The problem is that, as with the former Prime Minister’s claim, nobody really believes this is the case. How many people really believe that:
- what will be commended in the PLF Suite of Resource—public prayers for God’s blessing on two people of the same sex many of whom will be in a sexual relationship and/or a civil same-sex marriage—has always been lawful in the Church of England and could have been commended by the bishops and used by clergy at any point in the past?
- the use of such prayers does not represent a major change from the historic and current situation?
- while the doctrine of marriage remains unchanged, the proposed use of the PLF is neither contrary to doctrine nor indicative of a departure from in doctrine in any essential matter?
- all these claims have been shown by the House of Bishops to be theologically and legally coherent and convincing?
Charlie Bell, a supporter of getting PLF done but also a severe critic of the latest proposals, recently wrote “what the bishops have done may be legal, but it is not honest”. This echoes the language of Canon C1 and the oath of canonical obedience. The way in which the bishops are proceeding—the “nothing has changed” argument and the refusal to publish the written legal advice they have received—is very difficult to view as honest and to trust. Given the law has not formally been changed, for many the introduction of PLF means that the doctrine to which the law refers has changed in practice. If, as it is being claimed, doctrine has not changed, then what is being proposed seems to many to be not only “not honest” but also, as shown by past legal advice, probably “not legal”.
In short, unless we sincerely believe and are convinced that “nothing has changed”, then we have to say that it appears the bishops are acting in their commendation, and thereby encouraging clergy to act in their services, in ways which are unlawful. In addition, those liturgical actions are now—because of the bishops’ decisions, which do not alter the legality of what they commend and so in one sense could be described as simply symbolic or “virtue signalling”—going to attract much more attention when they take place then they have done in the past. This means clergy who accept at face value and act on the basis of the bishops’ commendation are probably more likely to face legal challenge than they were in the past.
In the light of this, it even more unacceptable that the bishops are now so reticent to set out clearly for parish clergy, and those who advise them such as archdeacons, both
- the changing written legal advice which they have received throughout this process, particularly for their 9th October meeting, and
- a clear explanation as to how what they are now proposing in PLF is, and indeed always has been, legal and how this judgment relates to the content of past legal advice which they have published that would suggest otherwise.
Read it all.