The Service of my Love – A Review

I decided that in order to have a valid input in commenting on other people’s plans, it would be fair if I actually grappled with the liturgical sources they were going to use. To that end I got hold of  a copy of Jim Cotter’s “The Service of my Love” in order to be able to comment in more detail on its contents and the likely interpretation of their usage.

And you know what? This is a very good book.

Now, let me qualify that statement before I get lynched by more conservative friends and paraded as a convert by those more liberal then myself. If you accept the basic premise that underlines Cotter’s manuscript, that gay relationships are valid and can be holy, then this is a brilliant little resource. More than that though, as chiefly a pastoral document rather than a doctrinal tome, it has some insights that might still be useful for those of us who reject the notion that God calls us into any other sexual unions then that of the marriage of a man to a woman.

If you want a robust theological defence of a Biblical position supporting  gay sexual unions, then this is not the book for you. Cotter splits his book into two sections, first some pastoral observations and reflections on the celebration and blessing of same-sex unions and then some sample liturgies that could be used in a number of situations. Beginning with a brief introduction to the idea of celebrating in a religious context the forming of a Civil Partnership (the book is sub-titled “The Celebration and Blessing of Civil Partnerships” and it is clear that Cotter is addressing primarily the possibility of a liturgical context to such an activity) we are then taken on a brief journey through Jim Cotter’s own personal experience as a gay man growing up in a conservative Christian environment. This then moves into an examination of the issues involved from the pastor’s perspective in setting up such a service of celebration and/or blessing. This includes an honest openness to the reality that in some parts of he Anglican Communion even the contemplation of publishing such a book as this would cause great consternation.

It seems unthinkable, for example, that [in Nigeria] a man should leave his family, that another man should do the same, and that the two of them would set up their own household together. It also seems to be totally outside any acceptable framework for families of faith, either Christian or Muslim. And lest I be thought to be exalting individualism, I would want to affirm how essential to sanity it is to have a network of friends, especially if a person has little or no family. Indeed, we may believe that God is in the web of relationships out of which we cannot ultimately tumble.

Moments like this as you read “The Service of my Love” demonstrate the tension that Cotter understands his book and others like it create – in the Churches of England and Wales we are nowhere near the point of having liturgical “authorised experiments” of this kind, and whilst the prayer books of both churches now provide greater liberty in the provision of worship, some of what Cotter proposes is clearly a step too far at present for the leadership in these islands, let alone some of the other provinces in the Communion.

There is then in this book a real recognition that to follow through on the ideas presented is to take a risk, but a risk that is in his and others’ eyes worth taking. On the other hand, there is the ease of a life that simply accepts and puts up with the present limitations imposed which is equally tempting.

To what degree and for how long can any one person bear with the tensions of the age? I don’t know. I am tempted to throw off the burden, to refuse to bear it, to imagine that life somewhere out there is different, simpler, purer, easier … I can clearly acknowledge that I do, by being a representative figure in the church, however local, bewilder and hurt my fellow lesbian and gay friends  and associate, as well as the more conservative members of the Anglican Communion. I have continually to keep in mind that such unease may increase and gather to a critical point where that unease becomes betrayal … For the time being I continue to pray that such a test will not come my way … Do you, in your flesh and blood, live the tension?

Methinks this Smalltown Boy is torn between Going West or staying put to try and Relax. Not an easy choice.

When exploring the mystery of what marriage entails (whether of two people of the opposite or same sex) Cotter draws on the same material that Rowan Williams uses in his essay “The Body’s Grace”. There is scant engagement with direct Biblical models of marriage (e.g. Genesis 2, Ephesians 5). Instead, Cotter’s “sketch map” of such relationships draws on what some critics might consider more anthropocentric virtues – “consoling the other in times of distress, healing the other’s inner wounds … You shall not violate another … You shall touch and let yourself be touched. You shall learn how to touch and be touched with accuracy, honesty, truthfulness, passion, tenderness. In these ways you shall “make love”.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong in any of these concepts, and indeed Rowan Williams makes a great exploration of the notion of the opening of oneself to the other in a context of truth and grace in his essay on the subject, but there is little encounter in Cotter’s book with what the Bible says marriage is and isn’t about. Of course, that is not Cotter’s intention, but his reference to Philippians 1:9 on page 29 (may love abound more and more with knowledge and discernment) made me reflect as to what the limits of biblical knowledge may be when revisionists engage with the entirety of Scripture on this issue.

The second part of the book presents a number of proposed  liturgies for a number of different environments. The first, a ceremony of commitment and blessing, obviously falls foul of the prohibition of such services in the Church of England (the author himself agreed in an email to me). Beyond that immediate reaction however, there are a number of observations that are worthy of mention. Unlike Martin Dudley who incurred such wrath from the Bishop of London for creating a Civil Partnership blessing ceremony that so obviously aped the BCP Marriage Service, Cotter’s service is plainly not attempting to mimic Common Worship or any other prayer book.  It has distinctions that separate it from the other liturgies offered in that it has clear moments of blessing, namely of the rings (which like a marriage service act as symbols of the relationship) and the couple themselves. The blessing of rings contains the most obvious reference to sexual activity.

“May they be glad in the gift of themselves as bodies, in the touch that affirms and heals, that is affectionate and passionate, that unites and creates”

I can see any priest using that in a Church of England setting for a gay couple getting their wrists slapped at the very least.

All that said, what is obvious is that Cotter can write great liturgy. This is evidenced in his second offering, a Celebration of Holy Communion. To be honest though, I wondered what this prayer was specifically doing in the book because there is scant reference to the presence of a newly joined couple, gay or otherwise. As a communion prayer it has some (from a conservative perspective) dodgy parts and some great little gems. In particular the Sanctus and the Fracture might yet appear in something I use in the coming months.

The third liturgy, a Service of Prayer in Church, provides an excellent model of what might be used to create an authorised liturgy to pray for a friendship. Cotter produces some great responsive versions of psalms and canticles (though I am far more uncomfortable with his rewriting of the Lord’s Prayer – “Father and Mother to us all” is not a terribly accurate translation of the Greek) which have possible uses far beyond the context of a service of commitment.

Cotter then provides some further material that could be inserted into a service. A great deal of this supplementary section could be well used, with a few tweaks in a normal marriage service (for example the “Introductory Prayer”/ Collect is a great invocation for good sex if that’s the kind of prayer you want to pray!). The key point though of this section is that most of it is clearly boundary pushing. Every single piece in this section makes reference, explicitly or implicitly, to sexual activity or to blessing the union of two people. I quite like the hymn “Word made flesh” which fuses a portion of what is now “Light’s abode, celestial saviour” with more explicit material referring to sex.

Wonderful are these our bodies
flesh and blood to touch and see
place of pain and contradiction
yet of joy and ecstacy,
place of passion, place of healing,
touched by God who sets us free.

O how glorious and resplendent
fragile body you shall be,
when endued with so much beauty,
full of life and strong and free,
full of vigour, full of passion,
that shall last eternally.

If you were to throw in an extra verse speaking of Christ in all his humanity dying on the cross, what you might have is a beauty of a hymn exploring those themes of how we as humans begin to grasp at the self giving that Christ supremely demonstrated on the cross. That said, I’m not sure many of us would get away with using it on a Sunday morning!

So what is my final opinion. Well, if you like this kind of thing you’ll really like this specific example of this kind of thing. As an offering in the process of creating possibilities for liturgies in this area (assuming that  you are in agreement with that notion – I am not) this book is both constructive and provocative. There is material that is remarkably conciliatory and attempting to be as inoffensive as possible, and there is material that is challenging at the very least. My hunch is that conservatives will not find much to enjoy, but that does not mean that they should not engage with such material.

I think Jim Cotter provides a very good summary of what he is seeking to achieve with this book.

Writers of poems and prayers, hymns and readings, will continue to make their offerings. They can do no other. At least there are certain sections of liturgies that are prefaced with the phrase “may be used” rather than those parts that “shall be used”. Modern English which is so often one-dimensional is losing touch with the beauty of the word “may”, a gracious word that allows but does not demand, is courteous but not demanding. In practice, however, work that is artistic and imaginative finds recognition difficult. As a result, the language of our liturgical commissions so often turns out to be energy-draining rather than life-enhancing. Perhaps I ask and seek too much. A recent conversation with somebody closely linked with the Church of England’s commission had this exchange. “It’s not often I talk with someone who works for a body which has never invited a comment or contribution from a certain wordsmith.” “Oh no, your work is too creative for that.”

Sometimes Jim I know exactly what you mean.

I would rather the Church of England never approaches a position where it introduces or even just turns a formal blind-eye to liturgies to bless Civil Partnerships, but were such a Rubicon to be crossed it would be a shame if some of Jim Cotter’s excellent material couldn’t be included.

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