The bishops of the Church of England have finally announced what it is they want to do at the end of the Living in Love and Faith process. In a press release this morning, their plans were made public.
They will be issuing an apology to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, Queer, Intersex, and other people (LGBTQI+) for the “rejection, exclusion, and hostility” they have faced in churches. After what they describe as a 6 year period of listening and learning, they have decided they will “offer the fullest possible pastoral provision without changing the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony for same-sex couples through a range of draft prayers, known as Prayers of Love and Faith, which could be used voluntarily in churches for couples who have marked a significant stage of their relationship such as a civil marriage or civil partnership.” They will also be replacing Issues in Human Sexuality, which binds clergy to celibacy outside of heterosexual marriage, with new pastoral guidance. The basis for this is given in large bold letters as “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16).
The proposals would not allow gay weddings in church, but there would be services of dedication and thanksgiving pronouncing God’s blessing on same-sex couples who marry or enter civil partnerships. They assert that “The formal teaching of the Church of England as set out in the canons and authorised liturgies – that Holy Matrimony is between one man and one woman for life – would not change.” Such things would be “would be voluntary for clergy to use”, we are told. Differences remain amongst the bishops over these issues, but we are assured that they wish to “emphasise a clear and strong desire to continue to “walk together” amid their differences.” The Archbishop of York describes this as “not the end of that journey but we have reached a milestone, and I hope that these prayers of love and faith can provide a way for us all to celebrate and affirm same-sex relationships.”
Responding in Love and Faith
There are so many things to say in response to this that it is hard to know where to begin. It may be best to outline some initial responses simply in bullet point form, before we get the more detailed proposals (on Friday apparently).
1. Sincere and specific apologies should be given.
The main thing I want to stress is that this is not an abstract academic issue but one which affects real people in the real world. Many have been hurt by the way they have been treated by the church. Sincere and specific apologies should be given to specific individuals where that is the case. We cannot apologise for following Christ and proclaiming his word, as if that was not somehow the best way for us all to live. But we can and should apologise where we have fallen short of the standards demanded of us in God’s word. What I want is for all of us who are fallen and sinful human beings to be made whole and holy by Jesus as we repent of our sins and believe in him. Everyone should be welcome in our churches to explore what that call to repentance and faith looks like in the twenty-first century; not just certain kinds of sinners, but all of us.
2. We can’t bless what God curses.
How can we promote and bless and celebrate and give thanks for things which God has not blessed? It is simply not good enough to throw 1 John 4:16 into this debate like a grenade and think that “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God” is sufficient to establish that he approves of same-sex marriage relationships. This text is beloved of revisionists in the current debate (and is probably where the title for Living in Love and Faith comes from) but is rarely unpacked in its context. What they seem to want it to mean is that it doesn’t matter who or what you love, God is in you if you love them. But is it possible to be living in sinful love, and to hold on to the true Christian faith? Or does orthodox Christian belief rule out certain kinds of love? I was denounced on Twitter by a leading gay activist clergyman recently for even using the phrase “sinful love”. Apparently, there’s no such thing as “sinful love”, only love — defined any way we want. And it’s homophobic to suggest otherwise, he said. But the rest of 1 John itself has much to say about what we love and desire. For example, chapter 2:
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)
And here’s the thing: that phrase about “doing the will of God” there, defines what John means by love. Our loves are meant to conform to God’s loves. If our loves, lusts, and desires go against his will, we do not live in God and he in us, and we will not live forever. That’s what 1 John is saying. It chimes in perfectly with the rest of the New Testament which insists that certain behaviour (including certain sexual behaviour, but not only sexual behaviour) will exclude people from the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 5; Galatians 5; Ephesians 5). That’s why this is so serious. We need to know what love is, and what faith is, if we want to live forever. Not all love leads to God.
So how can we tell people that something God has said will lead to death, will actually lead to life? Would it not be wicked of us to lie about something so important? Could we ever hope to avoid God’s judgment on us if we knowingly lead people astray like this? As Ros Clarke asked in a blogpost recently, how can we bless what God detests? Or as John Calvin once put it,
“How can any one have the effrontery to expect that God will aid him in accomplishing desires at variance with his word? What God with his own lips pronounces cursed, never can be prosecuted with his blessing.” (Institutes 3.7.9)
3. It IS a change of doctrine.
It is sleight of hand at best and a downright lie at worst to claim that allowing for the blessing of same-sex marriage relationships in church is not a change in the Church’s doctrine of marriage. Sex outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful, and has always been recognised as so by the church in every place and in every time. It has been recognised as so by the General Synod. To change this, in order to bless homosexual relationships, is not just a piece of minor tinkering.
The great theologian Thomas Aquinas said that if someone teaches that God is not a Trinity, or that sexual immorality is not a sin, then they are a heretic (see his commentary on Titus 3). That has always been the universal teaching of the church. To accept this change is to change our doctrine and practice, because our practice reflects our doctrine. It would make us heretics, just as surely as if the bishops told us we could use Unitarian prayers and were at liberty to argue against the doctrine of the Trinity. The bishops can’t make it a non-change simply by stating that this change is not a change. For us to swallow such casuistry requires far too much mental gymnastics. It convinces no-one.
Some say the status quo is the only option. I say that the church has already slipped away from reflecting orthodox doctrine in its recent changes to practice, and needs to return to orthodoxy, not just stick where it is. But what it cannot do is abandon orthodoxy while pretending it hasn’t, just because technically it won’t call same-sex blessings “marriage”.
4. Liturgy must reflect orthodox doctrine.
The law says, in Canon B4.1: “The Convocations of Canterbury and York may approve within their respective provinces forms of service for use in any cathedral or church or elsewhere on occasions for which no provision is made in The Book of Common Prayer or by the General Synod under Canon B 2, being forms of service which in both words and order are in their opinion reverent and seemly and neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.”
So any liturgy which the bishops may be about to present to us or suggest to us for use in blessing same-sex marriage or civil partnership relationships simply cannot be permissible under canon law. There are no two ways about it: such liturgies would indicate a massive and obvious departure from the doctrine of the Church of England in a matter which both sides of this debate recognise as absolutely essential. If clergy can be disciplined or rebuked for tampering with liturgy, especially in wedding services, then why do the bishops think they can get away with proposing liturgies which signal the most fundamental shift in church doctrine since the Reformation? Do they expect us to swallow that whole?
Who do they think they are? Bishops are asked at their consecrations: “Will you teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it, will you refute error, and will you hand on entire the faith that is entrusted to you?” Were they serious when they replied “With the help of God, I will”? What are we to conclude about God’s help, if they no longer will? It would be a fearsome thing to be led by those whom God had abandoned.
5. This compromise is unworkable.
Perhaps this is the art of compromise, doing something that will please no-one? Liberals are not happy because the proposals do not bring in gay marriage in full, and the kind of radical inclusion they were looking for. Conservatives are not happy because the proposals would enshrine heresy in the church. Those who treasure unity above all are askance at all the disunity. So should we be content that nobody gets everything they want, and try to make it work?
The main question ought to be: does this please God, or not? But God seems to have been sidelined in the Church of England, in favour of a political balancing act which aims simply to keep the show on the road long enough for Justin Welby to still be allowed to do the Coronation as leader of the established church. What Penny Mordaunt, the Leader of the House of Commons, thinks seems to have more weight than what God thinks, for the House of Bishops today. As Joshua Penduck has nicely shown, there is an existential choice facing the Church, with respect to who we want to please, God or the state. If we give in and change our doctrine (in law or in practice), he says, “We will stop becoming the centre of a vibrant, growing communion of (in the main) black and Asian poor, and instead become the centre of a declining communion of (in the main) rich, middle-class white people.”
As Chris Moore has convincingly demonstrated, this sort of "pastoral accommodation" leads to pastoral breakdown. There will be huge pressure put upon those clergy and those churches who do not wish to see these changes. Will the bishops defend and protect such people from the media, especially the outraged hordes on social media who will take to Twitter and Facebook to denounce their local vicar if they refuse, however sensitively, to perform one of the new blessings? Will they help them, when links with church schools and other local groups are adversely affected by such a stance in line with the universal teaching of the church for the last 20 centuries? It seems unlikely, given how quick many of them have been to virtue-signal on this topic on social media. Are there any bishops publicly defending the orthodox line online? And it will split every single parish in the land, creating mini-schisms in every PCC and every deanery as some adopt the changes and some don’t. Multi-parish benefices will become even more unworkable. Not to mention the unhappy fate of optional orthodoxy, the idea (known as Neuhaus’s Law) that where orthodoxy is made optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed and forbidden.
This is an unsustainable and unstable compromise. The Archbishop of York says this is “not the end of the journey” — he expects there to be further changes down the road. So this cannot stand. It must not stand.
6. It’s time to move on.
We have had a very lengthy process. We have been discussing this subject in the Church of England literally for decades (Homosexual Relationships report in 1979; Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991; Some Issues in Human Sexuality in 2003; Men and Women in Marriage in 2013; The Pilling Report in 2013; Living in Love and Faith since 2020). What I want to say is, it’s now time to move on. There is a correlation between progressive ideology (including blessing of same-sex relationships) and church decline. Liberalism and the tolerance of liberalism have ruined and emptied many churches over the last 100 years. Why would we want to keep pushing down this road?
There has been no convincing argument made for us to change our doctrine and practice. Living in Love and Faith and it’s associated survey, provided no warrant for change, no biblical justifications for a shift of this magnitude, as I have already stated elsewhere. The Bishop of Oxford made no real attempt to argue from the Bible in his case for change, so ably countered by Vaughan Roberts. The Bishop of Worcester delved so deeply into the Bible that he was able to make a puerile point about Solomon having hundreds of wives, which apparently proves there is no biblical doctrine of marriage. Teenagers would hoot at such impudence in a sixth form debating society, but it is hardly biblical scholarship. Again, Martin Davie easily takes his argument apart piece by rusting piece.
I think it’s insulting that clergy are all forced to study the Bible and theology before being ordained and yet the bishops have made no attempt to argue for a change here biblically or theologically, preferring sentimentality, pragmatics, and cultural accommodation. Scripture remains our standard, and as Kirsten Birkett has said,
“Whatever the topic, if the church has agreed, almost universally, for pretty much all of its history, it is unlikely that a new and innovative reading is correct. It is not impossible: but those who would advocate a new reading have a huge burden of proof to meet. There must be truly overwhelming biblical evidence that the new reading is reasonable, and more reasonable than the old.”
Other denominations are available. It is time for those who have failed to persuade us of the need and biblical basis for changing our doctrine and practice, to move on and move out of the Church of England. There are plenty of other denominations and individual fellowships which will accept and affirm your liberal views. Lead the way, with the courage of your convictions, and go — not with our blessing perhaps, but with our appreciation of your integrity.
7. This is the time to work together.
It has been most encouraging to see orthodox people within the Church of England working together over the last few years, especially within CEEC. We need to unite against these new proposals now, with anyone (evangelical or otherwise) who sees the danger and the incoherence of them. With eyes open to our own differences and disagreements, of course, but with determination to safeguard the Church from the real spiritual harm that will be done by the bishops if they are allowed to persist with this approach.
Church Society members — now is the time to talk together and pray together! Join us on Zoom for one of our Coffee Hours (Thursday 19th January at 4pm for example — the links have been sent to all members, or contact the office if you have not received them). We will be taking counsel together on these issues. Join us at our monthly prayer meeting too! We send out the link every month to members, and again, if you don't receive the link, please contact the office. Join us, as we seek the Lord in the midst of all this turbulence and uncertainty. As 2 Chronicles 20:12 says, when many are ranged against us, we must pray: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”
Finally, have you considered becoming a Partner Church with Church Society? In the current climate in the Church of England, it is increasingly important for churches to be able to clearly identify themselves as faithful to the Bible, faithful to historical Anglicanism, and faithful on the most pressing issues of the day, including matters of gender and sexuality. Identifying as a Church Society Partner Churches is an easy way for churches to make that public commitment, and to know that they are doing so as part of a wider fellowship of churches across the country. More information about becoming a Partner Church is here. Now is a crucial time to be working together and standing together publicly for the truth, not growing weary, but persisting in our work for the glory of God and the good of England.
Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society and author of Fight Valiantly: Contending for the Faith against False Teaching in the Church.