Disagreeing about our disagreements
Mark Vasey-Saunders, author of Defusing the Sexuality Debates, reflects on the February Synod of the Church of England
In the aftermath of the General Synod debate in February, two rival narratives are emerging as to what was decided at Synod and therefore what response might be necessary. In broad terms, the conservative narrative suggests this is a shift away from orthodox faith so significant that it necessitates structural differentiation within the Church of England and may precipitate the breakup of the Anglican Communion. The progressive narrative suggests that if anything the change is too insignificant a change from previous policy to make a difference when much more radical change is necessary. Conservatives argue a decisive break from the historic doctrine of marriage has already happened and is catastrophic, progressives that this sort of decisive break from (though they may prefer ‘evolution of’) the historic doctrine of marriage has not yet happened, but that it is necessary. This suggests not only different ideas as to what the church should do, but also different interpretations of what the church has just done.
Understanding how these very different interpretations can emerge, and both seem self-evidently truth to those who hold them, requires the February 2023 Synod to be seen in the light of the February 2017 Synod, when Synod refused to take note of a strikingly similar set of House of Bishops proposals. In 2017, the recommendations of the Pilling report were that Issues in Human Sexuality be replaced, that a more generous pastoral response to gay people be offered, and that guidance be provided for prayers of blessing. Pilling addressed the reality that liberal clergy were already offering prayers for same-sex couples in services that assumed a form analogous to a service of thanksgiving following a civil marriage. Such services did not hold any formal weight, and skirted the borderline of the permissable, as it is recognised that under Canon B5 clergy have broad discretion in offering pastoral prayers as long as such prayers do not contradict or depart from the doctrine of the church in any essential matter. This legal understanding was confirmed in the legal advice given to Pilling, which was attached to the later Bishop’s take note statement in 2017 as Annexe A. Annexe A presents this as one of a range of legal ways forward, a point which will be relevant later. Pilling, drawing on this legal advice, affirmed that such services were permitted, but did not propose to provide liturgy for such services, instead proposing that the bishops provide clear guidance as to how such services should be conducted in order to ensure that there was consistency of provision, that clergy officiating were protected from disciplinary action, and that the doctrine of the church was not departed from or contradicted. It should be noted that Pilling’s recommendation here represented a theological justification for one of a range of legally permissible options (other options included advising that such services could not happen, or changing the canons to allow same sex marriage).
Thus far it would appear that the progressive narrative that a historic break with the doctrine of marriage has not occurred is simply a restatement of the position of Pilling. However, close attention to the reasoning provided by Pilling presents a more complex picture. Pilling’s argument was that prayers of blessing offered for a gay couple do not represent a departure from or contradiction of the doctrine of marriage because they are a pastoral accommodation – an action taken to show God’s love for and blessing of people in their time of need that does not imply full acceptance of all their moral choices. We can legitimately tell people that God loves them without having to also immediately list all the things they are doing that God might not approve of when pastorally and missionally it would be inappropriate to do so. Offering a gay couple (or indeed any couple) God’s blessing should therefore not be assumed to validate all of the choices that have brought them to this point. This argument still appears to be at the heart of the House of Bishop’s understanding of the significance of offering liturgy for such prayers, even though the language of ‘pastoral accommodation’ is not present. Thus in GS Misc 1339, the legal guidance published alongside the proposal, the same reasoning appears, that a prayer of blessing on someone should not be assumed to imply acceptance of things (in this case a sexual relationship) that the prayer itself is silent about. However, Pilling makes a further argument that now seems to be being radically departed from – that the nature of such prayers as pastoral accommodation permitted under Canon B5 is safeguarded by the fact that it is informal and occasional, and therefore that no liturgy was provided: “Unless the Church of England agrees to some modification of its current teaching on committed, permanent and faithful relationships between two men or two women, it cannot prescribe a liturgy to celebrate them.”
By contrast, GS Misc 1339 ignores the explicit argument of Pilling and refers directly back to the legal advice behind it, stating clearly that “it would in principle be lawful for a minister to use a form of service for two persons of the same sex who wished to mark a stage in their relationship provided that it did not explicitly or implicitly treat or recognise the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex as corresponding to Holy Matrimony.” On this basis, the fact that the draft prayers do not say anything about Holy Matrimony (terminology which the legal guidance uses to distinguish it from civil marriage), and do not imply that those being prayed for are in a relationship that corresponds to Holy Matrimony, the doctrine of the church is argued to not be departed from or contradicted. As long as it is clear that the couple being prayed for are not understood to be married, and the prayers bless them rather than their relationship, logically nothing is said that in any way affects the doctrine of marriage.
Clearly a different judgement is given in 2013 and 2023 as to whether providing liturgy for prayers of blessing constitutes departure from or contradiction of the doctrine of marriage. However, it can also be plausibly maintained that the legal opinion on which the 2023 proposals are based is exactly the same as that of 2013. The insistence of the House of Bishops that the proposals do not contravene Canon B5 and therefore that there is no change to the doctrine of marriage is legally correct. However, the conservative narrative that the proposals constitute a change to the doctrine of marriage is also clearly true in that something described in Pilling as representing a modification of the church’s teaching on marriage is now being described as not representing this. The goalposts appear to have been shifted. There is an understandable sense in which the insistence that nothing has changed feels a little like legal smoke and mirrors, particularly when it is being said to conservatives at the same time as assurances are being given to liberals that this represents meaningful change. At the end of the day, Pilling suggested that a priest in a church using liturgy to pronounce prayers of blessing on a same sex couple represented a change in the doctrine of marriage. GS Misc 1339 suggests it does not. The common sense understanding that if it looks like a dog and barks like a dog then it’s probably a dog is hard to deny.
The biggest danger in our current situation is loss of trust. Conservatives and Liberals are both trying to evaluate whether they can trust the House of Bishops. It is corrosive to both of those relationships if the impression is given that the church is not giving honest answers to people making painful decisions about their future. In 2017, liberals and conservatives together voted not to take note of the proposals of the House of Bishops, a move that prompted a significant rethink of the way the Church approached questions of sexuality. Part of what caused both liberals and conservatives to reject the proposals was the growing sense that the church was no longer honestly trying to address questions of sexuality, but rather trying to play politics, to obfuscate growing divisions, and maintain a difficult status quo. Sexuality was a problem being managed by the church rather than a genuine conversation or act of mutual discernment. Gaslighting conservatives by shifting goalposts whilst denying anything had changed and bribing liberals by promising them meaningful change in the future and a blind eye now in exchange for their silence were the symptoms of this. There is a real danger of slipping back into these old habits and starting up the old game again. The Church is (cautiously) changing its approach to sexuality. It needs to be honest about that.
 The Pilling Report is more formally GS1929 Report of the House of Bishops Working Party on Human Sexuality (2013)
 Bishop’s Take Note Statement GS2055, 2017, p16.
 Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality 2013, p110.
 Prayers of Love and Faith: A note from the Legal Office GS Misc 1339, 2023, p1. The language here is almost identical to GS2055 Annexe A option Cii (p17).
Mark Vasey-Saunders is a priest in the Church of England and works as a tutor at St Hild College, Yorkshire, teaching anglicanism, doctrine and ethics. He has served in a variety of dioceses over the last twenty years and currently lives in Lancaster. Mark's book Defusing the Sexuality Debate: The Anglican Evangelical Culture War will be published in June and is available for pre-order now,