Any decision at the end of the LLF process was going to face challenges but the responses to the bishops’ proposals suggest that there are four particular failures in their approach which have made matters worse.
Firstly, in contrast to the detailed work of LLF, and failing to draw on that work, the bishops gave minimal explanation or theological justification for their proposals. Secondly, they proposed a liturgical response to different life situations without—as the ten points above demonstrate—offering any account of what pattern of same-sex relationship might be considered fitting within Christian discipleship. When asked about this the Bishop of London said in an answer (to Q163) in February, that we need to wait for the Pastoral Guidance as that “will include setting out unequivocally the necessary qualities for a relationship to be considered chaste, faithful and holy”. Thirdly, although committing to uphold the doctrine of marriage and thus rejecting a change to extend this to include same-sex marriage, the bishops were not clear as to what else—particularly in relation to sexual behaviour—should be considered as part of the doctrine of marriage. Nor were they clear whether they were proposing to change current teaching on sexual ethics. It was, for example, unclear whether what the Bishop of London had stated only in November last year in answer to a Synod question still applied:
Canon B 30 does indeed continue to articulate the doctrine of the Church, including asserting that holy matrimony is the proper context for sexual intimacy.
All three of these failings arose because it seems there was not sufficient time to achieve any consensus on them. The problem is that without any clarity and consensus in these areas, the proposals are inherently unstable and arguably incoherent.
A further cause of instability and incoherence is a fourth feature of the proposals (number 7 above): to justify offering the prayers, including prayers of blessing, to couples in same-sex marriages the bishops, with the support of the Legal Office, offered a novel and contentious argument distinguishing holy matrimony from civil same-sex marriages. The relationship between civil marriage and holy matrimony after the introduction of same-sex marriage was not a question covered within LLF although it produced an invaluable “Brief History of Marriage Law” by Professor Julian Rivers. The answer now being offered represents a complete reversal of all previous legal and theological statements including in the Church of England’s successful case defending the refusal of Bishop Inwood, Acting Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, to give a licence to Jeremy Pemberton who was in a civil same-sex marriage. There, as set out in the original employment tribunal judgment of October 2015, the employment appeal tribunal judgment of December 2016 and the Court of Appeal Decision in March 2018, a key argument advanced was that the bishops’ actions were necessary because to be in a same-sex civil marriage was incompatible with the doctrine of the Church of England in relation to marriage.
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