In my last blog post, I was operating ‘blind’ – so to speak – in interpreting the description of ‘services asking for God’s blessing’ that was being used after the leak of the bishops’ deliberations on Wednesday. My hunch proved correct. The House of Bishops’ draft of Prayers of Love and Faith that will be laid before the General Synod next month do not contain any prayer or statement in which a priest blesses a same-sex couple. God, however, is petitioned to bless the couple. So, indeed, the bishops have hedged their bets in a way which says “God, we’re not sure you approve of homosexual acts, so if you do, could you bless this couple? But we’re not going be doing it ourselves, just to be on the safe side.” Compare, for example, the following texts – one from the House of Bishops’ draft, and one from the Church in Wales:
God of generosity and joy,Draft of Prayers of Love and Faith
with you is the well of life and in your light, we see light:
we give you thanks for N and N,
for the love and friendship they share,
and for their commitment to one another.
As they come before you this day,
trusting you as the giver of all good gifts,
strengthen their love by your love,
gladden their hearts with your joy,
and transform their journey through life
into a pilgrimage of grace.
By your blessing,
and with you as their companion and guide,
may they rejoice in hope and be sustained in love
all the days of their life and in the age to come.
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The love of the Lord bind you together with cords that cannot be broken. Amen.Church in Wales, Liturgy for the Blessing of a Same-sex Civil Marriage or Civil Partnership
The love of the Lord nurture you as you learn to love each other more and more. Amen.
The love of the Lord challenge you to become people fully alive to him. Amen.
The love of the Lord watch over you and protect you from all that is evil. Amen.
The love of the Lord bless you as you journey on together. Amen.
The love of the Lord bring you to eternal life. Amen.
By way of comparison and reference, we might also look at one of the blessing prayers over a heterosexual couple, following a civil marriage, in Common Worship: An order of prayer and dedication after a civil marriage
Almighty God give you grace to persevere,
that he may complete in you
the work he has already begun,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Lord bless and watch over you,
the Lord make his face shine upon you
and be gracious to you,
the Lord look kindly on you and give you peace
all the days of your life.
In the language, something different is happening: in the first example (Prayers of Love and Faith), the minister is petitioning God, so the words are addressed to Him. Nothing is being said to the couple. In the second example (Church in Wales), prayers of blessing are being said to the couple, by the Church, represented by the ordained minister. In the third example (CofE: blessing of a couple following a civil marriage), prayers of blessing are being said to the (heterosexual) couple, by the Church, represented by the ordained minister. In liturgy (and law), words matter. In pastoral liturgy, especially when a person is being addressed, words matter at an even deeper level. In the kerfuffle following Wednesday night’s leak, there were comments from bishops and others in the know using somewhat less disciplined language, implying that the Church of England would be bringing in services of blessing. We now know that that is not what is being proposed.
I explained in my previous blog post why this would problematic in the light of the decision by the bishops not to change the Church’s definition of marriage – blessing the couple is really the principal ‘value-added’ part of a Christian marriage liturgy. The draft text of Prayers of love and faith takes careful steps to explain this:
The prayers and forms of service commended here are ‘neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’ (including, but not limited to, the definition of Holy Matrimony in Canon B 30).
As with all forms of service commended by the House of Bishops, any variations to the sample services or to the prayers in the Resource Section must be in conformity with §3 of Canon B 5.Ibid, p.22
What is also interesting is that the House of Bishops seem to have offered this as a resource that clergy may use under Canon B5 (which is quoted in full in the text), rather than Canon B4 as I had initially surmised. This is the equivalent of your local bishop popping an A5 booklet in the post to their clergy with a note to say, “if you’re going to use your discretion under Canon B5 to use texts for which there is no other provision in engaging with same-sex couples, I suggest you use these, as we’ve examined them and believe that they are in conformity with §3 of Canon B5.” I quoted §3 of Canon B5 in my previous blog post, but for the record, it reads thus:
3. 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.
That the draft text of Prayers of Love and Faith goes so far as to quote the full canon explicitly and then to put the reinforcing sentence following it makes clear that the bishops (and their lawyers) are specifically watching the actions of clergy with a close eye to conformity, and know exactly what some clergy might try. This anticipates a scenario which I examined in my previous blog post about substituting – say – one of the Welsh blessings for the CofE “prayers for God’s blessing.” The scene is therefore set for a test case under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 (the EJM), with a convening of the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved, which has only sat twice in the entire history of that Measure.
The House of Bishops’ accompanying report has a specific shout-out box entitled Reflections on Blessing, which seeks to explain the difference between blessing and approval. They also explicate that this is indeed hedging of liturgical (and theological) bets which I referred to in my previous blog post:
Our prayers ask for God’s blessing – they are prayers, not pronouncements. God will answer as God chooses.Bishops response to LLF p. 6
So that should put to bed any claim that the Church of England has decided “to bless same-sex marriages”. The liturgy explicitly doesn’t do that.
In addition to not blessing the couple, the rings are not blessed either. Rings are dealt with in a novel way, with “a Prayer when Rings are Worn”. In this respect, the similarity with the prayers over the rings in the Marriage Service is closer. What the drafters seem to be keen to avoid is any sense of an “exchange of rings” within the service. This is also the case in Common Worship: An Order for Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage, where the notes explain:
4 The Rings
Because the marriage has already taken place, no ring is to be given or received in the course of the service. If a ring is worn and the prayer of blessing is to be used, the hand should be extended towards the minister.An Order for Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage, Notes
I wonder how many times that note is observed or not observed in current practice. But more to the point, Prayers of Love and Faith never mention that a “marriage has already taken place”. The words available for heterosexual couples following their civil marriage are exactly those of the Marriage Service, with the only difference being the lack of an exchange. However, in the case of the provision in Prayers of Love and Faith, the words are different. Compare the two options available to couples in Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage with what is proposed in the text for same-sex couples. First, Common Worship:
Heavenly Father, by your blessing
let these rings be to N and N
a symbol of unending love and faithfulness,
to remind them of the vow and covenant
which they have made this day
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Heavenly Father, source of everlasting love,Common Worship: Marriage, prayer in the main text, prayer in the Supplemental Texts
revealed to us in Jesus Christ and poured into our hearts through your Holy Spirit;
that love which many waters cannot quench, neither the floods drown;
that love which is patient and kind, enduring all things without end;
by your blessing, let these rings be to N and N
symbols to remind them of the covenant made this day
through your grace in the love of your Son
and in the power of your Spirit. Amen.
Second, Prayers of Love and Faith:
God of faithfulness and joy,
source of everlasting love,
by your blessing, let these rings remind N and N
of the commitment they have made to each other,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(or)Prayers of Love and Faith (Draft) p.9
whose love is revealed in Jesus Christ
and poured out in the Holy Spirit:
by your blessing, may these rings
worn by your servants N and N
be signs of their hope-filled covenant
and of your everlasting love,
in our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
The most notable difference seems to be the absence of a petition for the rings to act as “symbols of a (vow) and covenant”, with one option of Prayers of Love and Faith changing the word to “signs”. The thinking behind this change of word isn’t clear, but the fact that the prayers are different suggests that the rings for an LGBTQI+ couple are envisaged to perform a different function to the rings worn by a heterosexual couple, though both may follow a marriage which has been solemnised by the state. There is also no acknowledgement in the text that an exchange of rings – in the matrimonial sense – has actually taken place, hence the title “when rings are worn” (rather than “have been exchanged“). The draft rite carefully avoids suggesting that, in the case of LGBTQI+ people, a marriage has been solemnised at all (for to do so would compromise the Church’s assertion that marriage is only between a man and a woman).
This distinction is reinforced by a novelty found in the new text: Sealing of a covenanted friendship. This is the nearest that the text gets to exchange of vows, and is only an option within the rite. In Common Worship: Order of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage, although the couple do not exchange vows ab initio, they are each asked whether they have resolved to be faithful to their husband/wife, forsaking all others, for as long as they both live. The rings are then blessed. In the case of Prayers of Love and Faith, there is no parallel affirmation, but – in the case of a sealing of a covenanted friendship – we have:
The minister may say:
N and N, we delight in your desire to dwell more deeply in the grace of Jesus Christ by sealing a covenant of friendship with each other. We pray that, strengthened by the prayers of your family and friends, you may know God’s help to live in love and faithfulness.
These words of promise may be used:
N, I offer myself to you in love and
may these words be a seal
of my trust and delight in you.
Where you go, I shall go:
I will seek to share your burdens and your joys.
I will pray that you will know God’s delight
and walk with you wherever God calls us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
[The words of promise are repeated by the other partner.]Ibid. p.7
It may be that the Bishops know more than me about rites and practices among the LGBTQI+ community, but I have never heard of a covenanted friendship, and a web search suggests it has only become a common phrase on the internet since yesterday. (But I may have missed something – in which case, I apologise.) The emphasis on the word “friendship” should be read in the light of another aspect of the draft provision: sex, or physical intimacy, is not mentioned in the rites. However, it may well be that the use of the word “friendship” and the coy avoidance of mentioning any physical dimension to the relationship may be taken by some as indicating the Church has a preference for a “friends with benefits” arrangement over marriage in the case of LGBTQI+ couples, which would be unfortunate.
If anyone is tempted to think of the draft provision as obfuscated, I think we should have some sympathy for the drafters and the bishops themselves. They are faced with a fairly stark division of views within the Church of England, and this severely limits what they are able to offer in these draft rites. Yet, if my analysis of the offering is correct, then it would be both wrong and potentially disingenuous for anyone to suggest that the Church of England is offering a service to LGBTQI+ people which is comparable to what it offers to heterosexual couples following a civil marriage. A stark distinction between straight and gay remains.