My past two posts (here, and here) were mainly analytical. This post is exploratory and, to be honest, an attempt at looking into a glass ball. But it’s worth exploring what the future might hold for Prayers of love and faith.
I will begin by assessing how they might fare in the coming General Synod. Based on their reception in the past day or so, I suspect that if the bishops were aiming to put something together that would have a fairly safe chance of getting through synodical consideration, they have achieved it. Both sides will be equally unhappy, but there is enough support in the synod to bypass the conservative minority who would try to block the rites’ passage. The progressive alliance in favour of change is unlikely to demolish them by voting with the conservatives, as that would risk leaving themselves without anything to show for it at the end of a significant process. There are no obvious mechanisms to initiate another similar process in the near future. Furthermore, such a move would, from a progressive position, ‘let the bishops off the hook’ with the blame for inadequate progress passing from the House of Bishops to the synod itself. One can imagine the newspaper headlines – how they would give the false impression that it was the Synod which, as a whole, wanted no change.
For the conservative side of the discussion, some may wish to oppose even the bishops’ proposals, for various reasons. But it looks as though they have not got sufficient clout on their own to do this – after all, the bishops can propose these rites under Canon B5, and unless the synod as a whole refuses to ‘take note’ of their report, it will lead to following action. For this to be prevented, the conservative side would need an overall majority to kick the bishops’ report out, and that seems unlikely unless a significant number of the progressives back them as a spoiler.
Parliament is another matter. There are already reports that MPs are wanting to question the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP (Conservative), about the bishops’ refusal to open the option for same sex couples to marry in the Church of England. In Selous, the bishops are likely to have a doughty defender, as he opposed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in its passage through Parliament prior to the 2013 Act. The Archbishops are also likely to be challenged in the Lords. How far this skirmish is likely to go is hard to predict, but there is a definite showing of the teeth on the part of a good few parliamentarians.
But what, in theory, could Parliament do about it? At this point I am pushing against the limits of my legal knowledge, but let us explore some options:
- Amend the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013
The idea here would be that parliament would make it legal for Church of England clergy to marry a same-sex couple according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England. This would bring about a situation akin to that which preceded the vote by the General Synod to allow divorcees to be married in church. Prior to that vote, the law had permitted clergy to marry divorcees in church, and many did so. The problem was that there had been an Act of Synod, dating from the 1950s, which forbade it. It had no force in marriage law, but could potentially have been used in a case under the Clergy Discipline Measure, had it not been rescinded around the time the CDM itself came into effect.
Amending the Marriage Act 2013 to change its effect in Church of England churches may, however, be a non-trivial process. The Act has the ability of the Church of England to retain a restriction to opposite sex couples weaved into its fabric – at each stage of the Act dealing with religious ceremonies, the Church of England is explicitly exempted. It would probably take a good deal of parliamentary time to make the changes, presumable needing an amending bill to be introduced and the matter to be debated en bloc, with successive committee stages. The second problem is that the canon law of the Church of England is part of the law of the land, so it cannot be ignored by other legislation. Canon C30.1 is explicit that marriage is between a man and a woman.
So the only action that seems likely is for parliamentarians to make life awkward for the Church of England by subjecting church business to extra scrutinies, delays and so on. This would impede the capacity for the Church to change its legislation, increase its fees, promulge new canons, etc. One particular likely target would be the Parochial and Ecclesiastical Fees Orders 2023, which could be held-up. (In the light of the current rate of inflation, these will almost certainly be increased in the drafts put before Parliament.) With well-organised parliamentary tactics, this kind of approach could cause a fair ruckus.
- Amend the Book of Common Prayer?
The authority to alter the Book of Common Prayer rests with Parliament, rather than the General Synod. It may be possible for Parliament to amend the text of the Book of Common Prayer to include an additional service for marrying same-sex couples, or to amend the existing one so that the effect is the same. This seems unlikely, however. Once Parliament starts to make significant amendments to the texts by which the Church of England defines its worship and doctrine, broader questions about the freedom of religion come into play, bearing on British society more generally (and such meddling may well conflict with Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights).
In summary, therefore, the most likely emerging scenarios are (in order of likelihood):
- Churches and clergy, where in agreement, use the texts of Living in love and faith as they stand, with some clergy making minor (and potentially, illegal) amendments where they see fit, which go under the legal radar – because of lack of episcopal oversight, either deliberate or accidental.
- Those bodies and organisations pressing for same-sex marriage equality in the Church of England deliberately seek to embarrass the bishops by public disobedience, risking action under the EJM 1963 and high costs, but also high levels of embarrassment to the Church.
Given either 1, or 2 above, I suspect further change in the foreseeable future is inevitable.