Andrew Goddard writes: As the Report of the House of Commons Privileges Committee makes clear, beneath the high drama of Boris Johnson’s recent resignation as an MP there lie important questions of principle about procedure and power. These can get lost in the soap opera focus on personalities but they are crucial. When there are questions as to whether rules are being adhered to, or power has been abused, who has the authority to make decisions and pass crucial judgments?
These are questions that touch fundamental issues relating to the rule of law and holding those with power accountable, questions that sadly are becoming increasingly significant in our times due to various factors, not least the rise of populism. Those with power easily claim – whether in relation to proroguing Parliament or being innocent of intentionally misleading it – that their actions are justified. They then protest loudly when they are challenged or it is suggested that their decisions and judgments alone are not sufficient authorisation and justification for actions with wide and deep consequences. They reject the claims that they need to give a proper account of their actions, be subject to careful scrutiny, and convince a wider body of people.
Such questions also arise – at every level – in the life of the church as a political community. The church too has established – legal and conventional – processes and procedures for its decision-making. These are especially important in relation to matters central to its common life and faith and order. This is even more so when those matters are widely acknowledged to be theologically contested and potentially divisive.
In such cases, trust in the institution, confidence in its leadership, and the clear following of due processes are absolutely vital if outcomes are to be respected by as wide a number as possible and as high a degree of communion as possible therefore maintained.
In the current stage of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process and its proposed Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) most attention has been focussed on matters of substance. Matters of process and power (too easily dismissed as technical details) have, however, already been raised. They are likely to become even more pertinent, pressing, and potentially polarising as the process continues. This three-part article seeks to map out why this is so and what some of the options and key challenges are moving forward. It does so by focussing on one particular question: the legal process by which the proposed PLF, once finalised, are ratified for use in the church. The title points to the central question being asked – whether or not canon B2 is the best process, particularly if we are committed to the pastoral principle of “paying attention to power”. The underlying questions raised here about processes and power in relation to the prayers are also likely to be relevant in relation to the production of pastoral guidance and agreement over forms of pastoral reassurance.
In their update to the July General Synod the final paragraph on the work of the Prayers Implementation Group (para 13) reports:
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.
This first part begins by discussing why processes for permitting prayers are so important, why B2 working through General Synod has pride of place within these, and what General Synod has said in the past on matters at the heart of LLF and PLF. It then examines the route currently proposed by the bishops and supported by Synod in February: commendation under B5. Part Two explores the three routes to secure authorisation – the alternative to commendation – set out in B4. Part Three then argues that authorisation by B2 is the best route for the unity and well-being of the church.
Prayers, Doctrine and General Synod: The importance of B2
In relation to the House of Commons, what is arguably most essential for it properly to fulfil its calling is that words spoken in it – particularly by members of the government, especially the Prime Minister – are truthful and able to be trusted. In relation to the church, what is arguably most essential for it properly to fulfil its calling is that words spoken by it and especially by its representative leaders – particularly words spoken to God and about God and God’s purposes before the people in prayer and worship – are truthful and able to be trusted. The importance of this truthful speech is one reason why, after the 8 canons of Section A in the canons relating to the identity of the Church of England, Section B immediately turns to “Divine service and the administration of the sacraments” and begins with B1 “Of conformity of worship” and B2 “Of the approval of forms of service”.
A key test for the legitimacy of any form of service – in order to “ensure that the worship offered glorifies God and edifies the people” (Canon B1.2) – is that it be “neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”. This test appears repeatedly in the relevant canons (B2.1, B4.2, B4.3, B5.3, B38.2). Underlying this is the importance of faithfulness to Scripture because the doctrine of the Church of England “is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal” (Canon A5). It is because “the doctrine contained” in the BCP “is agreeable to the Word of God” (Canon A3.1) that “The form of God’s worship contained in the said Book, forasmuch as it is not repugnant to the Word of God, may be used by all members of the Church of England with a good conscience.” (A3.2). On moving from uniformity of worship to greater diversity, this principle of conformity – neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter – became the essential test of the truthfulness and hence legitimacy of worship. It regulates Church of England worship. It is a fundamental rule for the proper functioning of the Church of England just as not misleading Parliament is a fundamental rule for the proper functioning of Parliament and government more widely.
The question therefore becomes how the Church best ensures that this crucial test is passed for any form of service, just as the House of Commons has to determined how the test of not being misled is passed. As canon B2 makes clear the first canonically authorised way of applying this test – though not as we shall see the only way – is to invest the power of approving forms of service in the General Synod of the Church of England. By definition, “any form of service or amendment thereof approved by the General Synod under this paragraph shall be such as in the opinion of the General Synod is neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter” (B2.1). In the words of leading canon lawyer, Mark Hill,
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, Ecclesiastical Law, (4th edition), 5.01 cf Canon B2.1).
Hill further notes that “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” (5.03).
Here we have the Church of England’s legislature, its largest and most representative deliberative body, making the crucial judgment in relation to this essential test for the church faithfully fulfilling its call to worship God, the test which Synod emphasised in February in the only amendment it passed to the original motion (“to 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”)
General Synod and Sexuality
In relation to LLF and the draft prayers, consideration also needs to be given to how, over recent years, the General Synod has expressed its mind on matters relating to the Church of England’s teaching and practice. Here there are two particularly important motions passed by General Synod.
Firstly, its last formal statement in relation to matters of church teaching on sexual ethics was back in 1987 when it overwhelmingly (403 votes to 8) expressed support for a motion (known popularly as the “Higton motion”). This reaffirmed traditional teaching including “that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship”. It also stated that “fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal” and that “homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met with a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion”. In one sense Synod here is simply restating what was held to be, in the words of the motion’s introduction, “the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships” as set out in the BCP and canon B30. However, that it was the clearly stated mind of the General Synod was a crucial factor in shaping later developments. Both Issues in Human Sexuality issued subsequently by the bishops in 1991 and the bishops’ teaching document on marriage in 1999 worked within this motion, the latter notably in its statement (clearly echoing the Synod motion) that “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively”. The teaching summed up in that motion has also set the boundaries and framework for all subsequent episcopal statements on these matters, much to the frustration of the growing number of people who dissent from that teaching. The General Synod in February 2023 welcomed “the decision of the House of Bishops to replace Issues in Human Sexuality with new pastoral guidance” but it has never revoked or revised or replaced the 1987 motion and its statement of church teaching on these matters.
What if the bishops in their teaching and practice were to break with their pattern for over three decades and no longer uphold Synod’s historic stance? What if they were instead to embrace an alternative vision and teaching concerning “chastity and fidelity” in their pastoral guidance and/or proposed use of PLF? It would seem wise – arguably essential – in these circumstances to somehow ensure Synod supports any such new developments and does not view them as indicative of a departure from church doctrine.
Secondly, a further important motion is that of February 2007 when General Synod (by a substantial majority on a show of hands) gave some degree of support to Lambeth I.10, which is fully consistent with that 1987 Synod motion. It did so by commending, in words of an amendment moved on behalf of the House of Bishops, “continuing efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion” and recognizing “that such efforts would not be advanced by doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions (1978: 10; 1988: 64; 1998: 1.10)”.
Interestingly, in relation to this Synodical decision in relation to I.10, the Archbishop of Canterbury has argued that the Prayers of Love and Faith, “in the way they’re written and thought about, that they fall very clearly, within – to lapse into technical language – what is described as Lambeth 1.10 1998”. In other words, he has stated (although not further defended) the view that the proposed prayers do not amount to “legitimising or blessing of same sex unions”. Then, in relation to the Church of Uganda, he has recently appealed to Lambeth 1.10, referring to it as expressing “the common mind of the Anglican Communion” and making clear he is unable to see how the Church of Uganda’s action “is consistent with its many statements in support of Resolution i.10”. This shows he places importance on provinces upholding 1.10 when they have claimed to do so in the past. It also confirms (by talking of his own inability to see consistency in Uganda’s stance) the Synod’s sense that for the Church of England even to be “perceived” as qualifying its commitment is something that should be avoided. It is not clear how this fits with his own subsequent apparent rejection of the clause “in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage” when he stated “sexual activity should be within permanent, stable and faithful relationships of marriage as that is understood in each society” (italics added).
Commendation for use under B5
It is in this wider that crucial questions arise concerning “the means by which the Prayers will be ratified and made available for use” (a phrase in the terms of reference for the Implementation Group on Prayers of Love and Faith). Broadly speaking the Church follows one of two routes: authorisation or commendation. What follows examines commendation, part 2 and part 3 explore the various routes of authorisation.
The bishops proposed in February (in GS 2289) not that PLF be approved and authorised by General Synod under B2 but that the prayers be “commended material” and that “when they have been developed into their final form and agreed by the House of Bishops, they will be commended to the Church under what is permitted by Canon B5” (p. 2). It is important to recognise what is and what is not being done here.
A short history of commendation
I am very grateful to Bishop Colin Buchanan for pointing me to, and summarising, the News of Liturgy (NoL) archive and David Hebblethwaite’s study “Liturgical Revision in the Church of England 1984-2004: The Working of the Liturgical Commission”. These sources show how this category of commendation for use under Canon B5 – “The procedures for this do not arise from the canons or the Synod’s standing orders, but are simply a working ad hoc arrangement”, (Hebblethwaite, p. 6) – was developed in 1984 and 1985 as new prayers for both Lent, Holy Week and Easter and for prayer and dedication after a civil marriage were being finalised.
Both of these were originally viewed as best authorised by the Archbishops under Canon B4 (see NoL July 1984 and Sept 1984), This was agreed by the House in October 1984 but then hit a problem: “the House of Bishops was stopped in its tracks when it realized that ‘authorization’ under B.4 then precludes the use of any other services for the same occasions. They thus withdrew from the plan to ‘authorize’ and will now ‘commend’ – the word used in the minutes” (NoL, Nov 1984, p. 4). As Hebblethwaite notes, in relation to the “uncontroversial recommendations” for Lent, Holy Week, Easter, the Liturgical Commission
was in need of a procedure for promoting their use. As the material was deemed to lie outside anything strictly ‘alternative’ to services in the 1662 book, any officiant might (under canon B5) arguably use whatever rites were thought appropriate—but if Synod, Convocation or individual bishops claimed to ‘authorize’ any such rites, they would by the same token be banning other uses and removing discretion from individual ministers. The way through was found by the House of Bishops ‘commending’ (p. 5).
In February 1985 General Synod therefore had a “take note” debate on Lent, Holy Week, Easter and NoL reported:
The process intended is that the Commission should revise the text in the light of comments, pass it to the Bishops, and then, if they like it, let it be ‘commended’ for use by the Archbishops acting outside the provisions of canonical ‘authorization’. This means that the rites will have no official status in the Church of England though perhaps some moral or atmospheric backing! (p. 3).
What does commendation do?
As the final words of that quotation suggest, in one sense, it could be argued that when prayers are commended, in Theresa May’s infamous words in the 2017 general election, “nothing has changed”. Canon B5 is part of what another leading canon lawyer, Norman Doe, has described as “a principle of subsidiarity (distributing rights of liturgical innovation to all levels of the church)” (The Legal Framework of the Church of England, 281) so that “Rights to authorize the use of services (by means of approval) are distributed throughout the church down to the ministerial level” (p. 288). Under B5, ministers have discretion 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” and also “on occasions for which no provision is made…use forms of service considered suitable by him”. The only constraints here are that these local innovations “shall be reverent and seemly” and – the crucial test highlighted above – “shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”.
In other words, in commending PLF the bishops are not claiming to introduce anything new that is not already permitted within the Church of England. The fact that bishops will commend these prayers is, strictly speaking, not required for them to be lawful. If they are lawful once commended, they are lawful now (hence services marking same-sex unions – as would happen with commended PLF – have for some time been offered in some places under B5). Similarly, if they are not lawful now, they are not made lawful by being commended.
What is more, clergy would not be required to use only material from PLF once the bishops commended the prayers. There would still be no authorised service and so clergy would still have freedom under B5 to use either the materials commended by the bishops or any other material they judged to pass the doctrine test and to be reverent and seemly. As the bishops noted in GS2055 back in 2017, one of the consequences of using commendation is that “such forms of service would…be open to alteration and adaptation locally (thus undermining consistency)” (para 42).
While, in one sense then, “nothing has changed” if the bishops commend PLF, in another sense, commending such prayers represents a significant development. This is because they would commend forms of prayer (e.g. services of blessing) which had previously been rejected by the bishops even for a civil partnership (e.g. services of blessing as in 2019 statement paras 17-21 reaffirming 2005 statement paras 16-18). They would do so, it seems, for people who have entered a civil same-sex marriage (which the bishops had previously described as a departure from church teaching on marriage, paras 19-21). The bishops in commending them are also making a statement as the House of Bishops about the doctrine of the Church of England and what is permitted within it. They are offering a judgment on this which differs from their previous statements, that goes beyond the limits of past Synod decisions noted above, and that departs from what many believe the church’s doctrine to be and to allow. Indeed, given episcopal commendation does not in itself make the prayers legal or definitively determine doctrine, the main reason for the bishops to commend them is precisely to signal (critics might say “virtue signal”) that the bishops of the church are changing the church’s liturgical practice even as they have to claim they are not changing its doctrine.
Who is open to legal challenge? Making parish clergy vulnerable
An additional major concern arises from the fact that the services are – even once commended – canonically permitted only on the basis of them being used at the discretion of the minister conducting the service. The parish clergy who use them are therefore the ones who will face challenges as to whether or not they are – as the bishops claim – “reverent and seemly” and “neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”. It is with the clergy on the ground that the buck stops, not with the bishops.
Under Canon B5.4, clergy who use the prayers may find they are “referred to the bishop in order that he may give such pastoral guidance, advice or directions as he may think fit” and no bishop is bound by the judgment of the House and so may judge differently. In addition, “such reference shall be without prejudice to the matter in question being made the subject matter of proceedings under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963”. This means that complex and costly legal actions may be brought against parish clergy in order to test the bishops’ claim that the prayers are not indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the church.
What has previously been commended?
Finally, one of the oddities of the “commendation” route the bishops are proposing is that, as noted, a search of the canons in section B shows that none of them refer to forms of service being commended by the House of Bishops. There is, however, a note on the web page which links to a list of “The forms of service which have been approved by the Archbishops or commended by the House of Bishops as being suitable for use by ministers in exercise of their discretion under Canons B 4 or B 5 respectively”.
Although this list appears to only include material to January 2012 what marks out all 26 items of commended material is their almost wholly uncontroversial nature. The only potentially controversial one is, interestingly, given some have seen parallels with PLF, the “Order for Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage”.
As explained more fully in the historical outline offered here, even this potential exception was introduced in markedly different circumstances from those we now find ourselves in regarding liturgies for same-sex couples. An analogous situation in our debates would involve the bishops commending prayers after a civil same-sex marriage some years after the Synod had voted (by over 2-1, and in marked contrast to much tighter votes in previous debates) that there are circumstances in which a same-sex couple could marry in church. They might find this necessary, as in the 1980s, because a way could not easily be found to implement the more radical step (though approved by Synod by two-thirds in each House) formally and securely, and because of unresolved questions about the doctrine of marriage. Even so, care would be taken to avoid reference to blessing – Hebblethwaite notes, “Because of strongly-expressed reservations in General Synod the word ‘blessing’ was scrupulously avoided, hence the title Prayer and Dedication” (p. 30). This provision would also follow Synod commending a private service of prayer and dedication after a civil same-sex marriage and voting to lift previous prohibitions on such services (such as those found in current Pastoral Statements). It would also be able to be developed from “the various forms of prayer used in separate dioceses” already (p. 30). That is clearly very far from our current scenario in terms of both sustained Synodical support for the development and considerable time being taken to move from initial in principle decisions to specific liturgical change.
This sketch of the past uses of commendation raises a number of questions about the propriety of adopting PLF by way of this process. Commendation prevents any of the formal Synodical scrutiny and application of the doctrinal tests by the church’s representative clergy and laity gathered in synod with the bishops. This is not a problem for all the other forms of uncontroversial prayer commended in the past but raises major questions here.
Conclusion on Commendation (B5)
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. They therefore raise the question as to whether authorisation may not be a better path to follow. The options for this are considered in Part Two (under B4) and then Part Three (under B2).
(All three articles can be found combined as a PDF on Andrew’s website here.)
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 a member of the subgroup on Pastoral Guidance, which has now been closed down.