[Episcopal News Service] The Church of England’s General Synod voted Feb. 9 to endorse a proposal to offer blessings, but not marriage, to same-sex couples after several days of passionate debate in which the proposal was both praised and criticized from a wide variety of perspectives.
“What we have in this conversation and the decision we make today is, at its heart, the chance to publicly witness to Christ in the most difficult, distinctive and radical way,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said. “To disagree passionately, and yet to be clear that we uphold our need for one another and for the world to come to the knowledge of being loved by God in Christ.”
In the months leading up to synod, bishops had held several meetings to prepare their response to a six-year initiative called Living in Love and Faith, an exhaustive catalog of the various stances and perspectives on LGBTQ+ issues across the church. There was not enough agreement among the bishops to meet the requirement for a canonical change, such as allowing full same-sex marriage. Bishops created the new liturgical resource, Prayers of Love and Faith, as a compromise measure that allowed same-sex couples to be welcomed in church without a yearslong process of trying to change canon law. The Feb. 9 vote expressed support for the prayers, extended an apology to LGBTQ+ people for their mistreatment by the church and commended the bishops’ decision to write new guidelines for the sexual behavior of clergy.
Meeting in London Feb. 6-9, synod spent most of the session – which included other topics such as safeguarding and pension reform – asking bishops questions about the new prayers and debating the resolution introduced by Bishop of London Sarah Mullally to “welcome” the introduction of Prayers of Love and Faith. The bishops did not need synod’s approval to allow the use of the new prayers, since they did not represent a canonical change in the church’s definition of marriage as the union of a man and woman, so the resolution itself was not binding in that respect. But members tried to clarify the resolution, change its meaning or add further provisions and commitments onto it through a series of over two dozen amendments, only one of which was adopted.
The sole successful amendment sought to include language that bishops had used to describe the function of the prayers in other settings but was not spelled out in the resolution. The amendment specifies that Prayers of Love and Faith does not represent “any change to the doctrine of marriage” and that its final version “should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England.”
The amendment was added by a margin of only a few votes in each of synod’s three houses – Bishops, Clergy and Laity – but the entire resolution was approved by a relatively comfortable margin. The results were:
Bishops: 36 for, 4 against, 2 abstentions
Clergy: 111 for, 85 against, 3 abstentions
Laity: 103 for, 92 against, 5 abstentions
Prayers of Love and Faith, which invites God’s blessing on a couple’s committed life together, includes rites that resemble marriage in the profession of lifelong commitment, and exchanging rings, though the word “marriage” is never used. In describing the prayers, bishops have acknowledged that some of the relationships being blessed will be sexually active gay couples, who would be violating the church’s teaching that sex is reserved for heterosexual marriage. However, Mullally said, “in terms of the issue around sexual intimacy, the prayers at this stage are silent and further work needs to be done.”
In questions and debate, speakers were roughly evenly divided on the basic issue of whether same-sex relationships are theologically permissible. Some speakers said the bishops’ proposal deviated too far from church teaching, while others said it did not go far enough in welcoming LGBTQ+ people. But across the ideological spectrum, speakers expressed dismay for a perceived lack of clarity on the nature of sexual relationships and the resolution, which some described as intentionally vague.
“What is the theological position – the decided and agreed-to theological position on the blessing of sexual relationships outside of [heterosexual marriage]? Is the position of the House of Bishops that it is a sin or it is not a sin?” asked self-described conservative lay member Sam Margrave, pressing for a yes or no answer from Mullally, the third-highest-ranking cleric in the church.
“Most assuredly, God is eager to bless love. But what about sex? Well, quite frankly, it’s none of your business,” said lay member Vicky Brett, taking a different approach. “You don’t know what happens or doesn’t happen in their bedrooms any more than you know what happens in mine. God is not obsessed with sex. God is obsessed with love.”
In responding to Margrave and many other speakers over the course of three days, Mullally said that question would be addressed in pastoral guidance that the bishops will develop in the coming months.
Some LGBTQ+ speakers called the bishops’ proposal – with its lack of change in the teachings on marriage and sex – insulting.
“This piece of work is, as it stands, an outrageous piece of formalized homophobia,” said lay member Rosalind Clarke, who said it did not offer sufficient theological explanation for why it continued to deny gay couples the ability to marry. If same-sex love is holy, she and others argued, a canonical change should be made.
Amendments to commit the church to consider a canonical change redefining marriage at synod’s next meeting in July were rejected.
The Rev. Rachel Mann pointed to The Episcopal Church’s process of coming to allow same-sex marriage as a potential model for the Church of England to follow in making major changes to church teaching and policy, saying that “our Episcopal colleagues … have been involved in an extraordinary work of discernment over very many years.”
The perceived lack of theological underpinning was also argued by conservatives, including a number who identified themselves as “same-sex-attracted” but celibate. If the church changed its position that gay people are called to celibacy, it would be a betrayal to them, they said.
“[For] same-sex-attracted Christians like myself, who believe it is right to live within the teaching that we’ve always heard, that sex is for the marriage of a man and a woman, the message will be … ‘You needn’t have bothered,’” said the Rev. Vaughan Roberts.
Lay member Sophie Clarke made the same argument, but as a heterosexual woman who is waiting for marriage to have sex.
“I am devastated at the possibility that my leaders and shepherds of this church might now be telling me that our decision to wait, to deny ourselves, is unnecessary and is unimportant,” she said.
Jayne Ozanne, a lay member and LGBTQ+ advocate, introduced an amendment – which ultimately did not pass – to remove the apology from the resolution, arguing it was not accompanied by appropriate action.
“We continue to teach a doctrine … that tells people like me that we’re second-class, and that our understanding of Holy Scriptures is un-Christian. So why yet another apology? Who does it serve? It seems to me, and I’m going to be frank, that its primary purpose is to make you feel better, even if by doing so it makes those of us it’s aimed at increasingly angry,” she told the bishops. “It’s akin to that of an abusive partner who keeps telling the one they abused that they love them and that they are sorry and they will never do it again.”
Several members brought up the effect that the bishops’ action could have on the Anglican Communion, which is facing its own internal divisions over LGBTQ+ issues. Leaders of several African provinces have threatened to leave the communion if Welby and the Church of England depart from their traditional teaching on sex and marriage.
One member, Busola Sodeinde, said those divisions – which bishops from Africa and the Global South sometimes characterize as colonialist attempts by other Anglicans to force them to change their doctrine – could erupt closer to home.
Sodeinde was born in England and grew up in Nigeria, one of the three Anglican provinces whose leaders have threatened to withdraw from the Communion. She said blessing same-sex relationships would be racist because it would drive Anglicans of African descent out of the Church of England.
“I am worried that there may be an exodus of diverse communities from our parish churches, thus having a profound impact upon the racial diversity which up to now we have worked so hard to encourage,” she said, introducing an amendment that would have asked church leaders to personally consult each Anglican province about the potential impact of Prayers of Love and Faith.
Welby responded in an emotional speech which he briefly had to pause, his voice breaking. He said that he had already spent over a decade building relationships with African bishops and engaging with them on issues of sexuality, and opposed the amendment to consult each province because it would have circumvented a process of outreach that was ongoing and led personally by Bishop Anthony Poggo, who succeeded Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon as secretary general of the Anglican Communion in September 2022.
“I’m genuinely torn by this,” he said. “This isn’t something I take lightly, you know. It’s the most painful thing I’ve ever known. … There is nothing in my life or heart or prayers that comes as high as the safety and the flourishing of the people I love in the Anglican Communion.”
The Anglican Communion is made up of autonomous, interdependent churches that have historic roots in the Church of England. When the detailed proposal for the liturgies was released, Welby said he would not personally use them due to his role as the ceremonial head of the Anglican Communion.
The issue of using gendered language to refer to God also came up during synod – though it was not an agenda item – when a member asked the vice chairman of the church’s Liturgical Commission, the Rev. Michael Ipgrave, about potentially using nonbinary or female pronouns for God. Ipgrave said the Liturgical Commission has “been exploring the use of gendered language in relation to God for several years” and had started an initiative to study the topic.
“Christians have recognized since ancient times that God is neither male nor female,” the church later said in an emailed statement to The Washington Post. “Yet the variety of ways of addressing and describing God found in scripture has not always been reflected in our worship.”
When synod next meets in July, bishops are expected to provide detailed guidance on the significance of the prayers and how to use them, as well as the draft of a replacement for “Issues in Human Sexuality,” the 1991 document that lays out expectations for clergy’s personal lives. It is that document, which states that clergy are expected to remain celibate unless they are in a heterosexual marriage, that was criticized by many speakers at synod, saying it is intrusive and has been used as a litmus test in hiring processes.
“The House and College of Bishops will now begin the various tasks set before us,” Mullally said.
“As we do this, we will continue to be mindful that divisions continue to exist … We promised to listen carefully to this synod, and over the next few months we will reflect on everything that has been said. I hope that you will judge whether we have heard when we come back to synod in July.”
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.