Sue Donymous writes: A major problem with the Prayers of Love and Faith package (PLF) that scraped through Synod is that no one actually wants this approach. The only caveat to that ‘no one’ is that—for now—some who want to see much greater change will swallow PLF (and just about stomach it) as a step in the direction they hope for. But that is not happiness with PLF in itself: it is a sensible political approach for those seeking something more, and different. But no one really wants PLF.
One can argue that widespread unhappiness was always going to happen here, in the movement from the theory stage of LLF to action. However, this particular approach is disliked profoundly by both those who are, by theological conviction and in good conscience, seeking significant change and those who, by theological conviction and in good conscience, believe that such change would be wrong. The old maxim runs that you can make some of the people happy all of the time or all of the people happy some of the time; PLF seems to be a dramatically bad deal, making none of the people happy at all.
There is a kind of political logic to how we got to PLF, based on what appear to be some decisions made by the House of Bishops (HoB). The HoB seemed to think that while it was good for the whole church to discuss sex, sexuality and gender in theory, when it came to what we might actually do, no one would else should discuss these options with any transparency except the bishops. So, they created a package alone and have then sought Synod’s approval for it. Three principles (among others, no doubt) seem to have been undergirding this:
- That there has to be some change in the direction of inclusivity for same-sex couples, both as a matter of theological conviction for a majority of bishops, and because of their concern about parliament’s response—and the implications of that—if there is no change.
- That there cannot appear to be any real change doctrinally: the doctrine of marriage in Canon B30 must remain, mainly because an overt challenge to that will not be accepted in Synod. Any proposals therefore have to be—at least arguably—concordant with it.
- That must be no kind of differentiation within the Church of England on this matter, in contrast to the fact that there was—and is—such differentiation for those opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate.
If these three principles are held to, one arrives inexorably at a PLF-like approach. No substantial change is possible (Canon B30 remains), but it has to be presentable as change. A space has to be created where some forms of prayer are offered for same-sex couples, but this cannot be recognised theologically as a blessing of their marriage or civil partnership as such, and cannot practically look like a wedding or wedding blessing. The bishops had to try to create a path that would offer an appearance of welcome and support to same-sex couples, but yet be presentable to traditionalists as concordant with B30. So, what PLF gives is an opportunity for recognising ‘the goods’ in a same-sex relationship. But let us be clear: this is ‘the goods’ in a committed same-sex relationship as defined by the bishops; it is not a recognition of the nature or status of a relationship in the way it is understood and described by a same-sex married couple themselves.
It has been clear since January how very narrow a path like this would be. Many doubted a discernible (let alone a navigable) via media had been created at all: even the way the path is described to make it acceptable to revisionists makes it unacceptable to traditionalists, and vice-versa.
The defence of the path’s integrity involved convoluted arguments about both law and theology. So, any prayers in a service “shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter” (Canon B5.3). For the Canon to be upheld, one has to maintain that saying PLF prayers for a same-sex married couple in a public worship service does not and will not suggest that marriage can be anything other than the union of a man and a woman. No matter that a married same-sex couple having PLF prayers prayed for them in church will not believe this. It is also impossible to imagine that most of those present, praying for and with this same-sex married couple, will simultaneously be consciously aware that the church teaches that marriage cannot be between two people of the same sex. Taking the psychology of the moment at all seriously in this way makes the path look narrow to the point of non-existence, and that is the reality.
The incoherence of PLF is seen by recognising this point: that most of those who will use the PLF package will bring to it a meaning that the package itself expressly denies, with that denial being not incidental but vital to the package’s supposed legality. Written on the outside of the PLF tin is that the CofE holds to the Canon B30 position that marriage is only between a man and a woman; however, the married same-sex couples who will use the prayers, and their friends and family, will bring to the occasion a directly contradictory set of beliefs and expectations. Those beliefs and expectations will shape, for them, the meaning that the prayers will have—and the ambiguity in the prayers will let them do that comfortably. (Of course it will: PLF has been crafted so that the prayers can mean one thing to a couple, in their hearts and minds, in their actual use, while the Church can still officially deny that this is what the prayers really mean in the mind of the Church. When this is the only way that a compromise works, is that good?).
Consider the very practical implications of this: clergy are being told that the use of PLF must not look like a wedding or blessing. This is very clear in the lengthy guidance. Will any attempts to do this succeed or fail? They will either fail in so far as—and to the precise extent which—the meaning clearly brought to the event by the participants contradicts all the official caveats; or, in so far as those attempts succeed, the prayers will then, in direct proportion, fail to give same-sex couples what they are looking for.
It seems to me clear that it is not respectful to a same-sex couple to offer prayers with such theological, legal, liturgical and psychological sleight of hand. It is also not respectful to those who think Canon B30 is theologically correct, and see PLF as paying lip-service to it only by verbal gymnastics and legal sophistry while undermining it in practice. Lex orandi, lex credendi: “the law of what is prayed for is the law of what is believed”. While the PLF prayers have been sculpted with excruciating care to be legally defensible against the charge that a same-sex marriage is being blessed through them, the simple psychological reality is that when using them the vast majority of people praying will be praying for the blessing, success and happiness of a same-sex marriage. The intellectual and theological dishonesty being required here all round does us no credit as a Church, remains demeaning to same-sex couples, and is rightly opposed by traditionalists as something clearly—in practice—indicative of a departure from doctrine.
The first stage of the PLF path creates another problem too: in order to avoid prayers for a couple looking like a wedding, initially the PLF can only be offered within an existing public worship service; standalone services await formal authorisation. However, prayers within a Sunday service are not what the vast majority of LG same-sex couples want, for a number of reasons. Most do not want a public focus, but a personal occasion to which they could invite their loved ones. Some fear disruption and opposition (some, of course, having experience of occasions where the intent has been pastoral support of LG Christians, but events were nevertheless disrupted). There is a recognition also that this is thin gruel: revisionist LG Christians want their own celebrations, not a bolt-on to the Sunday eucharist.
Some LG Christians, sensitively, also do not want prayers for their relationship to be imposed on a whole congregation, some of whom may in conscience not then be comfortable to be present. It is one thing to be a respectful traditionalist member of a church whose minister decides to offer PLF, deciding for oneself not to attend a standalone PLF service; integrity on all sides could then be maintained, with mutual respect. It is quite another for that person to have to decide whether they can attend the regular Sunday service in their own church or not for this reason. Many gay and lesbian Christians do not want that decision forced on brothers and sisters who they love but with whom they respectfully disagree. To have reached a position where these choices will now be forced on people is unacceptable.
So, this is just about the worst way imaginable to first introduce prayers of welcome and support in church for LG Christians in committed relationships. You really could not make it up. However, the peculiar logic of PLF as it has been pursued has led us to this absurdity. In summary: most revisionist LG couples want a marriage or service of blessing. PLF will not enable that, but will allow its own brand of acknowledging the (episcopally-defined) goods within their relationship, but even—for now—only within a public worship service. And this is not what LG Christian couples want.
Still, this position may be temporary—or at least temporarily temporary. For the HoB may yet decide to authorise the standalone services for an experimental period under Canon B5A. That might seem to deal with the problems explored in the previous three paragraphs. However, it will create its own new set of difficulties. If the HoB do this, that experiment would then, in due course, have to stop before the HoB then brought the standalone services to Synod under Canon B2 for a vote. This would require a two-thirds majority in all three houses … which would probably fail (on current voting patterns, it would definitely fail). So, we have the prospect of something closer to what revisionist LG Christians couples want being offered experimentally for a short while and then being withdrawn temporarily, and then being refused permanently. The pastoral and reputational calamity in prospect here is obvious. No-one who is sensible or caring wants that potential PLF scene to play out.
Another thing that nobody wants is the loss of trust in our bishops that PLF is creating. Whether the PLF path will stand up legally, we do not know. We may find out in future, of course, if this is tested. We might be better informed in making our own judgments in the present if the bishops had shared the legal advice they have received with their sisters and brothers. Some bishops have claimed this is not possible; this has convinced very few. Some have claimed that it is not relevant, on the grounds that legal advice changes in relation to the development of the questions put to the lawyers. The latter point is true in itself, but does not in any way justify withholding the iterations of advice accompanying the unfolding narrative; if shared, others – along with the bishops – could then be informed by it. As it stands, most HoB bishops tell us that PLF will be legal, but they will not share their justifications for that belief. That leaves a credibility gap, because, prima facie, there appear to be good reasons for doubting the legality of PLF.
It is also hugely disappointing: knowledge is power, and for bishops to think this stance on the legal advice is acceptable indicates to many that they are not “paying attention to power” (specifically, their power), which is apparently meant to be important in how we all treat one another as we disagree over LLF. This problem is underlined (and the majority stance is undermined) by 12 bishops making it clear both that they think the legal advice is at best ambiguous and that it should be published. This places clergy and laity in the difficult position where the question is not only whether we can trust our bishops (which is bad enough), but perhaps also which bishops to trust and which not to (which is worse), because these narratives are irreconcilable. No one who cares for the integrity and mission of the Church of England wants this PLF-created erosion of trust in our leadership.
So, even though in taking the PLF path we are creating bitter division, which may yet be disastrous, it is in itself a path that no one likes. No one wants PLF. If we are going to have to face some kind of division or differentiation, let’s at least reconfigure ourselves around the real dividing lines, not around this phoney fabrication designed to prevent us admitting the obvious truth that we disagree, and which cannot last as a settlement.
Revisionists don’t want PLF. They will take it for now, as prayers in church for the flourishing of a same sex-marriage are already an acknowledgment that the church will now, in practice, recognise the marriage of two people of the same sex. Canon B30 is not officially changed, but it is circumvented. This remains demeaning to LG Christians who believe in same-sex marriage, but lex orandi, lex credendi: once LG couples have been prayed for in church for a while the operational theology of the church will have been changed, and further real change can then be sought. Yes, PLF is totally incoherent theologically, but that instability in itself will mean the church can’t stay here, and more change will come. Recognising this, while many revisionist LG Christians are now just a bit more hurt than before by PLF, revisionists as a whole will accept it as a stepping-stone. But they don’t like PLF in itself, don’t want PLF, and want something other than PLF as soon as possible.
LG Christians who are traditionalist and committed to celibacy don’t want PLF: the package is felt by them to undermine the hard path they have understood to be their calling.
And no traditionalists want PLF. They see that Canon B30 is simply being circumvented and undermined. The tortuous legal and theological arguments deployed to make the case that to pray for same-sex married couples in church is not indicative of a departure from doctrine are recognised for what they are: a political juggling act to achieve the optics of change while being able to deny – when and as necessary – that anything has really changed. Whatever the official caveats, what will be seen and believed to be happening is that same sex couples’ marriages will be blessed in church. That is the meaning that will be brought to the occasion, and it is what the vast majority of people present will intend, pray, understand and experience. It is what national papers already routinely report that the church has agreed to do. Traditionalists don’t like any of this. They also see everything that revisionists do about PLF clearly being a step, not a destination, and they of course don’t want that.
Many traditionalists also don’t want PLF because they care deeply for their LG brothers and sisters and see the additional pain this package causes by giving them little to nothing of what they seek, while claiming to make a difference. This point was made by the “The Alliance” group in their letter of Monday 11th December. They argue that it is clear there is no shared path available to revisionists and traditionalists; unity will only be possible by acknowledging irreconcilable difference on the doctrine of marriage and agreeing to journey together overall while allowing each other to take different paths on this matter. They therefore argue for some means of differentiation being worked out, with one reason for this being that “it will enable LGBTQI+ people who hold to the received teaching, as well as those who hold to a progressive view, both to find the sort of welcome, teaching, and pastoral care they are looking for, from churches that are living out similar convictions to their own.”
I would resist legal separation; we need to learn how to walk together even while our paths on this matter must diverge, for the sake of mutual integrity. But I think we must explore the kind of safeguards and support that have enabled us to remain in unity despite our disagreements over the ordination of women. Now, I realise this may come as a shock to some bishops, but many clergy and laity actually think our theological anthropology and related theology of marriage are significantly more important doctrinally than our theology of ordination, including ordination to the episcopacy. So, if we needed ways of preserving separate integrities over ordained ministry and episcopacy, we will need this all the more over marriage.
We may not yet know how this can best be done. However, it seems clear that the path PLF offers will not help us discover that. For PLF is:
- deliberately dishonest in both directions; and
- does not honour the integrity of either traditionalists or revisionists in theory or in practice.
No one wants PLF, except those who want it in order to get something significantly different, or bishops who think the only worse thing than PLF would be admitting that we simply do not agree, and that some form of differentiation is necessary. Well, the truth is, we don’t agree, and some form of differentiation will almost certainly happen, so it would be better for everyone to discuss this sensibly.
So please may we now stop pretending that PLF gives us any kind of place where we can reasonably pitch our tent—even briefly—and do something better and more honest instead?
Sue Donymous is an ordained minister in the Church of England.