On Monday evening, at the end of the first day of the House of Bishops meeting, a press release was issued announcing that the Prayers of Love and Faith were being commended. Bishops are free to commend prayers at any time, without requiring synodical approval. However, such prayers should not constitute liturgy and should be consistent with the doctrine of the church.
The bishops think they have cleverly avoided the first requirement by telling us that there will be liturgy brought to General Synod for scrutiny in 2025 and this is not that. And yet, the majority of the actual prayers are already part of Church of England liturgy, in the marriage service, or prayers commended for use in other contexts. The Prayers of Love and Faith includes possible services - unless these have been removed from the final version. It is certainly anticipated that these prayers will be in regular use.
As for the second requirement, at no point has there been any defence of the repeated statement that the prayers are not indicative of a change in doctrine. A thing does not become true simply because a bishop says it. Nor does it become true through repetition. It is absolutely clear that repurposing marriage liturgy for non-marriage services is changing their use because of a change in doctrine. It changes our doctrine on sexual immorality, by blessing that which the church teaches is sin. It changes our doctrine on marriage, by assuming non-marital relationships to have similar composition and status before God. It changes our doctrine on homosexual relationships by assuming that they can be blessed by God.
Those who hold to the doctrine of the Church of England, which is to say, the doctrine revealed in Scripture, borne witness to in the historic formularies, and clarified in the canons, do not want the Prayers of Love and Faith.
But surely those who want to see things change should welcome them?
Well, no. Following the bishops’ announcement, a number of revisionists expressed their ongoing frustration. And we should not be surprised at this.
Because the bishops have resolutely refused to provide any theological basis for the Prayers of Love and Faith, as they stand, they are profoundly discriminatory. At February General Synod, I described them as ‘profoundly homophobic’, and I stand by that. For, without any justification given, these prayers imply that homosexual relationships can be celebrated and blessed - just not as much as heterosexual relationships. Gay couples can use the same prayers as at any marriage service - but they can’t be married. They can exchange rings - but not wedding rings.
And we have been told explicitly that the church’s doctrine has not changed. So these prayers can only be offered on the basis that the gay couple can’t be married, that if their relationship is sexual, it is sinful, and that their relationship itself can’t be blessed, though we can ask for God to bless them as individuals.
Who is going to want that?
Obviously, no one. Which is why those assurances made to Synod are transparently not true. The Prayers of Love and Faith will only be used where it is assumed that they do represent a change in doctrine. They will be used on the assumption that sex outside heterosexual marriage is not inherently sinful. They will be used on the assumption that God no longer finds homosexual sex detestable in his eyes. They will be used on the basis that the gospel is reconciliation without repentance.
Two years of freely using these prayers will bring us to the vote we should be having in General Synod before they are used at all. Clearly the bishops are hoping that, having opened this particular Pandora’s Box, it will be impossible to close it. In 2025, they will need a two-thirds majority in each of the three houses of General Synod to approve changes under Canon B2. That, not the Prayers of Love and Faith, is their goal. And following that, having established the change of doctrine, same-sex marriage.
In the meantime, there is no sign of the promised pastoral guidance, nor the pastoral ‘reassurance’ to guard the consciences of those whose doctrine remains unchanged. The word of a bishop, it seems, doesn’t count for much these days.
Dr Ros Clarke, Associate Director of Church Society