Andrew Goddard writes: Whatever is decided in relation to the teaching of the Church of England and the options considered in the previous article, the bishops also need to consider a number of practical questions as they propose the direction for the Church of England going forward. Here there are at least four broad areas to consider:
- How the church views civil partnerships, marriage, and gender recognition in society and law;
- How the church’s teaching might take shape in relation to pastoral guidance and church discipline especially in relation to liturgy and the pattern of life of leaders;
- How any changes in teaching or practice are to be introduced; and
- The implications of decisions for the unity and ordering of the church.
Civil partnerships, civil marriage and gender recognition
Until the advent of same-sex civil partnerships the church simply had to have a view on whether civil marriages should be viewed as marriage in the light of the church’s teaching. Various legal changes in relation to the bonds of affinity (eg the Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage Act of 1907) and then in relation to divorce, often opposed by the church, created challenges and difficulties given traditional church teaching. The basic assumption though remained that civil marriages were to be viewed as marriage even if some of them would not be able to be entered into according to the marriage rites of the Church of England.
In 2004 two acts were passed that raised new questions. Under the Gender Recognition Act a person could be recognised in their preferred gender and their birth certificate amended so that a biological male could legally be recognised as female and vice versa. A 2003 memorandum from the House of Bishops had acknowledged two views could properly be held on what it called “transsexualism”. As the Church of England continued to marry men and women as defined in law it therefore in practice now recognised marriages between two people of the same biological sex where one had a gender recognition certificate. It also permitted such marriages within church but with a conscience clause so clergy were not required to officiate at them.
The same year saw the introduction of civil partnerships and the bishops concluded these were not marriages because they were for same-sex couples and that could be distinguished from civil marriage because there were a few technical distinctions in legal definition. They also decided that clergy could enter them but as they were not marriages and “the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics remains unchanged” they should not be sexual relationships or blessed by the church as “for Christians, marriage – that is the lifelong union between a man and a woman – remains the proper context for sexual activity”. It is noteworthy that in 2007 General Synod refused to commend this approach due to a coalition between those wishing a more affirming response and those wishing a more critical one.
Since then there have been two further significant legal changes. When same-sex marriage legislation was passed in 2013 the bishops continued to insist in February 2014 that a same-sex union could not be marriage and so should not be sexual and also said that clergy should not enter a same-sex marriage given church teaching on the nature of marriage. The advent of opposite-sex civil partnerships in 2019 led to guidance which proved controversial but simply followed the same logic as earlier statements: these are non-marital unions and so should not be sexual. Clergy should marry rather than enter opposite-sex civil partnerships and should still not bless civil partnerships. A complication that remains unaddressed is that legally same-sex civil partnerships are now able to be made into marriages simply by applying for this and paying a fee and so the stance that they are a legally distinct category from marriage, always a contested claim, is now on even more shaky ground.
There is a strong case that, whatever they decide on church teaching, the bishops now need to review their various initial ad hoc assessments in the light of where we now are socially and legally. They need to provide a clearer and fuller explanation and perhaps some revision of them in order for their approach to be seen as theologically justified and legally coherent and one which offers plausible accounts of these realities and how the church should respond to them.
If current teaching is maintained, most of the current applications to these patterns of life would remain justifiable although there are questions as to why if a civil partnership can be entered by clergy under certain conditions it cannot be given a form of liturgical recognition under the same conditions. The legal advice appended to GS 2055 (discussed here) also pointed out (para 13) that the bishops might decide to clarify that civil same-sex marriages were not holy matrimony and this may then enable them to be viewed in a similar way to civil partnerships despite being legally viewed as marriage.
If church teaching changes then the bishops will need to decide how to define any new patterns of chaste relationship they recognise in relation to these three new legal forms now in existence. They might also consider whether the relationship pattern they now commend should take a form defined by the church entered into by means of a liturgical celebration distinct from the legalities of civil partnerships or civil marriage.
Consideration also needs to be given as to whether, following the common practice elsewhere, the church would be best to separate itself from legally registering any form of marriage or civil partnership. Instead it would then develop its own patterns of recognising forms of chaste life for those who wish to enter them, distinct from the legalities of civil partnership and marriage in society as a whole.
Pastoral guidance and church discipline
Previous pastoral statements from the bishops have been generated as responses to the various legal changes outlined above. As such they have been reactive and seen by many as restrictive and reactionary. There is now the opportunity, in the light of LLF, and based on the Pastoral Principles and many important areas of agreement noted in the previous article, to provide a more positive theological and pastoral vision of how the church should offer welcome and support to all people and be a place where all can learn about and grow in obedience and conformity to God’s good purposes for us.
The details of this will, however, remain contested as a result of the disagreements over what the church should teach. It can though hopefully be agreed across our differences that only what is recognised as a chaste pattern of life can be liturgically celebrated or blessed by the church and that church leaders need to be committed to living such a chaste pattern of life in accordance with church teaching.
This means that, once agreement is reached on what the teaching on a chaste life should be, the outworkings of it in these areas should flow more clearly from it. It also means that changes in relation to liturgical recognition and expectations of authorised ministers will, in effect, signal changes in teaching unless they are clearly shown to be an alternative way of being consistent with current teaching. It is therefore vital that theological clarity is first agreed before any proposals for liturgy are suggested.
The language of “authorised ministers” signals another important question. Since Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 the distinction that has generally been drawn is that between clergy and laity with the former being required to conform their lives to church teaching but greater freedom of conscience given to the latter. Three questions often arise in relation to this and need to be addressed.
First, it is far from clear why clergy/laity should be where differentiation occurs. Being licensed by the bishop for authorised public ministry, particularly when such authorisation involves commitment to live a godly life (as with licensed lay ministers under Canons E5 and E6), would appear a much more theologically defensible distinction if one is to be drawn. At present, however, as highlighted recently, there are a range of diocesan policies concerning whether or not to extend the expectations on clergy to licensed lay ministers.
Secondly, there are also questions as to whether local congregations can apply church teaching more rigorously to lay leaders such as home group leaders or other forms of spiritual leadership within the local church. The LLF film of Andrew and Gerhard, for example, used in session 4 of the LLF course, refers to Andrew being dismissed from such a role in their local church when they married and similar policies have caused controversy in London diocese and doubtless elsewhere.
Thirdly, there are questions as to whether the church has now abandoned (in relation to sexual behaviour but also more widely) any effective form of church and sacramental discipline applied to those not in authorised ministry.
In relation to prayers and liturgical celebrations, the current guidance helpfully distinguishes between public services and private prayers and pastoral counsel. A fuller account and defence of this might be helpful and more guidance might also be given as to how to pray for and support those whose pattern of life cannot be formally celebrated and blessed publicly as it represents a rejection of church teaching (however that is defined).
It is sometimes argued that all that is currently forbidden is a service of blessing and so other forms of service are permissible. This seems to be based on a narrow and literalistic reading of Lambeth 1.10 which refers to blessing. It is, however, difficult to justify theologically or in terms of canon law and fails to recognise that the objections of many in the Communion are not only restricted to liturgical developments that describe themselves as blessings as I.10 makes clear by referring to “the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions”.
Related to this, there is clearly a desire by many to embrace the approach developed in relation to remarriage after divorce and introduce a service of prayer and dedication after a civil ceremony. As I’ve previously set out more fully, this claimed precedent in relation to remarriage after divorce and appeals to pastoral accommodation (though advocated by some) are not able (certainly within current teaching) to be extended legitimately to same-sex unions. The heart of the problem here is that the existing service relates to a form of life recognised as marriage (which the couple have to affirm is their understanding within the service) but as noted above civil partnerships and same-sex marriages are not seen as marriage in church teaching and there is currently no teaching as to why they are a chaste form of life the church should commend. Such a direction of travel therefore requires some degree of development in current teaching (options 2-6 in the previous article). This has been clearly confirmed by legal advice, including that summarised at the end of GS2055.
Implementing decisions and changes
There is currently little clarity as to how whatever the bishops discern will then be taken through a process of reception and, in particular, how any changes they recommend will be approved and implemented.
One central issue here is the respective roles of bishops and General Synod. The pattern in the past has been that the bishops have addressed these matters by providing pastoral guidance and statements based on existing teaching and not have neither needed nor sought synodical approval for these. Following the Pastoral Conversations, however, the bishops’ proposals (GS2055) were subject to synodical scrutiny and Synod failed to “take note” of their proposed way forward.
One of the significant developments with the LLF book was that on its opening page in their invitation to the church, the bishops explicitly acknowledged not only that “there is disagreement within the people of God” but also “including among us, the Bishops of the Church of England”. It might well be that this disagreement remains the case and becomes much more public, whatever the outcome of the discernment process.
In relation to church teaching and expectations of clergy, it might be that the bishops will view this as to be determined by them because of their episcopal office without reference to Synod. They might also seek, without getting synodical approval, to commend a new liturgy or offer guidance for clergy wishing to develop a service to mark a same-sex union. Given their contentiousness and the desire through LLF to involve the church more widely in discernment it would, however, seem wise to seek synodical assent to any proposals for change they would wish to make.
A further key question is whether changes in doctrine or practice, whether decided by the House of Bishops alone or within all 3 synodical houses, would require more than a simple majority. It looks unlikely that there would be ⅔ majority for change in all 3 Houses (the process used, for example, in the Church in Wales) and even a simple majority might not be achievable given the more conservative stance of this Synod.
Another crucial area is how, whatever is decided but particularly if there are changes, individual consciences which dissent can be respected. This is particularly challenging at the episcopal level. It can be considered in terms of what the consequences of any collegial decision would be for individual bishops who dissent from it. Were, for example, a new definition of chaste relationships to be accepted at the end of this process, what would be the situation of those bishops who remain convinced of “the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it” which they agreed to teach and to uphold? Will they now be required to accept under their jurisdiction in their dioceses services which celebrate relationships they believe to be wrong and clergy living in such relationships? Or will they—and will new bishops in the future—still be able to continue exercising their episcopal ministries in line with their consciences and the current teaching of the church? If they are so permitted then there will inevitably be complaints of a “postcode lottery” (as there are currently in relation to licensed lay ministers) but if they are not then the change in teaching would seem to entail likely episcopal resignations (as has happened in other provinces of the Communion) and the future exclusion from the episcopate of any who would wish to uphold the current teaching in episcopal ministry. The heart of the problem is that mono-episcopal jurisdiction over geographically defined areas cannot easily continue unchanged in the face of such widely, deeply, and passionately held but mutually incompatible beliefs, especially if these then lead to changes in received teaching.
These questions highlight why, finally, the bishops cannot separate off, and delay for later consideration, questions about the structure of the church and how it may need to adapt and evolve given our deep disagreements.
Church order and unity
The final session of the LLF course, drawing on discussions in the LLF book (especially, pp. 230-234 and pp. 406-12) and earlier work of the Faith and Order Commission, maps out three levels of disagreement. It notes how in the first and most serious of these some fellow Christians are viewed as “contradicting the good news of Jesus or the Bible’s teaching” while even the second level makes “living and working together as one church difficult, perhaps impossible”.
A large number of people view our disagreements in these areas as in one of these two categories. They have regrettably reached the conclusion that there exist incompatible conscientious beliefs as to how we view and read the Scriptures, what God teaches us through them concerning the pattern of holiness, and where the Spirit is leading us as a church. Furthermore, these disagreements are so serious as to “undermine our ability to live and work together as one church”, making it “hard to worship together, to share sacraments, to have a single structure of ministry, oversight and governance” (LLF book, 231). This means serious consideration has to be given to the consequences of any changes in teaching and practice.
In relation to women priests and bishops it was thought important that changes being made did not make it impossible for those holding traditional views to remain, in good conscience and good standing, within the Church of England. The question then arises as to what sort of provision would need to be made for those unhappy with any changes arising out of this period of discernment and decision-making. Though we must learn from experience in relation to the ordained ministry of women, we must also recognise the quite different nature of questions relating to marriage and sexual ethics.
The Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) has done much work on this, setting out a theological rationale in “Gospel, Church and Marriage: Apostolic Faith and Life” and commissioning work, published as “Visibly Different”, to map out what sort of solutions might be necessary in terms of alternative delegated episcopal oversight or a provincial solution. These (with a new introduction and updating addendum) have recently been submitted to the Next Steps Group.
The central argument here is that, were the church to change its teaching, then for those who hold to existing teaching to be able to flourish with integrity would require, while maintaining as high a degree of communion as possible, new canonical and episcopal structures. These would ensure that witness to the current teaching could flourish within the Church of England through a visibly differentiated structure, able to be recognised by the majority of the Anglican Communion and to be maintained faithfully over time. Essential features of it would likely include maintaining and ensuring:
- Freedom for serving bishops to continue exercising their episcopal ministry and ordering the clergy and churches under their episcopal care and authority in accordance with current teaching and discipline;
- Assured processes of continuing selection, training, and appointment of clergy and bishops committed to this current teaching and pattern of church discipline in their ministries;
- A permanent episcopal and canonical structure within which bishops, and clergy and congregations under their episcopal care and authority, can securely order their life in accordance with current teaching;
- All clergy and congregations who wish to order their life together in this way being able to receive episcopal ministry from, and be under the episcopal authority of, bishops who continue to be similarly committed to upholding current teaching and discipline in their ministries.
The corresponding question arises as to whether similar forms of provision might need to be provided for those who object to current church teaching should it be reaffirmed by the bishops. There is a widespread desire across all perspectives to find some settlement as a result of the LLF process which will avoid ongoing, protracted disputes concerning the direction of the church on these matters. Many committed to current teaching do not wish to prevent those who reject it from living within an ecclesial structure that enables them to flourish by following their conscientious beliefs.
Consideration might therefore need to be given in this situation as to new canonical and episcopal structures for those bishops, clergy and congregations who wish, while maintaining as high a degree of communion as possible, to develop and express some form of alternative teaching and discipline in relation to marriage, sexuality, identity and relationships. One suggestion has been some arrangement with Anglican provinces such as Scotland, Wales or The Episcopal Church Europe that permit same-sex blessings or marriage.
In their concluding appeal in the LLF book (p. 422) the bishops noted “the depth of disagreement between Christians on exactly how we are called to be distinctive in our ways of life in obedience to Christ, and about what it means to be those who, according to Jesus’ prayer, have received his ‘word’ and have been ‘[sanctified] in truth’ (John 17.14, 17, 18)”.
They also frankly acknowledged that “those disagreements are to be found among us as bishops” and that “most pressing among our differences are questions around same-sex relationships” where “decisions in several interconnected areas need to be made with some urgency”.
In addition to the differences concerning what the church should teach about marriage and a chaste life discussed in the previous article, there are a number of complex, connected, and contested practical questions which will affect the lives of many both inside and outside the Church of England. The bishops will need either to reaffirm and in places clarify current practices, or to propose developments to them in relation to civil partnerships and civil marriage and the church’s own practices regarding pastoral care, liturgical celebrations, and expectations on ministers. It is vital that they do so in a manner that:
- shows the church how what they propose is shaped by Scripture and by whatever teaching they decide to commend;
- considers what now needs to be said and done for the many in the church (seemingly whatever they decide) who, unable to agree with their conclusions, will likely be grieved, alienated and angered by the outcome;
- is honest about the implications of their decisions for the wider Anglican Communion and ecumenical relationships and for how the church is viewed in wider English society.
As those “called to serve and care for the flock of Christ” the bishops need our prayers. Over these coming days and months they have to make many difficult decisions as, “mindful of the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep”, they are faithful to the commitments made at their ordination and highlighted at the end (p 424) of the LLF book to:
Love and pray for those committed to their charge, ‘knowing our people and being known by them’ in the love of Christ, ‘to serve and care for the flock of Christ’ in the faith of Christ and ‘to promote peace and reconciliation in the church’ in the hope of Christ.
You can read all three pieces together in this PDF document: LLF Discerning and Deciding Psephizo Articles
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.