The Church of England issued a press release last night, following on from the House of Bishops meeting to discuss how the project of "Living in Love and Faith" would be taken forwards at the November meeting of General Synod.
Let me be clear. This is the worst possible outcome.
How we Got Here
The process of Living in Love and Faith has been charted well elsewhere. For those not in the know, the brief version is that a process was set up for people in the Church of England to talk to each other to discover different views held on same-sex relationships. The House of Bishops did not produce the teaching document they had promised, but instead produced a series of resources in which different viewpoints were told (by video, and in print), but with no critique of any of them. The implicit message was that the way forwards was to recognise all such viewpoints as ones to hold together within a single church.
That led to the Bishops producing a collection of prayers that could be used to celebrate a same-sex marriage contracted elsewhere by the civil authorities. All kinds of special pleading took place. Here are three. 1. The publication of these prayers did not signify any change of the church's understanding of marriage (even though we are now asking God's blessing on a relationship that the BCP marriage service declares to be outside of God's moral will). 2. These prayers did not constitute a marriage as such (even though many of the prayers were lifted directly from the Common Worship marriage rite). 3. We're not blessing the same-sex union, we're blessing the people in the union at precisely the point when they've just entered the union.
The dilemma for the House of Bishops was then: How do they get this through Synod without suggesting that they're authorising a new liturgy (which would require a 2/3 majority in each house of Synod), and without suggesting they're changing doctrine (which would require a 2/3 majority in each house of Synod). Attempting to bulldoze it through without a 2/3 vote could lead to a legal challenge, unless they could find a way to justify not needing to call that vote by houses.
What We've Got
What they've come up with is to split things into two stages.
Immediately (following a regular majority vote in November), the "prayer for love and faith" may be used.
Subsequently, Canon B2 will be used to authorise a whole new service.
The House, which met in London, also concluded that structures for special services for same-sex couples, based on Prayers of Love and Faith, should go forward to be formally authorised under canon law.
The bishops will bring proposals to General Synod next month which will pave the way for a process that would lead to the authorisation of these special services under Canon B2. This process, expected to take until 2025, would involve consultation with every diocese and require approval by General Synod.
How does this solve the Bishops' dilemma?
Let's not kid ourselves, they may still get a legal challenge to this sophistry, and I hope they do. But here's how they hope they'll get away with this.
1. We recognise that a proper new liturgy needs a proper approval process by Synod. Don't take us to court for dodging doing that, we're going to get there.
2. The hardest bit to get through Synod would have been changing our doctrine of marriage. By using B2 to introduce a new form of service, we're maintaining our assertion that this is not happening. (Canon B2 includes this line: "any form of service or amendment thereof approved by the General Synod under this paragraph shall be such as in the opinion of the General Synod is neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter".)
3. So we've placated the conservatives by not attempting to make these changes without a proper Synodical scrutiny. But we placate the liberals by not waiting until then to do anything. The whole package of Prayers for Love and Faith can now be used.
Why is this a disaster?
As soon as November's Synod votes this through, the Prayers for Love and Faith will be authorised for use. As one friend of mine remarked, you can be sure that there will be churches lined up to do so within hours of the vote going through, with the media there to take photos and publicise it. You will have churches using essentially the marriage rite to celebrate the "marriage" of a same-sex couple who did the legal formalities hours earlier at a registry office. It will be done in church, when the church just happened to be gathered anyway for their choral evensong.
Those photos will communicate to the watching world that the Church of England now celebrates same-sex marriage. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck.
They could have stopped at that. The July session of Synod left open the possibility that Synod would be asked to authorise these prayers. But if Synod just did that, as I explained above, there would be criticism that the process of voting by houses had been bypassed. So instead of just approving the Prayers for Love and Faith, which would have been bad enough as just outlined, there will now launch a process to create an actual new service.
It matters now which Canon they used to bludgeon this through. If it passes, there will be a new section in the published liturgy book "Common Worship: Pastoral Services" headed "Service for Blessing Same Sex Unions" or some such. (I'm sure they'd find a fudgier title to try to argue that nobody is doing any such thing). The very presence of such a section in the authorised service books would signify a change in the doctrine of marriage for the Church of England, whatever Canon was used to approve it.
Join me in praying for my brothers and sisters who are (still) in the Church of England. They have a harder and harder fight on their hand, and some hard decisions to make as to what to do next. It will take great courage to speak against this. It will take greater courage to speak against it with enough clarity to attract the attention of the local media, and to be willing to have licences removed and the right to minister in churches lost.
Let's pray also for the whole nation. This will impact us all, not just those within the Church of England. The further the Church of England travels down this road, the more weird the rest of us look who hold to the Bible. The government will be under pressure to make it harder for churches like ours to carry on as we do.
Finally, pray for repentance. This look pretty inevitable for the next stages for the Church of England (although people may manage to defeat the B2 vote, pyrrhic victory though it would be). But God is sovereign, and could yet bring his people to repent. "If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place." (Revelation 2:5)