a PDF here.
On reflection I have identified a dozen key disturbing features of the last year but before turning to those it is important to remember where we were just over a year ago:
- Aware of the seriousness of the issues and their potential for division, much work had been done since the collapse of the bishops’ previous process in the February 2017 General Synod to prepare to make important decisions;
- That Living in Love and Faith (LLF) work was, however, not focussed on the contentious issues but was much more wide-ranging in scope;
- While LLF set out traditional teaching and alternative views it did not evaluate these or consider possible theologically coherent positions or ways forward;
- The bishops only began their corporate discernment work in a focussed way in October and unsurprisingly when they gathered again in December there was little clarity or consensus and it looked like they would come to the February 2023 General Synod with a range of possible pathways to be weighed and discussed. In retrospect, that was probably a much better plan;
- Somehow by mid-January a definite proposal had taken shape and was signed off by the bishops (even though the prayers, not even discussed as texts in 2022, were not quite finalised) to be brought to Synod for a binary yes/no polarising debate and vote.
Charting the main features of what happened from that January bishops’ meeting onwards is a depressing account of failures in terms of good process, effective change management, paying attention to power and wise and godly leadership.
The first problem was the immediate leaking of the decision not to approve same-sex marriage. Questions about a leaky and secretive House of Bishops continued to arise through the rest of the year focussed on the lack of transparency and the abuse of Standing Order 14 to enforce strict confidentiality. There are still decisions formally taken by the House through motions being debated, amended and voted on, which have never been made public despite their significance for the whole process.
At the heart of what the bishops now proposed was a focus on prayers but bypassing due synodical liturgical processes. This was the major shift from 2017 even as it was still being claimed that, like then, doctrine and canons would be unchanged. The problem was that there was little theological rationale provided for this controversial liturgical change. It soon also became clear that little thought had been given to possible canonical routes for introducing the prayers (the sole test was to avoid the standard process for controversial matters of Canon B2 as this required two-thirds majorities which were lacking in Synod). Despite it being a central question for so many decisions, there was also no clarity (as it had barely been discussed) as to the church’s sexual ethic and how using the proposed prayers related to it.
This therefore quickly led to confusion over sexual ethics. Elements of the bishops’ paper to Synod and even more the clear statements of the Archbishop of York suggested that this was now changing to focus not on marriage between a man and a woman as the proper context for sexual intimacy but simply a relationship which was permanent, faithful and stable. Uncertainty about this continued for several months until finally it was clarified that in fact in deciding not to change marriage doctrine the bishops had decided not to change the church’s sexual ethic even though they were now proposing to pray for God’s blessing on non-marital sexual relationships.
The main defence offered for the PLF being used for those in same-sex marriage was related to novel claims about civil marriage and Holy Matrimony which were set out in public legal advice later in January but strongly critiqued. Since then it is clear that there has been significantly changing legal advice which has in part led to changes in the proposal. However, all the details of this advice (such as who sought it on what matters, who it was shared with, and when, what it said) remains hidden from scrutiny despite claims by the Bishop of London that “nothing is being hidden”. Many believe the bishops need to enable General Synod and the wider church to understand the complex and changing details of what the Legal Office was saying and how they responded to this in shaping their proposals.
In January the Legal Office had been clear that any statement about the prayers’ conformity to the canons concerning liturgy and doctrine would also require the pastoral guidance to replace Issues in Human Sexuality being in place. At the start it was clear that this was intended to follow on quickly but instead we saw a string of broken promises about prayers and guidance. The Next Steps Group overseeing the process was clear that the Prayers and Guidance belonged together and in February the Archbishop of York pledged to Synod he would not commend the prayers for use “until we have the pastoral guidance and pastoral provision”. This linkage was maintained in July at General Synod despite the Pastoral Guidance still not being ready as had been hoped back in January. When however it became clear that the Guidance would probably not be ready even by November, backtracking from these commitments became the pattern while those who sought to keep the two connected were accused of trying to “row back” and prevent the prayers being finally agreed.
At the February General Synod the focus was very much on the Church of England but there were some contributions that drew attention to the damage to the Anglican Communion that was likely to result if the bishops’ proposals were accepted. Both at Synod and shortly after at the ACC the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke to this but in ways that left many confused and concerned particularly given his clear support for the proposals. That support led to strong statements from both the Global South and later from GAFCON which confirmed the explicit warnings of the Archbishop of Alexandria to Synod. It was unclear whether the Archbishops and the House of Bishops had failed to foresee the serious consequences of their action for the Communion’s already fragile unity or no longer cared sufficiently about creating greater division and impaired fellowship.
Following the February Synod motion being passed (with a significant amendment affirming the bishops’ intention not to introduce prayers indicative of a departure from the church’s doctrine) pressure was strongly applied to make significant progress by July. This, however, proved unrealistic as became clear in the flawed Implementation Group process. This was I think, my worst ever experience of a Church of England process, culminating in the sudden disbanding of the groups which was then misleadingly justified to Synod by the Bishop of London.
Literally just before the groups were disbanded they were told they would in future be working more closely with members of the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC). The poor treatment of theological questions and FAOC was to be another hallmark of this whole process. Only engaging FAOC very late in the day, despite earlier opportunities, its members were then pressured (but thankfully resisted) to abandon their long-established and respected processes of careful theological reflection and dialogue in order to produce rushed judgments on the highly contentious questions sent to them for consideration. Many of us—across the different views on sexuality—were concerned at the disregard the PLF process was here revealing for serious theological reasoning to direct the discernment process. Theology was for too long sidelined (with false appeals to the theological work having been done by LLF) and then expected to proceed at speed, ideally it seemed to provide theological justification for decisions already reached on pragmatic and political grounds.
Through the summer, the process became much less public than it had been and there was a return to non-transparency and hurried, unexplained changes over such matters as
- the route for the prayers (the move in July from commendation under B5 in February to perhaps authorisation by Archbishop under B4.2 was abandoned),
- the division between the suite of resources and the standalone services,
- who PLF were to be available for (now only same-sex couples but any such couples not only those in a legally recognised union) and
- most significantly, the legal and theological basis for the PLF as a whole.
Apparently new legal and theological advice undermined the crucial civil marriage/holy matrimony distinction and so a new basis had to be found which led to hurried articulation of an argument based on “pastoral provision in a time of uncertainty”. It also now had to be acknowledged that not changing the sexual ethic but using PLF for sexual relationship was actually in fact indicative of a departure from the church’s doctrine (despite the bishops having committed themselves, and Synod agreeing, that this should not be the case). No clear narrative let alone cogent explanation or defence of all these changes was offered and amongst them the decision to introduce standalone services by Canon B2 particularly upset those supporting the changes.
The resulting protest then led to remarkable episcopal flip-flops over experimental services (under Canon B5A). A week before the House met in October to finalise the proposals to go to Synod the Bishop of London was telling stakeholders that alongside using B2 there would be experimental use under Canon B5A. At the House, however, she proposed, and the Archbishop of Canterbury very strongly supported, reversing this (which had been the mind of the College) and not authorising experimental standalone services. This proposal was passed but by the time of Synod, they and most bishop were back supporting what they had previously opposed, voting for the Bishop of Oxford’s amendment asking for such experimental use. This was passed by the narrowest of margins in the laity and Synod was given no information on the significant legal and logistical challenges faced in actually implementing this proposal.
Throughout all these changes there was a consistent lack of reassurance in terms of what provision would be given to those who were committed to the historic doctrine and discipline and unhappy with the changes being proposed. Even bishops such as the Bishop of Oxford who had previously been supportive or sympathetic to this provision needing to be quite significant failed to offer support to those seeking proper sufficient “formal structural pastoral provision” who therefore felt the very opposite of reassurance as a result of the process.
Finally, in November, there was the final push for getting PLF done with widespread disquiet about many aspects of how the proposals were pushed through Synod and deep concerns that, partly as a result of that and the other failings described above, support was even smaller in all three Houses than in February (just 52:48 among clergy, 51:49 laity). Many who were unhappy at what they saw as disregard for Scripture and Tradition were now also alarmed at the apparent disregard also of reason evidenced in the pattern of chaotic processes and broken promises.
I recognise that this account is incomplete and may be inaccurate (and would welcome additions and corrections) but the concerns are so deep and so wide-ranging that the presence of even only a fraction of them would make it reckless to dismiss them and carry on regardless with the same process as we move into 2024.
With the arrival of the two new episcopal Co-Chairs (though it remains unclear what group, if any, they are now chairing) there has been encouraging talk of the need for a “reset”. The release of fuller notes of recent House of Bishops meetings (though not for the crucial and controversial October 9th meeting which led to a dissenting statement from a number of bishops) is a promising sign in relation to the first area highlighted above that this may be underway. It is, however, clear that there is much, much more that needs to be done if trust and confidence in this process is going to be rebuilt across a deeply divided church after what (despite it often being claimed that a problem with bishops today is that they are too managerial) has often appeared a classic “omnishambles”. The Archbishops and bishops also need, going forward, to be much more obviously following the Pastoral Principles, particularly that which highlights the need to “pay attention to power”.
One fundamental problem has been a sense that, although it swerved around at times like the proverbial shopping trolley, the process was being determinedly driven inexorably to achieve certain ends (new prayers and services, permitting clergy to enter same-sex marriage while claiming to leave doctrine unchanged). To reach those goals, law and theology have often seemingly been pushed to the margins and ignored or looked to in order to provide rapidly constructed novel justifications and rationales for decision made on the basis of being the will of a majority of bishops expressed in secret, generally unannounced, and often supposedly only indicative, episcopal votes. Due constitutional synodical processes have been bypassed simply because they would fail to secure the desired outcome, and the Houses of both Clergy and Laity have become even more divided and fall well short of the two-thirds consensus usually required for controversial changes precisely in order to preserve church unity.
Proper consideration of the nature and seriousness of our theological differences (so carefully explored by the LLF resources) has been studiously avoided and replaced instead with appeals to being in “a time of uncertainty” (rather than competing and irreconcilable near-certainties) and “living with difference” and calls for “generosity” and “unity”. The way these are presented effectively imposes the decision that all these matters are adiaphora. All this seems to many to entail a lack of honesty, realism and integrity about people’s deeply held but divergent theological convictions and be introducing a practical abandonment of the church’s doctrine even as that doctrine is, officially and verbally, but only theoretically and never practically, reaffirmed.
At the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we need to be honest about how damaging the handling of PLF/LLF in 2023 has been to our unity in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. The tragedy is that this damage is likely to continue and deepen and we risk in the year ahead finding ourselves continuing to dig still deeper the hole we are now in. What we need is a genuine and bold “reset”. This must properly acknowledge how serious the multiple errors were in this evolving process during 2023, effectively address the underlying problems such as those identified here, and perhaps thereby enable us—across our differences—to seek and find a better way forward in addressing the many still unresolved PLF/LLF questions in 2024.
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.