Andrew Goddard writes: The process of commendation of liturgy does not give any legal status to what is commended, and in the debates about the Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) it has been claimed that law and doctrine are not being changed. To commend the Prayers of Love and Faith is thus to claim that it has always been legal in a public service to pray for God’s blessing on two people of the same sex who are in a sexual relationship and/or a civil same-sex marriage.
This article argues that:
This claim that “nothing has changed” with PLF is neither plausible nor cogent.
It does not fit with previous published legal advice concerning public prayer for those in non-marital sexual relationships or same-sex civil marriages.
The options open to individual bishops who share this scepticism in response to PLF’s commendation by the House are also set out.
Honesty and the need for clergy to be able to make their own informed judgments about the legality of PLF (as those who risk facing legal challenge for using the prayers) means that the House of Bishops has to acknowledge that previously published legal advice is not obviously being followed.
They should therefore make available the changing written legal advice which they have received throughout this process, particularly for their 9th October meeting, and a clear explanation as to how what they are now proposing in PLF is, and indeed always has been, legal and how this judgment relates to the content of past legal advice which they have published that would suggest otherwise.
Only then can we assess whether indeed “nothing has changed” either legally or doctrinally in the position of the Church of England when the prayers are commended.
Following the long debate and narrow vote at General Synod on 14th and 15th November it seems likely that the House of Bishops will (either this Wednesday or in early December) proceed formally to commend the Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) Suite of Prayers. This will implement the in principle decision they took on 9th October from which 12 bishops present dissented in part because of “legal and theological advice the House has received”. It is therefore important to consider exactly what is and what is not being done should the bishops take this decision and the plausibility, coherence, and significance of this step.
In effect, such a decision amounts to a statement by the House of Bishops that it is of the view that it has always been legally permissible within the Church of England for clergy, in a public service, to pray using the prayers found in PLF, including for God’s blessing on two people of the same sex who are in a sexual relationship and/or a civil same-sex marriage. Commendation means that the prayers have been legal for nearly 50 years (since the 1974 Worship and Doctrine Measure came into force) and could have been commended by bishops at any point since then. All that the bishops are doing in now commending the suite of prayers is clarifying that this has always been the legal situation despite the fact that in the past they, and legal advice they have published, have suggested otherwise.