What is the right way forward for the Church of England after General Synod?

(Photo: Church of England)

According to a press release from the Church of England, on 23 March the Church of England's College of Bishops (i.e. its serving diocesan and suffragan bishops) met "to continue considering next steps for the Church of England following the recent debate at General Synod on identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage".

The press release goes on to describe the next steps decided by the bishops at this meeting. It declares that they agreed to set up three working groups and a steering group to oversee and coordinate their work, each to be made up of bishops assisted by a group of advisers drawn from across the Church, both lay and ordained.

The working groups will focus on:

  • Pastoral Guidance – with responsibility for drafting new Pastoral Guidance.
  • Prayers of Love and Faith – to further refine the texts in the light of feedback from General Synod
  • Pastoral Reassurance – to examine what will be required to ensure freedom of conscience for clergy.

It is anticipated that the steering group will be chaired by the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, and will include the chairs of the three working groups.

The final membership of the working groups will be confirmed and published in due course.

In my view there are two major problems with what the bishops have decided to do.

The first problem concerns timing. It is generally accepted that partly because of the death of the late Queen in September last year, the bishops did not have enough time to fully prepare the material that they brought to General Synod in February. The reason, for instance, that the Bishop of London was repeatedly unable to answer questions from Synod members about the details of what the bishops were proposing was that the necessary work on the details had simply not been done.

General Synod meets again in York on 7-11 July. This means that for material from the bishops to be available for Synod members to look at in advance of Synod it will need to be ready to be agreed by the bishops in the middle of June at the latest. Given that the press release makes clear that the membership of the working groups they propose has not yet been decided, given the pressure on bishops' diaries, and given that between now and June there is Easter, the Easter holidays and holidays and events associated with the Coronation in May, that timetable looks completely unworkable.

There simply is not the time for the relevant bishops and their advisers to do any meaningful work in the areas outlined in the press release and for this work to be considered and signed off by the bishops as a whole.

READ MORE: What's wrong with the House of Bishops' proposed same-sex prayers?

The responsible thing for the bishops to do would be to say now that they are not going to bring anything further to Synod on the follow up to Living in Love and Faith before the Synod meetings in February, or preferably July 2024. That would allow time for serious and considered work to be done and for widespread consultations to take place with interested parties across the Church.

The second and more fundamental problem is that even if the bishops do allow themselves more time, it is far from clear how the bishops could take the Church of England forward in the three areas on which the press release says work will take place.

The reason for this is that the motion passed by Synod, and by which the bishops' further work needs to be governed, states in clause g that:

... this Synod... 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.

The Church of England's doctrine of marriage as set out in the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer, Canon B.30, and various other documents based on them, can be summarised as follows:

  • Marriage and singleness are two ways of life, neither of which is necessarily more holy than the other.
  • Marriage is a state of life ordained by God himself at creation and as such it is a way of life that applies to all people at all times and everywhere. Any state of life that does not accord with the form of marriage ordained by God is not marriage.
  • It is a serious vocation to which some, but not all, human beings are called by God. Those who are called to enter into it, must do so with due thought and reverence for its God given character.
  • It is a sexually exclusive relationship entered into for life between one man and one woman, who are not married to anyone else, and who are not close blood relatives.
  • It is a relationship of 'perpetual, friendly fellowship' that is not a dominical sacrament in the same way as Baptism or the Lord's Supper but is a sign pointing to the loving union that exists between Christ and his Church and a means of grace through which a husband and wife can grow as the people God created them to be.
  • It is a relationship that provides the sole proper context for sexual intercourse, and which has as one of its key purposes the procreation and nurturing of children to be the next generation of God's people.
  • Clergy are free to be either married or single depending on the particular vocation to which God calls them, but they must live in a godly way in either vocation.

It is difficult to see how the bishops can change the current pastoral guidance as contained in Issues in Human Sexuality and the pastoral statements on Civil Partnerships and same-sex marriage issued by the bishops in 2005, 2014 and 2019 since this reflects the doctrine just summarised.

In particular, the guidance that the clergy cannot enter into same-sex marriages or be in same-sex sexual relationships has to stay in place. This is because the Church's doctrine of marriage means that the only marriage which clergy can rightly enter into is one with a member of the other sex. As marriage is the sole proper setting for sexual intercourse it follows that single clergy must be sexually abstinent.

It is also difficult to see how the bishops can simply 'refine' the prayers contained in Prayers of Love and Faith. The problem with these prayers is not just that they are a little rough around the edges. The problem is that the very concept on which they are based, namely the unreserved and joyful liturgical welcome, affirmation and celebration of same-sex relationships, is incompatible with the Church's doctrine of marriage.

This is because this doctrine teaches by necessary implication that same-sex marriages, and all forms of sexual relationship outside marriage (including same-sex sexual relationships) are contrary to the will of God and as such cannot be welcomed, affirmed or celebrated.

This being the case the prayers don't simply need to be refined. They need to be withdrawn because as they stand, they do not meet the test that they should not 'be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England.'

Finally, if it is the case that the Prayers of Love and Faith need to be withdrawn, it follows that pastoral reassurance simply will not be needed. As the press release makes clear, the reassurance in question is the reassurance that clergy will not be forced to use the prayers when this would go against their conscience. If the prayers are withdrawn this issue will not arise.

In summary, the bishops don't seem to have given themselves time to do the tasks they have set themselves and the tasks themselves seem to be either impossible or unnecessary.

However, if the bishops don't move forward in the direction of revising the Church of England's discipline and liturgy to allow clergy to be in same-sex relationships (including same-sex marriages) and to allow the blessing of same-sex marriages and other same-sex relationships, this will provoke extreme anger among those in the Church of England who want the Church to move in this direction and among their allies in Parliament who may well be tempted to try to force the Church to go in this direction.

In the face of this reality the bishops should reconsider their whole direction of travel. As the Church of England Evangelical Council has argued, trying to find some form of fudge will in the end please nobody. The only hope for a lasting peaceful solution is for the bishops to broker an agreement to move to a new settlement in the Church of England which would allow conservatives and liberals to each have their own province (or provinces) within which they could either maintain or alter the current doctrine of the Church of England on marriage and the disciplines that go with it. The bishops need to have the wisdom and courage to lead the Church of England down this path.

Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.