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Church of England General Synod holds further debate on prayers for same-sex couples

Posted on: November 16, 2023 11:01 AM
The Church of England's General Synod met in Church House, Westminster, this week

The General Synod of the Church of England has asked the House of Bishops to “consider whether some standalone services for same-sex couples could be made available for use, possibly on a trial basis.” The call came in an amendment proposed by the Bishop of Oxford, Stephen Croft, to a more neutral motion which simply recognised the work the bishops had done since the February 2023 meeting of the Synod and asking them to continue with its implementation. 

The February Synod had asked the House of Bishops to House of Bishops “further refine” the “Prayers of Love and Faith” and to “monitor the Church’s use of and response to the Prayers of Love and Faith, once they have been commended and published”. At that meeting, the Synod also said that they “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.” 

In a report to this week’s Synod setting out the progress made by the bishops, the LLF Working Group, chaired by the Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, said: “this has been, and remains, a difficult and highly complex piece of work. This is partly because of the space we find ourselves in as a Church, with deeply held differences but a desire to honour Jesus’ prayer that we all may be one, but also as we recognise the depth of feeling on all sides of the debate.

“We remain keenly aware of those whose lives, relationships and realities are deeply affected by this work and its outcomes, and for whom this has never been simply an academic theological matter. The nature of the motion itself is indicative of this complex space, in which we want change but without changing the doctrine of the Church; we lament and repent of the mistakes of the past but are uncertain about the future. 

“In this space we have sought how to make the Prayers of Love and Faith available and introduce new Pastoral Guidance while providing reassurance for all concerned as these are brought forward. As ever, we are indebted to all those who have contributed to this work, directly and indirectly, acknowledging the often painful cost of doing so.” 

In a speech at the start of the debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke of the unity of Christians, saying: “let us remember that we are all Christians, brought together only, entirely and in no other way but by grace.” 

He continued: “I have not heard any reason in any of the innumerable meetings I have been to, or the innumerable letters, emails and other forms of communication that I have received, to think anything other than that we have different understandings of how our shared identity in the Lord Jesus Christ should be lived in holiness, vocation and action, all those understandings held with deep passion and sincerity after profound prayer, biblical and theological study and love for God. . . 

“It is not for me to judge the hearts that only can be seen by God. And until that point when all things are revealed in the final judgement, if they claim identity with Christ, if someone else, a brother or sister, claims identity in Christ, they are my sister and brother in Christ, and to be loved, not to be expected to leave and go somewhere else – because they are included in God’s economy and they remain sisters and brothers even if they differ deeply and on important matters.” 

The debate took place over several sessions across two days to allow 14 separate amendments to be debated and voted on. After voting on the amendments was concluded, debate resumed on the main motion as amended.

The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, addressed the Synod at this point, describing the debate as “painful”. He said: “it is so hard for those of us to love one another within this church to have to disagree so profoundly on these things. But I also do want to say that having listened really carefully to everything that has been said, that I think it has been a helpful debate, an honest debate and nearly always a courteous debate. And I thank people for that.” 

He continued: “Some things are clear. It is very clear that the votes are very narrow, and we have got to listen to that. It is very clear that we do need pastoral provision – but that is being woven into the process as it moves along, and there is more to do.” He also acknowledged concerns expressed by Synod members that the bishops were not being transparent enough as they worked through the LLF process. 

He said that the motion before Synod was simply acknowledging that progress had been made; and that the bishops would implement prayers but not stand-alone services. Services, he said, would proceed with a process under Canon B2, which requires a majority of two-thirds of each House of the General Synod before they could be authorised. 

“The pastoral guidance, when it comes, if we commit to working together on this, I continue to believe we can hold this Church together; and all I do is pledge myself to doing my utmost to make that happen.” 

Two Anglican Communion guests spoke in the debate. First up, from the Anglican Church of Australia, was Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy AO. She told Synod members that “there are, I know, a number of people from my diocese and beyond following the debates closely. Some will be commentating with grief and anger, and others holding on to the hope that their relationships will have the opportunity to come further into the light and grace of the church. 

“We inhabit the whole wide and ever widening spectrum of theological, biblical and liturgical breadth. In the communion, the differences between us have resulted in some making the choice to step away from being at the table of Eucharist with each other. How damaging this is. We are a broken body which needs the broken body of Christ in order that we might grow into his fullness of love. 

“There was a remarkable and holy moment at Lambeth [Conference] last year, when, during the Call on Human Dignity, a statement made by the Archbishop of Canterbury made clear the gift and grace of Communion present in that large and desperate body. One instrument speaking to another helped move the whole church on. So my plea, from another part of the communion for you as you attend to your business, is that, as you’ve said a lot about marriage, about all that is good and wholly and strong within it, and that, as someone who was allowed to marry 30-something years ago, I hope that you will choose to stick, to be faithful, to hold on whatever decision you make today. 

“And please do it not only for yourself, but for the rest of us in the communion.”  

The Primate of the Church of Central Africa, Archbishop Albert Chama, Chair of the Council of the Anglican Churches in Africa (CAPA) spoke next. He told Synod members that other Anglican Communion Member Churches “are referred to as offsprings of the Church of England and we do not deny that. Coupled with that, all of us have enjoyed the big family of the Anglican Communion. We have always been carrying each other. 

“And the fruits of being in the bigger family of the Anglican Communion is a blessing. As the Communion is a gift to us all, and we have been enjoying being part of that huge family, which has cut across culture, languages, name it, because of the salvation that we all receive in the person of Jesus Christ. But because of some of the happenings like the issues at hand that we are debating, it has caused some hurt, some pain, some discomfort in some members of the family. And these strains have come at a cost, because we are seeing the family crumbling in our faces. No longer talking to each other. No longer fellowshipping one with one another. No longer just be there as we used to be.” 

He added: “for the sake of the wider family, as somebody said, let us not rush to vote for the change we've been discussing, let us be patient and work along together in our living relationships as a family of the Anglican Communion.” 

“So we say to you, for the sake of the Anglican Communion, consider us. We are your family. We are part of you. We need you, as you need us, and that's the joy of Christ. Let us walk together. As you think, before you come to the voting, that there’s somebody there who cares for you as you care for them.” 

The motion approved by the Synod read: 

“That this Synod, conscious that the Church is not of one mind on the issues raised by Living in Love and Faith, that we are in a period of uncertainty, and that many in the Church on all sides are being deeply hurt at this time, recognise the progress made by the House of Bishops towards implementing the motion on Living in Love and Faith passed by this Synod in February 2023, as reported in GS 2328, encourage the House to continue its work of implementation, and ask the House to consider whether some standalone services for same-sex couples could be made available for use, possibly on a trial basis, on the timescale envisaged by the motion passed by the Synod in February 2023.” 

It was passed in all three Houses of the Synod, with the voting as follows: 

Bishops: 23 for, 10 against, 4 abstained

Clergy: 100 for, 93 against, 1 abstained

Laity: 104 for, 100 against, 0 abstained