The theological rationale published by CofE bishops in support of their proposed prayers to bless same-sex couples contain welcome honesty, says Sean Doherty. But the pastoral guidance is still fatally flawed and pleases neither side, he says


Source: Alamy

When the Church of England House of Bishops published their proposals for prayers for couples in same-sex relationships back in January, I shared eight reasons why I thought they wouldn’t work. The first reason I gave was the lack of a theological or biblical basis given for the proposals. 

The House has done further work since then and has recently published new supporting documents (GS2328) with the latest version of its proposals, including a “Theological Rationale” (you can read more about what is happening here).

An honest response

The articulation of a theological rationale for the proposals is very welcome. It deserves more consideration than there is time to give it between the publication of the documents on 20 October and the General Synod meeting on 13-15 November. But, having previously called for a theological rationale, it seems only fair that I give an initial response prior. I still don’t think the proposed prayers will achieve what they intend, and I’ll explain why below.

Let’s start with two positives.

GS2328 is honest about where we are starting from. It confirms that “the Church’s teaching on sexual relations [ie that they belong within opposite-sex marriage] is part of the Church’s doctrine of marriage”. Of course, not everyone thinks this is what the Church should teach. But it’s important to be honest that this is what the Church does teach. Changing that would need theological justification.

Secondly, GS2328 is honest about the fact that, while a small General Synod majority are in favour of changing the CofE’s approach to same-sex relationships, “there is only fragile agreement” about this, and what that change should be. It recognises that “as a whole Church, as a body, we simply have not come to a conclusion.”

The PLF are being proposed in spite of the sexual dimension of same-sex relationships, rather than because of them

This should not be regarded as a failure. Discernment and consensus take time and patience. Previously it has taken the Church literally centuries to settle doctrinal disputes. Why should we think current disagreements will be any easier?  We have to wait on the Holy Spirit for as long as it takes, and keep trying to work stuff out together in the meantime.

A place of uncertainty

Nevertheless, the document is right to ask what we should do now in this place of uncertainty. The pastoral needs of same-sex couples cannot simply be put on hold. Its answer is to attempt to make a “provisional” pastoral response for same-sex couples that meets their needs, adheres to current Church teaching and acknowledges the uncertainty in which we find ourselves.

We are all familiar with pastoral provision (or accommodation), even if we don’t use the term. It is simply a realistic acknowledgement that life is messy, we are all far from perfect and we come to Jesus with real life and history.

The document gives a couple of (well worn) examples, namely that the Church celebrates remarriage after divorce in some circumstances, while holding the fundamental view that marriage should be lifelong; and “responses to polygamy in the Anglican Communion” in which polygamy is not condoned, but there is a recognition that to walk away from a polygamous relationship may make matters worse, particularly for vulnerable women.

Pastoral accommodation tries to make realistic and compassionate allowances for where people are, while respecting Christian teaching.

A critical confusion

However, the document confuses two things. The House of Bishops is trying to address the moral disagreement and uncertainty in the Church about sexual intimacy within same-sex relationships. But the approach of pastoral accommodation is designed to make allowance for the moral ambiguity of a situation in which a couple find themselves in a committed relationship which falls outside the Church’s teaching. Put simply, the House has adopted the solution to a different problem to the one they are trying to solve. It is therefore not the right solution.

This can be seen in the profound hurt that many LGBT Christians have expressed about GS2328. The document goes out of its way to recognise the virtues embodied in same-sex relationships: commitment, compassion, exclusivity, faithfulness, enabling the flourishing of each partner, fruitfulness, generosity, grace, hospitality, love, nurture, stability, and blessing the wider community.

The length of the list only makes sexual intimacy conspicuous by its absence. It is the one thing the theological rationale cannot be positive about. This is because the Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF) are being proposed in spite of the sexual dimension of same-sex relationships, rather than because of them.

Pastoral provision is simply an acknowledgement that life is messy and we come to Jesus with history

This is a point powerfully made by Rev Dr John Seymour: “GS2328 wants to recognise the goods of this category of relationship while erasing the actual part that human sexuality plays in producing them.” The theological rationale maintains that, from the Church’s point of view, same-sex sexual relationships are not “ideal”. No wonder people are hurt and offended.

I am not suggesting that the sexual dimension of same-sex relationships is more important than of opposite-sex relationships, or that the sexual dimension of a relationship is the only thing that is good or important about it. But same-sex relationships are not platonic. Nor do same-sex couples see their relationships as second-best approximations of something good. The vast majority of same-sex couples regard their relationships as participating in the same kind of fundamental goodness as an opposite-sex marriage. This is precisely what the theological rationale denies.

Many people in same-sex relationships therefore understandably feel that they would rather not have the PLF at all on such terms. All it does is rub their noses in the fact that their relationships are, in fact, against the teaching of the Church.

A different space

I previously argued that the PLF won’t work because of their lack of theological basis. Now, I think they won’t work because they seek to address the moral uncertainty in the Church by treating same-sex couples as if it is their relationships which are morally uncertain. This makes the PLF unacceptable precisely to the people for whom they are intended.

I commend the honesty of GS2328, but the way forward needs an even more honest recognition that our disagreements are at the doctrinal level. Those who want to bless same-sex relationships wholeheartedly, and those who are convinced by the present doctrine of the Church, will need different doctrinal spaces to be able to follow their convictions with integrity.