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I wrote to Bishop Christopher, the Bishop of Southwark, in advance of the last meeting of the College of Bishops as they discussed the response to the Living in Love and Faith process. In that email I tried to encourage both him and Bishop Rosemarie, the Bishop of Croydon, that they carry the burden for all of us in discerning the theological path through what has become a very messy landscape. I shared that I once received incredulity from some maritime retirees whose natural assumption would be to seek higher office. My response to a desire to the Episcopacy was “Who would be a Bishop? It’s a true calling.” To the bemused looks I followed up that “You get all the grief and none of the fun! No parish and hundreds of whinging clergy!!”

I hope that they were encouraged and felt supported in their calling.

The College of Bishops has been meeting again this week and as I write this the House of Bishops is meeting to finalise the detail of what will go to General Synod.

You may now be completely bamboozled by all these collective nouns for Bishops and ecclesial governance. Let me explain before going any further.

General Synod is made up of three “Houses” – Bishops, Clergy and Laity. Its purpose is to be the Governing body of the Church of England and it determines policy and enacts laws (known as Canon Law) that have legal standing for the church and work alongside the more general laws of the land.

The matter at hand is a canon about what constitutes a marriage in the Church of England. To change that would require three stages – a change in the doctrine of marriage (ie theological teaching and understanding of marriage) and that is the Bishop’s remit. Secondly, a change to Canon law to change that doctrine and to amend the authorised liturgy – enacted by Synod but can only be brought to Synod by the Bishops. Thirdly, a change to the law of the land by which the current law and understanding of the Church is enshrined by special provision (the so called triple lock).
Bishops are charged with the following at their consecration:
Will you teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it, will you refute error, and will you hand on entire the faith that is entrusted to you?

Ordinand   By the help of God, I will.
And it is this charge from the Archbishop that means that the Bishops take a lead and have sole authority to bring change to doctrine or liturgy to Synod for consideration.

But why a College AND a House?

Not all Bishops are on General Synod. All the Diocesan Bishops, plus some others are on Synod, and therefore make up the House of Bishops. A collection of all of the Bishops is the College, Diocesan like Bishop Christopher for Southwark, and Area such as Bishop Rosemarie for Croydon.

Hope that’s making sense so far.

In February 2017 the vexed question of Same-Sex Marriage in the church was to be debated, taking a lead from a paper, GS2055, from the House of Bishops. In that paper the Bishops opened up some areas for further exploration but centrally affirmed the current (and traditional) teaching of the church, that marriage is between one woman and one man. The paper was tabled to be noted. Synod voted to “not take note” of GS2055.

Stung by this most passive aggressive rebuke the Archbishops came out a few days later saying that the church would be seeking a “radical new inclusion” and a “Teaching Document” from the Bishops was commissioned. Through a series of Shared Conversations with a wide range of people the process morphed into what became Living in Love and Faith (LLF). This was a £1million vast suite of resources on the areas of marriage, relationships, gender and sex.

Launched in December 2020 these ran as courses and discussion groups at parish, Deanery and Diocesan level until April 2022. During that time a Next Steps group was formed to receive the feedback from anyone who wanted to contribute (note that this was not a scientific survey of opinion – anyone who wanted to write in could – multiple times if they wanted to!) This group reported to the College of Bishops who met twice at the end of 2022.

On Tuesday this week the College met to finalise their proposals to go to General Synod on 6-9th February. The final version of these proposals are being agreed by the House of Bishops (ie the smaller group who are members of Synod) as I write and the final version will come out tomorrow (Friday 20th January).

Then we will know….

But, and this is the reason for the headline above, on Tuesday night 4 Bishops broke cover and spoke to ITV News, leaking some details of what had been agreed. This led to what seemed to be a hastily worded press statement released by the Church of England Communications Department. Two regular press releases on Tuesday and Wednesday basically said “The Bishops met, they received papers, they talked, they agreed, details to follow on Friday”. By Wednesday afternoon the following was released (extract of longer press release):
The Bishops of the Church of England will be issuing an apology later this week to LGBTQI+ people for the “rejection, exclusion and hostility” they have faced in churches and the impact this has had on their lives.

And they will urge all congregations in their care to welcome same-sex couples “unreservedly and joyfully” as they reaffirm their commitment to a “radical new Christian inclusion founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology and the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it – based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st Century understanding of being human and of being sexual”. 

The proposals, which follow a six-year period of listening, learning and discernment known as Living in Love and Faith, will be outlined in a report to the Church’s General Synod, which meets in London next month.

It will offer the fullest possible pastoral provision without changing the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony for same-sex couples through a range of draft prayers, known as Prayers of Love and Faith, which could be used voluntarily in churches for couples who have marked a significant stage of their relationship such as a civil marriage or civil partnership.

There will be a commitment to produce new pastoral guidance in relation to the discernment of vocation, replacing the 1991 statement “Issues in Human Sexuality”, to which all clergy currently are asked to assent.

Drawing from the feedback received through Living in Love and Faith, the bishops also identify a number of key areas for further reflection and work.

Under the proposals, same-sex couples would still not be able to get married in a Church of England church, but could have a service in which there would be prayers of dedication, thanksgiving or for God’s blessing on the couple in church following a civil marriage or partnership.

The formal teaching of the Church of England as set out in the canons and authorised liturgies – that Holy Matrimony is between one man and one woman for life – would not change.

The prayers would be voluntary for clergy to use and could be used in different combinations reflecting the theological diversity of the Church.
Once the proposals have been debated by Synod, the House of Bishops will refine the prayers and then commend them for use.

Meanwhile a new group would be set up to produce new pastoral guidance to explain the practical implications of the bishops’ proposals and replace previous guidance and statements including Issues in Human Sexuality.

Synod will be asked to discuss the proposals in detail during its meeting from February 6 to 9, with the main debate on the proposals due to take place on February 8.
What followed later that day was the following from Bishop Christopher:
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

As you know, the Church of England has been engaged in listening and praying respectfully, and with mutual love, in the area of sexuality. You may have seen the media coverage today that emerged following the latest meeting of the College of Bishops about this process, Living in Love and Faith. Please see the Church of England press release issued today.

The proposals, which follow a six- year period of listening, learning and discernment, will offer the fullest pastoral provision without changing the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony. This includes a range of draft prayers known as prayers of love and faith which could be used voluntarily in churches for couples who have marked a significant stage of their relationship such as civil marriage or civil partnership. The Bishops are commending these materials to General Synod for consideration. I am saying this as the Bishops are likely – I hope – to authorise them for use come what may.

In my Presidential Address at the last Diocesan Synod in November last year, I spoke about Living in Love and Faith and my responsibility to ensure the highest possible degree of unity which is Christ’s command to his Church. The Diocese of Southwark is, as I said then, a microcosm of the Anglican Communion. Let us rejoice and be glad that the Church of England and the Diocese of Southwark has space for each of us and I do hope the conversations we have had, and will continue to have in the Diocese, will enable us all to continue to speak well of each other.

Prayers from Jordan and every good wish,

The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun

Bishop of Southwark
Brothers and sisters, these are momentous times for the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion. What has been leaked is probably not the wish of the majority of active members of the church (a systematic survey has never been done on this, I believe) and it certainly is not the wish of the Global majority in the Anglican Communion. We await to see what the content and context of these prayers are.

Over the coming weeks myself and Lisa will be unpacking some of this in a sermon series designed to explain what has not changed and put onto context what might be introduced, as well as what this might mean for the wider church and for us here at Christ Church.

If you think that now is the time for you to engage with more of the detail of these debates please remember that the LLF materials are still available on the Church of England website. You will also find extensive resources in the Christ Church LLF Course Notes and the LLF Reflections (2+ hours of my audio/video thoughts about the LLF course that we embarked upon last year) all of which can be found here 
If anyone wants a coffee and chat about any of this just let me know.
Blessings all
Rev Doug McHardie
Vicar, Christ Church Purley