In her speech at the General Synod, Christian Legal Centre’s Rebecca Bensted raised vital points about the lack of basic transparency and legal process in proposing to commend prayers for same-sex couples.
“We are not able to be sure that the proposals to commend the prayers are lawful because we have not seen any updated legal advice on the matter. As part of our responsibilities as legislators we do need to be satisfied that any proposals are lawful.”
The General Synod is the national assembly of the Church of England, which considers and approves legislation affecting the whole of the Church of England.
“It’s recognised that the Church’s teaching on sexual activity is also part of the Church’s doctrine on marriage. It’s acknowledged in GS 2328 that the bishops have now been advised that ‘it would be difficult to say that making the Prayers of Love and Faith available for same sex couples without there being an assumption as to their sexual relationships was not indicative of any departure from the Church’s doctrine’.”
Bishops have argued to include these prayers for same-sex couples on the basis that their proposed departure from doctrine would not be “in any essential matter.”
As the Church has been deliberating these issues since 1978, it is hard to accept this conclusion. Rebecca noted that the doctrinal difficulties which arise in contrary to the Book of Common Prayer’s teaching of the proper context for sexual intercourse within marriage, were also not acknowledged in February.
Synod is thus unable to make a legally and theologically-informed decision at this point.
You can watch and read her speech in full below.
Read the transcript:
The legal advice provided in advance of the passing of the motion in February indicated that the Prayers of Love and Faith were not indicative of a change in the doctrine of marriage under Canon B30.
On that basis Synod felt able to vote the motion through.
However, it is now clear from *Annex A to GS 2328 that it is recognised that “the church’s teaching on sexual activity is also part of the church’s doctrine on marriage.”
It is acknowledged in GS 2328 that the Bishops have now been advised that “it would be difficult to say that making the PLF available for same-sex couples without there being an assumption as to their sexual relationships was not indicative of any departure from the Church’s doctrine.”
The Bishops however tell us that they have concluded that in the circumstances such a departure would not be “in any essential matter.” This is apparently on the basis this would be a “small change in matters which are regarded as doctrinal” and that they would still be safeguarding the essential doctrines of the Church of England.
This is despite the fact that GS2328 clearly accepts that the Book of Common Prayer teaches that marriage “is the proper context for sexual intercourse” and that it is the Church’s “understanding” that “the place of sexual intimacy [is] within marriage.”
This all raises many questions, not least why the doctrinal difficulties were not acknowledged in February, and whether the Bishops are correct in this new argument that their proposed departure from doctrine would not be “in any essential matter.”
Bearing in mind the church has been considering issues around this since 1978, this appears a most surprising conclusion to come to. It is also inconsistent with statements made by the House of Bishops as recently as 2019. It was also confirmed this morning by the representative of FAOC (The Faith and Order Commission) that they consider the doctrine of marriage (which includes the place of sex) NOT to be a “matter indifferent.”
As such the conclusion of the Bishops seems open to serious doubt.
Friends – there must be transparency and proper process in this matter. I am sure that you will agree that it is essential that synod is not encouraged to try to pass proposals that are in fact ultra vires their powers as a legislative body. We are not able to be sure that the proposals to commend the prayers are lawful because we have not seen any updated legal advice on the matter. As part of our responsibilities as legislators we do need to be satisfied that any proposals are lawful. In the words of the Bishop of London, we ourselves need “full and frank legal advice in confidence.”
The legal office themselves said in February that the full suite of prayers and the full pastoral guidance needed to be presented before they can provide a final view on their legality.
I therefore do not believe we have been provided with what we need in order to make this decision. I urge you to vote for the amendment.
*Annex A to GS 2383
In considering those questions, we have had careful regard to the theological rationale for the making of pastoral provision which includes the following:
• that it is not intended to change the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage;
• that the Church’s teaching on sexual activity is regarded as part of that doctrine;
• that the PLF are intended to recognise and respect that doctrine;
• that the PLF affirm the goods in same-sex relationships, including stability, faithfulness, exclusive, lifelong commitment etc.;
• that the PLF say nothing about sex but many same-sex couples will be in active sexual relationships.