Andrew Goddard writes: The House of Bishops met on Monday October 9th and in the early evening a press release appeared which set out some of their decisions. One of the key questions has been by which canonical route the Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) will be introduced into the church. The short summary is that the original proposal was to commend them for use by clergy under canon B5 but that by July the bishops were reporting to Synod that
The House and College have considered the range of routes presented by the Group including Canon B5 commendation of the Prayers, B4 approval by the Convocations, Archbishops or Ordinary and B2 approval by General Synod. They are particularly weighing up the option of approval by the Archbishops (under Canon B4.2), as an approach that may provide more legal protection for those ministers who choose to use the Prayers. No final decision has been made by the House as to the route by which the prayers will be made available for use (para 13).
It then became clear that they were seriously considering yet another route—Canon B5A—under which the Archbishops would authorise PLF for experimental use before bringing to Synod under Canon B2. I explored that (with links to earlier pieces on the other canons) here and have argued, as have a large number of network leaders and bishops, that B2 is the only proper route for all the Prayers.
What have the bishops decided? B2 or not B2?
Many concerned that B2 was the only proper route initially reacted positively to the press release which makes clear the bishops
concluded that structures for special services for same-sex couples, based on Prayers of Love and Faith, should go forward to be formally authorised under canon law. The bishops will bring proposals to General Synod next month which will pave the way for a process that would lead to the authorisation of these special services under Canon B2. This process, expected to take until 2025, would involve consultation with every diocese and require approval by General Synod.
It also confirmed that B5A had been seriously considered but not followed:
Bishops gave serious consideration to an alternative legal process which could have enabled special services to be authorised almost immediately – but temporarily – (under Canon B5A). This would still have required a further process for the services to be authorised permanently (under Canon B2) by Synod.
It appeared to some that “B2 or not B2?” had been answered and the answer was “B2, and without the controversial authorisation for experimentation under B5A before Synod decides”.
However, the headline of the press release (“House of Bishops agrees to commend Prayers of Love and Faith”) gave the more important information expanded in the opening sentence:
The Church of England’s House of Bishops has agreed in principle that prayers asking for God’s blessing for same-sex couples – known as Prayers of Love and Faith – should be commended for use.
The later summary made quite clear the significance of this which means the prayers will likely be being used with the House’s approval in a matter of a few months at most:
The prayers and readings in Prayers of Love and Faith for use with same-sex couples will be commended by the House of Bishops for use in public worship.
After touring round almost every single alternative option the bishops have finally returned to the original proposal. The prayers will be introduced not by a canonical process but by the bishops on their own authority commending the prayers for clergy to use at their discretion (and, unlike under B5A, without need for any PCC agreement) and at risk to themselves not a higher authorising agent, under B5.
This raises the concerns highlighted back in January and February with the original proposal and which, after more detailed discussion, I summed up as follows:
In short, by choosing the route of commendation the bishops are:
- seeking to appear as if they are implementing significant changes and getting credit from those in church and wider society who support them when in fact the prayers’ legal status is not changed by their commendation;
- using a process intended for, and always previously used for, uncontroversial forms of service despite these prayers predictably proving to be the most controversial prayers introduced in the Church of England for many decades;
- appearing to act as a body in relation to liturgical approval, perhaps even appealing to episcopal collegiality to stifle dissent, when the canons give neither the House or College, on their own authority alone, any role in relation to approval of liturgy or authorisation to determine whether a form of service conforms or not to doctrine;
- claiming the prayers are consistent with doctrine but refusing to secure the agreement of Synod to that judgment by using the normal route for liturgical developments;
- failing to offer a serious theological or convincing legal rationale for changing their previous stance prohibiting the use of such prayers, a stance that was understood to be based on the need for liturgy to conform to doctrine and a consequence of the 1987 General Synod motion;
- failing to give a proper explanation of why the prayers are not indicative of a departure from Church of England doctrine; and
- placing all the risk on clergy in the parishes rather than bearing it themselves
As is clear, these features raise a number of major questions about this process and the use of episcopal power it represents.
What about doctrine?
As the summary above makes clear, the question of the prayers’ relationship to the doctrine of the church is a crucial question and one which remains a major problem for the bishops. Like the famous dog that didn’t bark in the night perhaps the most significant element of the press release is that the word “doctrine” does not appear anywhere in it.
There are however two doctrinal tests that need to be brought to the Prayers of Love and Faith that are finally proposed (whose texts are likely to be much as they were presented, slightly revised from February, in July).
The first are the strict legal tests. Any prayers commended for use under canon B5 must “be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter” (B5.3). This raises questions if they are used for a couple in a same-sex marriage and/or in a sexual relationship other than Holy Matrimony.
The legal argument to defend their use for a couple in a same-sex marriage has been that a separation has now been made in law between civil marriage and holy matrimony. Therefore, as long as it is not presented that the couple are living in holy matrimony, the prayers are not “indicative of any departure from the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”.
The key question is whether, and if so how, the bishops have now reached a firm theological and doctrinal judgment on this legal argument (I explored some of the issues here and a detailed legal analysis is provided here). In addition, they will need to explain what, if they agree with it, they are now teaching concerning entering a civil same-sex marriage. This is because they have previously stated in 2014 that in regard to any prayers with same-sex married couples “The same approach as commended in the 2005 statement [on civil partnerships] should therefore apply to couples who enter same-sex marriage, on the assumption that any prayer will be accompanied by pastoral discussion of the church’s teaching and their reasons for departing from it” (para 21, italics added).
There is also a legal requirement that the services must be “reverent and seemly” (Canon B5.3). In relation to this, the legal advice of 2016 (appended to GS 2055) stated:
The House might need also to explain that the form of service used should not implicitly or explicitly convey the idea that the Church was sanctioning or condoning a sexual relationship between the two persons. Whether or not it would need to do that would depend on whether or not the House maintained the position set out in the 2005 pastoral statement on civil partnerships that “the Church of England teaches that “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively” (Marriage: a teaching document of the House of Bishops, 1999). Sexual relationships outside marriage, whether heterosexual or between people of the same sex, are regarded as falling short of God’s purposes for human beings”. If that remained the Church of England’s teaching, then a service which sanctioned or condoned such a sexual relationship would not meet the requirement that a service must “edify the people” and would probably also be contrary to, or indicative of a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in an essential matter. (para 9, italics added).
If the bishops are commending the prayers for use under B5 they must be confident that clergy using them can do so legally. It would appear then that for this to happen they must have changed the Church of England’s teaching (which has not been announced) or concluded that it is no longer “probably” the case that using the prayers for a sexual relationship other than holy matrimony breaks this other doctrinal test. This latter path might be taken by arguing that although using the prayers for a sexual relationship is “indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England” this is not “an essential matter”.
Here the second doctrinal test will kick in: the mind of General Synod. The one amendment (known as the Cornes amendment) which was passed by the General Synod in February and supported by both Archbishops and the Bishop of London stated the Synod:
endorse the decision of the College and House of Bishops not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage, and their intention that the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England
There are two key elements of this:
- It simply articulates the stated intention of the College and House of Bishops (hence making it hard for them to resist it) which Synod simply endorsed.
- It lacks the legal qualification in the canon referring to “any essential matter”.
The intention which the Synod endorsed (and which thus frames and qualifies the earlier clause that Synod “look forward to the House of Bishops further refining, commending and issuing the Prayers of Love and Faith described in GS 2289 and its Annexes”) therefore sets a higher doctrinal bar for “the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith” than the canons.
In relation to the Synod motion the bishops need
- either to show that it is being respected despite the very high doctrinal bar it represents (especially given the points above)
- or they need to be honest with Synod and admit that they have not fulfilled their own intention and have not complied with the motion passed by Synod in February because the prayers in fact are “contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England”. This will presumably be on the basis that they depart only in what can be shown to be not “an essential matter” but this clearly needs justification (effectively a case that these matters are adiaphora) and cannot be simply asserted
What about the lawyers and theologians?
In addition to these two doctrinal tests embodied in the canons and the February Synod motion the bishops are committed to implement there is the closely related “lawyers’ test”.
In presenting the prayers to Synod (due out on October 20th apparently) the bishops will need at the very least to state the equivalent of what they stated in February (p2 of Prayers) which is that
The prayers and forms of service commended here are ‘neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’ (including, but not limited to, the definition of Holy Matrimony in Canon B 30).
It would also, particularly given their previous statements and previous legal advice quoted above, be good if they did not simply state this. They should explain the process by which they have reached this conclusion and give Synod and the wider church the basis, legally and theologically, for this crucial judgment on which they are asking parish clergy who use the prayers to rely. A problem here appears to be that having asked the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) to produce materials enabling clarity on key doctrinal questions raised by PLF, the bishops are now proceeding before FAOC have done that work. This represents a disturbing, almost contemptuous, attitude on the part of the House of Bishops to the work of FAOC and to the importance of theology in the worshipping life of the church and their deliberations as bishops.
In looking to the Legal Office to advise them as to the legality of commending the prayers the bishops face yet another hurdle. In their January note (GS Misc 1339) the Legal Office took great care to stress in their concluding sentence (para 10) that
In reaching a final view on the legal position the Legal Office will need to see both the final draft of the Prayers and the replacement pastoral guidance.
The reasons for this are clear from the above: the bishops would need to reach decisions concerning both the relationship of civil marriage and holy matrimony and whether sexual relationships outside holy matrimony were now accepted. However, the press release says nothing about any such decisions having been taken although it has been reported that indicative votes have been taken within the College. Both of these questions relate to matters likely to be considered in the Pastoral Guidance, especially in relation to expectations on the clergy. Again, however, the press release says very little about this. It is, however, clear that “new draft pastoral guidance will be brought to next month’s meeting of Synod” (italics added). This will however only be “setting out how the system could operate” in relation to the prayers. There needs, we are told, to be “further work…on the second part of the Pastoral Guidance which will look at matters in the life and work of clergy and lay ministers”. This is the part that “replaces Issues in Human Sexuality”. It is therefore hard to see how the Legal Office will have been given “the replacement pastoral guidance” before Synod meets but they have said this will be required if they are to reach “a final view on the legal position”.
Canon B2 and Cutting the PLF Cake
“B2 or not B2?” is being answered in an unexpected way: B2 for some of what the bishops presented as PLF but not for other parts of PLF. Although the bishops have ended up back where they began with commendation they are now separating out part of PLF and recognising B2 should be used for it. The PLF cake has, in effect, been sliced in two. But how has it been sliced? And what is the practical effect of slicing it up in this way?
There are various ways PLF could have been divided up into two and different routes then used in order to make each slice legal within the church. Some of these have a certain logic and could be reasonably defended. Two in particular stand out. It would have been possible to say that the church recognises a distinction between private, pastoral prayers and public prayers in corporate worship. I can see a case that some prayers could be commended by bishops to guide and resource clergy and others when providing the former, while using B2 for the latter on the grounds that B2 is the process that should be used for public worship. Another possible slicing up that has been proposed in recent months is that prayers that are in themselves uncontentious, many of which are already commended or authorised, might be commended for public worship. In contrast, those which are contentious and represent a new departure within the Church of England (such as prayers over rings and prayers of blessing) should seek authorisation using B2.
Neither of these is, however, how the bishops are cutting the PLF cake. They have instead distinguished all the prayers and readings that were in the suite of resources from the outline orders of service that were also included in the original documentation. That documentation described its content in these terms:
In this document, the Resource Section provides passages of Scripture for study and public proclamation, together with prayers grouped in a variety of categories. An outline Structure for worship is presented, whether in the context of a Service of the Word or of Holy Communion. Two sample services are also provided as different examples of ways in which the Structures can be filled by drawing on the Resources.
What the bishops are now proposing appears to be commending the first “Resource Section” for use under canon B5 and recategorizing the second of these (as “special standalone services”) and bringing them under canon B2. But what does this mean in practice?
Firstly, we need to stop and ask what follows legally from commending the suite of prayers in the Resource Section for use under canon B5 and how is that something less in practice from what might finally be authorised under canon B2.
Anyone using the commended prayers under B5 in a public service will by definition be doing so within a service which has an order or structure. All the outline structures of PLF do is include a reference to the prayers within the established structures of a Service of the Word or of Holy Communion. The opening note for the outlines in PLF is quite explicit about this:
This structure corresponds with that of A Service of the Word, or that of A Service of the Word with a Celebration of Holy Communion. The minister should have reference to the relevant Notes, including for the celebration of Holy Communion where appropriate (Common Worship main volume, pp.21-26 and 330-335).
It is hard to see how using the commended prayers under B5 (other than privately) does not result in following something like the structure which is now being separated off from what is commended for authorisation under B2. In fact, there are two forms of discretion granted to clergy under B5 (subject to the doctrinal tests discussed above).
The first is to “make and use variations which are not of substantial importance in any form of service authorized by Canon B 1 according to particular circumstances” (B5.1). But this is exactly what the “outline structures” (apparently rebranded as “standalone services now needing authorisation under B2”) are providing. The bishops were previously clear that under B5 clergy could have “PLF” public services following these outline structures. So what then is meant by a “standalone service” that will not now be permitted by the bishops commending parts of PLF for use under B5? What is it that must await some authorisation under B2 before it can be legally used?
In reality, it would appear the bishops are here in danger of commending and encouraging the sort of practices of some clergy who might offer a service of Holy Communion (perhaps midweek and timed to follow a civil marriage ceremony) which would be, in the words of one example, “Holy Eucharist during which there just happen to be used some Prayers of Love and Faith”.
But the situation is even more bizarre. The second form of discretion granted to clergy under B5 is to “on occasions for which no provision is made in The Book of Common Prayer or by the General Synod under Canon B 2 or by the Convocations, archbishops, or Ordinary under Canon B 4 use forms of service considered suitable by him for those occasions and may permit another minister to use the said forms of service” (B5.2). There is clearly no current provision in the BCP or authorised under B2 or B4 for, say, “Blessing of a Same-Sex Couple” or “Prayer and Dedication After a Civil Same-Sex Marriage”. What, once the PLF are commended by the bishops for use under B5, prevents a priest using these commended prayers to create a liturgy for such an occasion as a “standalone” service with PLF content being front and centre (rather just “happening to be used” in another form of authorised service)?
It might even prove therefore to be the case that nobody really wants what is brought under B2. Conservatives will reject it because they see it as contrary to doctrine. Revisionists may reject it because, once PLF is commended, it offers them nothing they do not then already have and/or because once “provision is made…by the General Synod under Canon B2” for a particular occasion in the form of a “standalone service”, the extensive freedom under B5.2 is removed.
Secondly, the nearest analogy that can be drawn to the apparent distinction that is being proposed is perhaps in relation to baptism services. Baptism can take place either within a regular Sunday service (whether Service of the Word or of Holy Communion) or it can take place as what might be called a “standalone service” of baptism outside regular Sunday services. There are therefore a number of different baptism liturgies available (Holy Baptism, Baptism within a Celebration of Holy Communion, Baptism at a Service of the Word etc) but the liturgical experience of worshippers in all of these is often very similar. There is nothing so different between these that would justify introducing one by commendation and one by the careful scrutiny and enhanced majorities of B2. In short, confirming the first point, distinguishing between using PLF in “regular services” from using PLF in “standalone services” is making a false distinction with no legal or theological basis whatsoever.
Thirdly, the contentious PLF-focussed substance of any form of service is not the order. It is the material which is in the resources that are now to be commended. As quoted above, any detailed service such as might appear in a service booklet or be projected onto a screen is simply one example of how “the Structures can be filled by drawing on the Resources”. It is the resources which provide the filling that require proper and careful scrutiny and raise doctrinal questions, not the outline structures. So why is it the resources which the bishops are refusing to consider under B2, if they accept B2 should be used in relation to PLF?
Fourthly, if one asks what is being proposed for consideration under B2 it would appear at the moment that it is likely nothing more than the outline orders found in the draft prayers. That for the Service of the Word reads
The Liturgy of the Word
Prayers of Intercession
The Lord’s Prayer
This simply adds “The Dedication” (which it is noted “may include prayers for God’s blessing on the couple”) and “Acclamation”. Other prayers from PLF are then likely to be included within the Prayers of Intercession. Does it make any sense to subject an outline like this to the detailed scrutiny of B2 but not to use B2 to introduce the “prayers for God’s blessing on the couple” themselves? In addition, as noted above, this outline structure is precisely what B5.1 already authorises with commended prayers.
It may therefore be the case that the plan is a much more radical outline and form of “standalone service” than any of the PLF material so far published. This may involve a new name focussed on the couple and a quite different service outline than those so far proposed (perhaps one closer to that of the marriage service). There is, however, no evidence that this is what is being proposed. In addition, as noted, B5.2 already grants quite considerable freedom to form services where commended PLF prayers and the same-sex couple are much more central in the order of service.
What all this highlights is the need for the bishops quickly to clarify exactly what sort of proposal they intend to bring for consideration under Canon B2 and how it is of greater significance than what will be legal as soon as PLF resources are commended, especially given the wording of Canon B5.1 and B5.2.
Fifthly, the press release adds a further detail:
Special standalone services set out in Prayers of Love and Faith should be brought to the General Synod to decide whether to authorise them under Canon B2, after consultation with dioceses.
It is unclear why there is “consultation with dioceses” as this is not required under Canon B2 and it is not obvious that Article 8 of the Constitution relating to “permanent changes in the Services of Baptism or Holy Communion or in the Ordinal” applies. The language of “consultation” suggests this is an innovation but its purpose is not obvious. It would appear to slow down the B2 process and require divisive, unnecessary debates in every Diocesan Synod throughout the next 12-18 months while new controversial forms of service (perhaps with no obvious difference to those being discussed under B2) are being used with episcopal approval.
Finally, in the light of all this, it really needs to be asked what the practical effect will be either of the B2 process passing the PLF material it considers or of the B2 process failing to pass it. It would appear the answer is “nothing substantial and perhaps nothing at all, either way, other than one side feeling it has won and the other that it has lost after two or more years of continued divisive debate”.
We have seen how clergy using the prayers under B5 will be able to hold services much like any that may eventually be passed by B2. Particularly given the freedom granted under B5.2, nobody seriously expects the vague “standalone” distinction is going to be stopped until such services are authorised. The one change if B2 passes something would be that the uncertainty and legal risk any clergyperson still takes when using commended prayers in a service under B5 will be removed once there is an authorised service. There is also no suggestion that any commended prayers may be withdrawn by the bishops if Synod rejects PLF material by the B2 process. Indeed, if that was the case, this would raise serious questions about the pastoral wisdom of introducing prayers for same-sex couples that might effectively have a “use by” date of the end of the B2 process should Synod fail to pass the proposed outline structures.
“B2 or not B2?” has finally been given the episcopal answer: “Both”.
This question, although important, has never been the only or the most important question about the prayers. Its importance arises from two deeper interconnected questions underlying the question about various canonical routes:
- what is the constitutional role of General Synod in relation to liturgy and doctrinal innovations or development?
- In particular, who determines whether new liturgy is conformed to our doctrine?
The bishops’ answer to those questions, revealed in the perplexing way they have sliced the PLF cake in order to answer “both B2 and not B2”, is now (despite a fair degree of obfuscation in the press release) becoming clear: “we as bishops answer those questions on our own, not General Synod (i.e. bishops-in-Synod) by the B2 processes”.
In addition, the bishops are seemingly saying they have given an answer to the doctrinal questions about PLF (“they are not contrary to or indicative of a departure from the church’s doctrine”) but they have done so:
- without reference to their still incomplete theological commission’s work on the underlying substantive doctrinal questions;
- without announcing any definitive decision on the relationship between civil marriage and holy matrimony or a new teaching about the proper relationship between sex and holy matrimony;
- without, therefore, a clear and secure legal basis given past legal advice;
- without keeping commitments (most prominently and explicitly from the Archbishop of York) to bring the prayers back together with guidance and reassurance;
- without the Legal Office being able to confirm the prayers’ legality in the way they described they would because the bishops have not yet produced the pastoral guidance;
- without clarifying whether their answer is consistent with the Synod motion they are meant to be implementing (and the amendment the Archbishops supported) which endorsed the bishops’ previously stated intention that the prayers should “not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England”.
In a discussion among friends trying to understand what has really happened one suggested that Synod was being sidelined: “it feels currently like a cake has been baked and Synod is being invited to choose the box”. Another replied “I don’t even think Synod is being invited to choose the box. Synod will have an argument about the cake and then be told to eat it”.
Much of where we now are and how exactly we have got there is currently still in the dark. It may be that once we have more details and see the papers for Synod this analysis will prove to be unduly pessimistic and offering a confused and inaccurate account and assessment. Sadly, however, the signs are that as more details of Monday’s various decisions become clear and are reflected upon they will provide further confirmatory evidence that we are still seeing bishops
- desperately trying to implement their Johnsonian policy of cakeism (“pro having it and pro eating it”) by introducing liturgical changes (and perhaps changes in clergy discipline and church “teaching”) while insisting doctrine is unchanged and nothing indicates a departure from it
- replicating more and more of the process failures seen in Brexit (now including bishops having “had enough of experts”, both legal and theological) and
- acting in ways that increasingly raise serious questions about the use and misuse of episcopal and archiepiscopal power.
If all, or even much, of that proves to be the case, then we may soon be facing the even more serious question as regards the Church of England as we have known it: “to be or not to be?”.