You may have noticeed a piece produced on behalf of Inclusive Church that emerged onto the web a few days ago, arguing that current guidelines would permit a service of thanksgiving, including a blessing, for a civil partnership. You can read the piece here.
The thrust of the argument is that the current service for a thanksgiving after a civil marriage (i.e. where there is a second marriage for one of the partners and it is subsequently "blessed" in a church) includes a blessing. The argument goes as such:
The minister says
Almighty God give you grace to persevere,that he may complete in you the work he has already begun, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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. Amen.
and among the concluding prayers
Almighty God, you send your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of all your people. Open the hearts of these your servants to the riches of his grace, that they may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The House of Bishops is quite clear the inclusion of this material including the couples’ declaration of commitment to their new state followed by the pronouncing of a blessing upon them does not make this a Service of Blessing, it remains a Service of Prayer and Dedication. Including this or other similar liturgical material does not turn a service of Prayer into a Service of Blessing according to the House of Bishops (this may seem strange but the Bishops position is clear).
The question then becomes does the Church of England permit clergy to conduct a similar service for same sex couples since a couples’ declaration of commitment to their new state followed by the pronouncing of a blessing upon them, does not make a service of prayer a "A Service of Blessing”?
At first that seems quite a good case. If this service can "bless" something that is not strictly seen as perfect, why can’t a civil partnership be blessed? Rev Brian Lewis who wrote the paper continues:
Now it is true that a form of service of Prayer and Dedication for use after the registering of a Civil Partnership has not been authorised by the House of Bishops, but in the Church of England that is not the same thing as saying such a service is not permitted.
Under the provisions of Canon B5 the clergy of the Church of England are granted a wide ranging discretion in the conduct of "Public Prayer”
Canon B5 is as follows
B 5 Of the discretion of ministers in conduct of public prayer
1. The minister who is to conduct the service may in his discretion make and use variations which are not of substantial importance in any form of service authorized by Canon B 1 according to particular circumstances.
2. The minister having the cure of souls may on occasions for which no provision is made in The Book of Common Prayer or by the General Synod under Canon B 2 or by the Convocations, archbishops, or Ordinary under Canon B 4 use forms of service considered suitable by him for those occasions and may permit another minister to use the said forms of service.
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.
4. If any question is raised concerning the observance of the provisions of this Canon it may be referred to the bishop in order that he may give such pastoral guidance, advice or directions as he may think fit, but such reference shall be without prejudice to the matter in question being made the subject matter of proceedings under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963.
5. In this Canon the expression ‘form of service’ has the same meaning as in Canon B 1.
This is where the argument begins to unravel. Lewis is absolutely right that the fact that a form of service to bless a Civil Partnership hasn’t been authorised doesn’t mean that one cannot automatically be used. Most of us clergy use forms of worship from time to time that don’t come straight out of the prayer book. For example, there is no uniformly agreed liturgy for a Remembrance Day service, just guidelines. But the problem with Lewis’ argument is that he misses out one crucial fact.
The Bishops have banned such a service taking place.
You see, Lewis neatly side-steps this issue in the rest of his piece. building up an argument based around what a clergyperson *may* do, and conveniently ignores what they "may not" do. The Bishops in their pastoral statement and in their answers in Synod clarifying the statement (which Lewis includes in his piece) clearly rule that such a blessing may not take place. What Lewis is arguing for is the right of clergy to simply ignore their Bishops on anything that they disagree on, despite what the Bishop insists upon being lawful and honest.
Lewis also hoists himself by his own petard when he cites Canon B.5.3
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.
For it would be disingenuous to read the parts of the Canon which supported his case and yet ignore this clause. To be fair, he does raise this issue when he writes,
Statements by the House of Bishop do not suggest that differing opinions on this issue contradict the essential doctrine of the Church of England and we could reasonably expect a bishop to give direction accordingly if a particular case was referred to him.
The 1991 Statement of the House of Bishops Issues in Human Sexuality recognises a diversity of view and the place of conscience within the Church of England.
but once again he fails to recognise the crucial difference between *may* and *may not*. The 1991 statement quite rightly observes that individual clergy *may* hold differing opinions on this, but a differing opinion doth not a doctrine make. He also simply incorrect on the observation that
Statements by the House of Bishop do not suggest that differing opinions on this issue contradict the essential doctrine of the Church of England
for the more recent "Some Issues in Human Sexuality", together with the Lambeth ’98 1:10 resolution make it abundantly clear what the "essential doctrine" is on this issue. In the light of Canon B5, clergy ignore that at that peril.
For example, I might hold the opinion that polygamous marriages were OK, but were I to attempt to marry a man to a second wife, I would find very quickly that my Bishop would point out to me the doctrinal and canonical error of my ways, while asking me to hand over my licence. Try carrying out a bigamist wedding and you will quickly discover the *may not*s of the Church.
It is very clear that a blessing of same-sex partners would fail the "departure from the doctrine of the Church" test very easily, as I have argued a week or so ago. Such a blessing differs from blessing a couple married in a registry office, because the Church very clearly, in its liturgy and in the Scriptures, teaches that the couple in their marriage point to a divine truth about Christ and the Church that a same-sex union cannot. To be fair, there are issues around the remarriage of divorcees, but I have written in the past on how the cases are different (see section three, particularly page 18).
So what are we left with? Lewis’ argument falls down very quickly and his bold claim
The final decision on whether or not any particular service contravened the essential doctrine of the Church of England could only be determined by bringing a case against him/her under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963, or the more recent Clergy Discipline Measure. As far as we are aware no such case has been brought (nor do we believe it likely).
recognises that fundamentally this is a question of doctrine and not the liberty of clergy pastoral practice. He may find that if the Bishop of London presses forward with disciplining the Rev Martin Dudley that we may very soon have the test case he believes will never happen.
The one thing I do commend Lewis on is the reiteration of the call in "Issues" for pastoral sensitivity. Issues reads:
5.6 At the same time there are others who are conscientiously convinced that this way of abstinence is not the best for them, and that they have more hope of growing in love for God and neighbour with the help of a loving and faithful homophile partnership, in intention lifelong, where mutual self-giving includes the physical expression of their attachment. In responding to this conviction it is important to bear in mind the historic tension in Christian ethical thinking between the God-given moral order and the freedom of the moral agent. While insisting that conscience needs to be informed in the light of that order, Christian tradition also contains an emphasis on respect for free conscientious judgement where the individual has seriously weighed the issues involved. The homophile is only one in a range of such cases. While unable, therefore, to commend the way of life just described as in itself as faithful a reflection of God’s purposes in creation as the heterophile, we do not reject those who sincerely believe it is God’s call to them. We stand alongside them in the fellowship of the Church, all alike dependent upon the undeserved grace of God. All those who seek to live their lives in Christ owe one another friendship and understanding. It is therefore important that in every congregation such homophiles should find fellow-Christians who will sensitively and naturally provide this for them. Indeed, if this is not done, any professions on the part of the Church that it is committed to openness and learning about the homophile situation can be no more than empty words.
The meaning is very clear – the Church as an institutuon fundamentally disagrees that same-sex unions are holy, yet individual clergy should find ways of being pastorally sensitive, within the bounds of the doctrine of the church. Any action which would "commend the way of life just described as in itself as faithful a reflection of God’s purposes in creation", would be contrary to the doctrine of the church and therefore fall foul of the limits laid down by Canon B5.3.
There is though still a need to care for those who experience same-sex attraction, and last week I wrote the following:
My great fear is that we will lose the battle in the Church of England on this issue, not because we do not read the Bible correctly, but that we have failed to carry out the call of Christ to bring his kingdom into being by offering the healing and transforming power of the cross. At least the liberals resource the heresy they believe. At the moment it appears that we in the traditionalist camp cannot materially support the truth.
I long to see a Church of England that puts its money where its mouth is. I long to see diocesan advisors on emotional healing and sexual freedom, funded by the church and backed by their bishop. When that happens the society we live in will know tow things – that the Church means what it says and that there is a place to go with your brokeness. At the moment though, all we are ultimately saying is that we don’t like what you’re doing, but we have nothing to offer you instead.
It’s time for the church to offer something real and practical. It’s time for the Church to stand up, say boldly that it believes what the Scriptures tell us about the power of the cross to heal, to dismiss notions of compromising with doctrine and to invest in the pastoral resources that are available. That is, in my opinion, a far better response than to weasel around the canons.