When is a liturgical blessing a blessing?

The result of the House of Bishops’ report to the forthcoming General Synod will be published on Friday. However, there are enough leaks today to start to construct the core elements or key decisions. First, the House of Bishops will not be permitting a change in the current ban within the Church of England on equal marriage/same-sex marriage. Marriage, at least under the terms of their report, will be restricted to opposite-sex couples within the CofE. Second, the current official practice of diocesan bishops seeking clarification as to the amount of genital activity going on in clergy same-sex marriages and civil partnerships will cease. Thirdly, prayer resources including prayers for God’s blessing upon same-sex marriages will be drafted, with a view to formal approval by the General Synod.

It isn’t my intention to engage in discussion regarding the first two of the above decisions – that will be done with passion and eloquence elsewhere. My comments come from my specialism as a teacher of liturgy and from my related interest in ecclesiastical law.

A ‘prayer for God’s blessing’ is not the same, in liturgical terms, as a ‘blessing’. In an Anglican context, one does not need to be an ordained priest to pray that God would bless someone or some situation. Anyone can do it, and were a priest to do it, it would convey no extra liturgical benefit, nor be indicative of any specific or extra authority bestowed by the Church. Whilst evangelicals and people of a low church theology might argue that the difference between ‘a blessing’ said by a priest and a ‘prayer for blessing’ said by a priest is zero – nevertheless, within Anglican practice a distinction does appear to exist, in that blessing ‘God’s people in the Name of the Lord’ is a ministry specific to the ordained priesthood and when others, not in priests’ orders (for example licensed lay ministers) do it, they must turn the pronouns of the blessing from ‘you’ to ‘us’. Both the ordinal, and ministerial distinction of language in Anglican liturgical practice both argue that there is a difference between ‘blessing’ and ‘praying for God’s blessing’, with the former implying an act with formal authority given by the Church and, therefore, a sanction of what is being blessed.

Now, at this stage in the proceedings (prior to the publication of the bishops’ report) it may be that this distinction of language in the informal accounts is accidental, and that the report will, indeed, recommend forms of blessing (rather than forms of prayer for God’s blessing). But I think this is less likely, because in terms of the Anglican liturgy of marriage there is a significant theological implication: it is a priest’s blessing which marks the principal difference between a marriage ceremony conducted in a church and a marriage ceremony conducted elsewhere. In the early centuries of Christian practice, marriages could only be contracted in civil legal settings, but Christian couples would then join the community to have their marriage blessed by the bishop or priest in the community of the faithful. This is termed the nuptial blessing, and it is, essentially, the ‘value-added’ element of a Christian liturgical marriage service. Indeed, there are countries where all legal components of a marriage service are solemnised in a state context, and the Church blesses the legal entity thereafter. So it would seem that the House of Bishops have not only decided not to permit the solemnisation of a marrage in a Church of England Church, but may also be preserving the current ban on giving it the nuptial blessing which is given to opposite-sex couples. For them to have done otherwise would, effectively, have been allowing a same-sex marriage to be blessed, giving the specifically Christian ‘value-added’ bit, whilst preventing the legal solemnisation. By opting, instead, to allow prayers ‘asking for God’s blessing’ the bishops are hedging their liturgical (and theological bets) by asking God to do something that they are not entirely sure He approves of, and therefore leaving the judgement to Him.

Of course, this position is not going to satisfy those those who thought the bishops might permit same-sex marriages to ‘be blessed’, still less those who wanted full equal / same-sex marriage to be solemnised in the Church of England. In the Church in Wales, although same-sex marrages are not legally solemnised in churches, the new liturgy does explicitly bless the couple as married and also blesses the rings. What the English bishops are proposing seems to be substantially less than this. (Although I could be proved wrong when the report is published later this week.) For some conservatives/traditionalists, this may come as a relief, since the Church will not have moved in terms of augmenting its liturgical marriage practice. For advocates of equal marriage, this will be thin gruel indeed.

So if we suppose that the Bishops’ line is held in subsequent synodical debates, and that no prayer is authorised whereby a priest could bless a same-sex, legally-married couple, what is the position in church law pertaining to a priest who were to bless the relationship of such a couple anyway? Well it initially depends on whether the House of Bishops has the stomach to go a step further and issue a formal statement forbidding priests to do so (or reaffirm any such statement in force) – were that the case, any priest doing a blessing would open him or herself up to action under the Clergy Discipline Measure, which is a fairly easy thing to trigger and cost-effective to pursue. The legal authority of any new services drafted to ‘ask for God’s blessing’ which the bishops seem to be proposing would fall under Canon B4. However, in this circumstance (and in the absence of specific instructions from the House of Bishops forbidding priests to bless same-sex marriages) it would still be possible for a priest to use a form of blessing in the case of a same-sex couple under the terms of Canon B5, which allows priests to use a form of service which is neither authorised by Canons B1, B2 or B4. There is one problem for such a clergyperson adopting this approach: the Canon indicates that All variations in forms of service and all forms of service used under this Canon shall be reverent and seemly and shall be neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter. Would such a blessing be such a ‘departure’? Given what the House of Bishops have said, that would seem to be the case, but how would such a matter be judged?

The Clergy Discipline Measure specifically omits doctrine and worship from its brief. The reason is that the history of prosecuting clergy for liturgical deviation has a bad history in the memory of the Church. Anglo-catholics of the 19th century were prosecuted for their vestments and incense, and nowadays the resulting lack of stomach in the Church to enforce liturgical propriety has also benefitted charismatic evangelicals, whose liturgies often fall far short of the authorised rubrics. As a result, the legislation governing liturgical misdemeanours remains the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963. The legal procedures under this measure are somewhat more circuitous (and expensive to prosecute) than those of the CDM, which replaced it in all other areas. Were a priest to conduct a blessing of a same-sex marriage using – say – the form of blessing from the Church in Wales, it would require an EJM process to judge whether the priest’s liturgical actions had been in breach of Canon B5.

Further questions then follow: would any bishop be willing to embark on such a process (and thereby restart the practice of making liturgical martyrs)? How difficult would it be to prosecute (and maybe this is one reason why the House of Bishops have been at pains to emphasise that they are unwilling to change the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage)? Has the House of Bishops actually taken legal advice on what to do in exactly this case in advance of publishing their report? How would it look, if a priest in the Church of England is prosecuted for using a form of Anglican worship which is completely legal just across the Severn Bridge?

Theoretically, it might also be possible for a diocesan bishop to produce a form whereby a priest may conduct a blessing of a same-sex marriage within their diocese (under Canon B4) and be brought to book under the same EJM. However, that scenario seems rather less likely, unless the House of Bishops’ report were followed by the publication of a minority report, indicating a fracture of episcopal unity on the matter within the CofE (to match that, not only of the Anglican Communion, but Anglicans in the British Isles).

Either way, I think the liturgical implications of Friday’s House of Bishops report are likely to be interesting, and the possibility of a widely-publicised test case, highly likely.

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