Prayers, Processes and Power: B2 or not B2, that is the question (Part 2: Canon B4)

Andrew Goddard writes: Part One of these three articles set out the process of commending prayers for use under canon B5 and the problems with the bishops’ proposal to introduce PLF by this means. Given these problems it may be better to look for formal approval of PLF by the alternative route of authorisation. Here a legally authorised person or persons or body (not simply the parish priest with prayers commended by the bishop) take action and they will then be the subject of any legal action. The most significant and representative such body is General Synod acting under canon B2 but there are three other options which can also be considered. These are set out in canon B4 and are marked by their different identifications of who has power to approve and for whom they are thereby approved. What is noteworthy is that the House of Bishops – the body which would commend prayers – has no authority to authorise under this or any other canon and are always required to work in tandem with others, raising questions about why as a body they are taking such a significant and high profile under the current proposals.

In what follows each of these three routes are considered by progressing from the smallest number of those involved in authorisation to the greatest number.

Authorisation by individual bishops (B4.3)

Under B4.3, authorisation is at its most narrowly focussed. One individual – “The Ordinary” – would here approve forms of service. This narrowing of authorising agent to a single individual is however combined with a consequent narrowing of the geographical scope of authorisation – it is “for use in any cathedral or church or elsewhere in the diocese on occasion for which no provision is made in The Book of Common Prayer or by the General Synod under Canon B 2 or by the Convocation or archbishops under this Canon”.  Whereas, as we shall explore shortly, the two Archbishops can authorise for the whole Church of England, a diocesan can only authorise for their own diocese. This is, in effect, how similar developments originally occurred in North America under what was called “local option”.

The most obvious difficulty here is that there will be differences across all the 42 dioceses and one can see this being viewed as creating a “postcode lottery”. However, that is to forget three key factors.

First, liturgical diversity between dioceses is canonically permitted and not unprecedented. For example, whether or not communion before confirmation would be permitted in parishes was left to each diocesan bishop to determine, in large part because – as with the proposed prayers – this would be “a departure from our inherited norm”.

Secondly, much has been made of commendation allowing clergy freedom of conscience, which creates its own “postcode lottery” in terms of provision of services. But bishops also have a conscience. A bishop may, arguably should, be unwilling – as chief pastor and principal minister – to have prayers used in their diocese which they believe to be indicative of a departure from church doctrine. As noted in part one, and argued by Russell Dewhurst, it appears that a bishop could veto their clergy using commended prayers under Canon B5.4. This B4 route is therefore effectively, at an episcopal level, an “opt in” approach – the bishop can choose to authorise in their diocese – whereas commendation appears to be “opt out” where the bishop can veto the use of nationally commended prayers by their clergy.

Thirdly, we need to recall the current situation and the one which commending the prayers would keep in place – parish clergy have authority to develop a service in their context under B5. 

This means, on the one hand, that where a diocesan bishop did not authorise any prayers the status quo would pertain. It would simply be a question – as currently – as to whether clergy who exercised their right under B5 to hold a service similar to those in the draft PLF materials would be disciplined. It is likely that few if any would be disciplined, given that few if any are now and there would presumably be greater legitimacy for such local provision if some bishops were authorising PLF. Alternatively, a process could be set up where (as in TEC in relation to same-sex marriage in Communion Partner dioceses) a parish wishing to use an authorised service but having none provided by their Ordinary could ask to receive oversight from a neighbouring bishop who had authorised PLF for those under their jurisdiction.  

On the other hand, where a bishop did authorise prayers (perhaps following a process of discernment within the diocesan synodical structures) the diocesan clergy who wished to use them (as in all these routes, no clergy would be required to do so) would have to use the authorised form of prayers. They could no longer create their own and would have to follow any guidance from their bishop concerning their use. Any clergy or parishes in the diocese who not only decided not to use them but who viewed themselves as now in impaired communion with their bishop following his or her authorisation could then be provided for under an agreed scheme of “pastoral reassurance”. By introducing authorisation on this local, diocesan basis there is likely to be much less widespread disruption and a lower number of requests for structures of alternative episcopal oversight than if a blanket nationwide authorisation was implemented. There would, however, be questions to be considered as to what the process would be when a new bishop was appointed and they wished to follow a different path from their predecessor and either introduce authorised prayers or revoke previous authorisation.

Authorisation by the Archbishops (B4.2)

In contrast to canon B4.3, canon B4.2 maintains a very narrow authorising agent – simply the two Archbishops – but combines this with a comprehensive authorisation equivalent to that gained through authorisation by the General Synod (“for use in any cathedral or church or elsewhere in the provinces of Canterbury and York”). 

The update report to General Synod (GS 2303) notes the bishops “are particularly weighing up” (para 13) this option. It would, however, not only bypasses General Synod in order to give legal authority to new forms of service, it would (unlike commendation) also prevent any bishop from preventing their use in their diocese except by means of a successful legal challenge against the Archbishops’ judgment that the forms of service were “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 therefore certainly an effective way to get the job done although it is not immediately clear why it “may provide more legal protection for those ministers who choose to use the Prayers” (GS 2303, para 13) compared to other B4 options and especially not in comparison to B2. In relation to PLF, it raises a large number of important questions, particularly as regards process and power.

First, it sets a dangerous precedent of the Archbishops simply on their own archepiscopal authority introducing new liturgy which only they need to determine is, “in their opinion”, both “reverent and seemly” and “neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”. I argued recently that under the legal logic being offered to defend PLF it would appear to follow that it would paradoxically be possible to authorise a service which could also be recognised as legally entering a same-sex marriage (but not holy matrimony) without this service being indicative of a departure from the church’s doctrine. If the Archbishops can, on their own authority, authorise PLF there is therefore also no reason why, on their own authority and with no legal obligation to justify “their opinion” or demonstrate its consistency with the Declaration of Assent, they could not authorise such a service. Indeed they could authorise any service on any matter no matter how many in the church found that service doctrinally objectionable and their action unreasonable. 

Second, in having no formal place in the authorisation process for General Synod, the House of Bishops, or Diocesans in relation to their own jurisdiction, this process raises very serious questions about “paying attention to power” and about the need for proper theological and liturgical scrutiny of our authorised services.  This is particularly of concern when this route is used for the most contentious and divisive of questions in the contemporary church.

Third, and related to which services would be appropriately authorised in this way, the online list of services approved by B4.2 is one: A Service for Remembrance Sunday (included in Common Worship: Times and Seasons). It was, also, I understand, the route used recently for authorised services following the death of the Queen and perhaps the Coronation service. None of these three are, however remotely near as contentious or related to doctrinal matters as PLF. As was shown in Part One, commendation developed as a practice in the 1980s precisely because of problems with attempting to use B4.2. Were this path now to be pursued it would, in a mirror image of that innovation, be primarily because of problems arising with the original plan of commendation, in particular the prayers’ contentious nature making clergy liable to legal action.

Fourth, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office has recently been described as “the Focus of Unity for the three other Instruments of Communion…of the Anglican Communion” and “therefore a unique focus for Anglican Unity” (Canterbury CNC consultation document, p. 18). The Archbishop of Canterbury has already severely damaged his standing in the wider Communion by supporting PLF. In so doing he has perhaps made it impossible (certainly under his tenure) for the see of Canterbury to continue having the levels of respect, authority, and convening power across the whole Communion as it has had in the past. If, however, PLF were to be authorised in the Church of England solely on his authority and that of the Archbishop of York then the damage to the Communion may prove to be even greater, perhaps irreparable. 

Fifth, the Archbishop of Canterbury, when introducing PLF originally, said, 

But because of my pastoral care and responsibility, and being a focus of unity for the whole Communion, I, while being extremely joyfully celebrating every of these new resources, I will not personally use them in order not to compromise that pastoral care…that is a self-denying ordinance. But it comes out of the global responsibility.

This commendable attempt to limit the damage to his office and ministry within the Communion has not obviously succeeded. It will appear even more strange and ineffective if the prayers are introduced into the Church of England by being authorised through this “Archbishops only” route.

Sixth, there have been signs that introducing the prayers will impair communion not only between the CofE and other Communion provinces but within the CofE itself. This is one reason for there being an Implementation Group working on “Pastoral Reassurance”. The impairment will be particularly focussed on whoever authorises the prayers even though it will extend further to those who use them. The authorisation by the Archbishops alone of prayers which clearly are opposed by 45% or more of the clergy and laity on General Synod and the implicit or explicit challenge that those in the church who are unhappy should then take them as Archbishops to court is difficult to square with repeated claims to be concerned to act as a “focus of unity”. The reality is that if it is the Archbishops who authorise PLF then this may lead to many (including possibly some bishops) finding themselves in impaired communion with both Archbishops. This could give further weight to the argument that the only way forward is a new province.

Seventh, especially given that the use of the prayers and responses to them are to be monitored and reported on in five years’ time, consideration needs to be given as to how the process of authorisation will relate to this reality. Is it to become the case that every future Archbishop of both Canterbury (despite recent moves to involve the Communion much more in this appointment and Archbishop Justin’s recent statement that his successor does not have to be a “white guy from England) and York has to be willing to continue to authorise the prayers? This would make the challenges of impairment in the Communion and CofE noted above even more serious and limit who is eligible for primatial office in an unprecedented manner. If, however, this is not the case then there is the real risk that authorisation can disappear on the decision of a single future Archbishop to withdraw it on the basis that “in their opinion” the prayers are not in conformity with doctrine. The attraction of this route a means of getting a desired goal quickly is only bought at the risk of making that achievement more insecure as a result.

Eighth, in terms of the “principle of subsidiarity (distributing rights of liturgical innovation to all levels of the church)” (Doe, p. 281), to move to this form of authorisation from the current proposal of commendation would be to move from the most local level (under canon B5) to the most centralised level (the two Archbishops under canon B4.2) as the process of introducing the prayers. 

Ninth, LLF has been marked throughout by a commitment to inclusive participation, seeking to involve as many in the church as possible in the production of resources and their educational use across the church. It has sought to consult and discern concerning “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church”. Can it possibly be right that this process should conclude with the introduction of new developments being authorised, in an unprecedented manner, simply by the two “white guys” at the top?

Tenth, as discussed in Part One, the path of commendation being currently proposed presumes that clergy can already offer the proposed PLF legally under canon B5. Commendation would not make something legal which is currently illegal. There are therefore no good grounds to rush authorisation through such swift but dubious means, bypassing the standard default of scrutiny by General Synod under canon B2. If the Archbishops want to be seen to be acting then it is important to note that authorisation under B4.2 is not the only way in which Archbishops may introduce new forms of service. There is also canon B5A. This, however, is authorisation “for experimental use for a period specified by them on such terms and in such places or parishes as they may designate”. It has to be combined with a commitment to submitting the proposals to General Synod under the B2 process. If, as argued in Part Three, this is the best – indeed only proper – way to proceed with PLF then this alternative form of archepiscopal authorisation (though not unproblematic) has much more to commend it than the use of B4.2.

In summary, this route will be attractive to some in terms of its speed (through use of concentrated power) and its removal of the threat of legal challenge to clergy, redirecting it onto the Archbishops. They may even present themselves as acting as self-sacrificial potential martyrs for the cause. It also has the advantage of procedural simplicity – only the two Archbishops need to sign it off. But it is these very facts combined with its previous limited use which raise major questions. These include whether using it for such a divisive development does not amount to an abuse of power that sets a dangerous precedent by moving authorisation for the whole church as far away as possible from the standard route and bypassing General Synod which usually approves liturgy and where – as a sizeable, representative, largely elected, legislative body of lay people, clergy and bishops – any prayers have publicly to pass the crucial doctrine test.

Authorisation by Convocation (B4.1)

The third route in canon B4 is B4.1 and here authorisation involves a much larger number of people: either one or both Convocations “may approve within their respective provinces”. This, in other words, would be a process that involved the clergy and bishops of each province who sit on General Synod. It could potentially lead to different outcomes in Canterbury and York. It is noteworthy that here as noted previously the bishops of each province have no collective or corporate authority on their own to approve a liturgy. They can only do so with the consent of the clergy in the Lower House of Convocation (ie those elected to General Synod). As there is no statement requiring a particular threshold to be met, this would presumably require a simple majority vote in both houses of a province’s Convocation. 

This would, however, apparently be an unprecedented process and thus highly controversial. The list of “Approved and Commended forms of service under Canons B 2, B 4 and B 5” online lists none which have been approved in this way.  It would also be controversial because of its exclusion of the laity who were the least supportive House in February 2023, with 48% opposing the  House of Bishops’ motion. 

There is little obviously to commend this route other than it provides for a broader body to give consideration and consent than either of the other two routes under B4. In addition, for those wishing change, that consent – with the consequent judgment that the clergy and bishops involved believe the prayers pass the doctrine test – would not it seems require a special majority. It may then be able to get approval from the most representative body other than General Synod without requiring 2/3 support in each House but only at the expense of excluding the laity.

B4 and B5 – Impact on parish clergy

It is important to recognise that if prayers are authorised under B4 for use after a civil partnership or same-sex civil marriage then this brings to an end the current legal freedom clergy have to develop such a service for a same-sex couple under canon B5. Canon B5 is quite clear that it is only “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” that “The minister having the cure of souls may…use forms of service considered suitable by him for those occasions and may permit another minister to use the said forms of service”. It is not clear quite how this will work if what is authorised under B4 remains a suite of resources rather than a particular form of service (similar to, for example, that of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage). It is, however, therefore possible that parish clergy could still find themselves subject to legal challenge if in any service they depart at all from what is authorised and/or claim to be exercising freedom under canon B5 which they would, if B4 is used, lack. This risk and limitation in relation to authorisation under B4 is exactly why, originally, commendation by the bishops for use under B5 originated as a process in relation to Lent, Holy Week, Easter.

Conclusion: Authorisation by B4?

In conclusion, these 3 different routes of authorisation all have the advantage that it is not the individual clergyperson using a form of service for a same-sex couple under B5 who has to make the key decisions and who thereby puts a target on their back in terms of protests and possible legal action. By following these pathways, parish clergy would have an authorised form of service and any legal objections to use of that service would have to be directed at whoever authorised it – perhaps the Archbishops. 

However, they all face the challenge that they bypass General Synod and locate the application of the crucial doctrine test in some other body, perhaps in the hands of only the two Archbishops or a diocesan bishop. Furthermore, it would appear that across all 3 routes the number of forms of service currently approved by these means can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  All those services are also uncontentious and very focussed and limited in their use. This is presumably why, when the bishops last considered liturgical options in GS2055 back in 2017, they did not give any consideration (paras 40 and 41) to these forms of authorization as serious options, despite canon B4 being in force as an available pathway. This omission in 2017 should not be a surprise because for a form of service that is to be authorised across the whole church, especially if it is contentious, there is the clear pathway with which Part One began and to which Part Three turns – authorisation by General Synod 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.

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2 thoughts on “Prayers, Processes and Power: B2 or not B2, that is the question (Part 2: Canon B4)”

  1. I will make just this one comment on this article:

    Authorisation by individual bishops is not going to fly. It is not going to be an acceptable formula to General Synod. The whole point of protecting the consciences of priests (socially conservative or liberal) is that they should be allowed but not obliged to use such prayers as commended by General Synod.

    A bishop banning the use of such prayers in their diocese would subvert the very ‘freedom of conscience’ being offered as a key aspect of the route endorsed in the February Synod.

    To prioritise the alleged ‘freedom of conscience’ of one bishop over the ‘freedom of conscience’ of thousands of priests… to dominate the thousands in order to placate the one bishop… and to veto a conscience-based approach supported by Synod for the whole CofE… well it’s simply outside the basis on which these prayers have been developed. A bishop who doesn’t like the prayers can personally decline to use them, but should not be allowed to impose her/his conscience on everyone else. Such a bishop can, of course, take a conscience-based decision to resign if they want, or leave the Church of England.

    In any case, there is no need for the ‘authorisation’ route at this stage. Synod can choose for the prayers to be ‘commended’ for use, if they believe they don’t contravene ‘essential doctrine’. That is their right. And this gives the prayers the widest available level of endorsement, and is appropriate for a 5-year trial, rather than final and permanent implementation when the routes can be reviewed. ‘Authorisation’ at this stage is simply not necessary, for local priests/ministers to be ‘allowed’ and be granted the right ‘under authority of Synod’s decision, to make their own decision on these prayers.

    Andrew opposes B5 ‘commendation’ via Synod approval, but it’s due process, it protects conscience of all priests, and can be carried through democratically, distributing the decision to the largest number of people in the Church’s processes. If Synod believes, after prayer, that ‘essential doctrine’ is not contravened, then it has the right to decide that.

    • If Synod believes, after prayer, that ‘essential doctrine’ is not contravened, then it has the right to decide that.

      As the Spartans replied…


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