More on SMitF and Same-Sex Blessings

On Wednesday I highlighted a blog post from Changing Attitude that claimed that same-sex blessings have taken place at St Martin in the Fields.

They happen in many churches in the Diocese of London including St Martin in the Fields which conducts the public blessing of lesbian and gay relationships with the formal consent of the PCC. The Bishop of London has been informed of this practice. Fees are charged, sent to the diocese saying they are for the blessing of a civil partnership, and are banked by the diocese.

In the light of these allegations, I found a very interesting sermon preached by Nick Holtam, then Vicar of St Martin in the Fields and now Bishop of Salisbury, which puts a slightly different light on the matter.

A Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship says that, “A blessing is an authoritative declaration of divine favour”. That’s where I am less than certain. The problem is authority. Bishops and priests bless with authority, the authority of the Church, the authority of God. Deacons and lay people do not. This matter of authority sometimes makes for absurdity. The former Bishop of Carlisle blessed a nuclear submarine. I have blessed homes, new toilets and a new bridge across the River Thames but I am not allowed to bless a couple who love each other and promise to live together faithfully to the end of their days if they are of the same sex.

The form of service agreed by the Church of England when people come to church after a Civil Marriage is not a Blessing but ‘A Service of Prayer and Dedication’. What most people who want this service ask for is a blessing of their marriage, and I think they ask right. A few years ago we used this confusion of language to help us when Adam and Tony, much loved members of our congregation, asked for a service of Blessing after their Civil Partnership. What happened was ‘A Service of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Partnership’. I was on holiday but St Martin’s supported in great number, the sky did not fall in or the ground open up, and I received no complaints. I have no doubt God blessed them but the Church of England is at best ambivalent about same sex relationships and for the time being declines to give its full authority by blessing them, and authority does matter.

It strikes me that Nick Holtam is saying very clearly here that whilst services of thanksgiving after a Civil Partnership do take place at St Martin’s, they do not include a blessing within them. Indeed, the point Holtam is making is that as much as he would like to conduct such a blessing, he will not do so until he is legally permitted to do so.

If that is so, and if the services that are conducted at St Martin in the Fields do not contain a blessing, then what is Changing Attitude claiming? It appears that Nick Holtam denies the allegations that Changing Attitude has made. Certainly, the two positions are contradictory and either Changing Attitude is claiming something occurs that does not actually or Nick Holtam was being disingenuous when he preached this sermon in March 2010. Holtam’s elevation to purple has been partly predicated on the fact that he is not the kind of man to stir things up by going against church law and this sermon seems to suggest as much. For Changing Attitude to suggest otherwise is a dangerous line to take, unless they are actually right, in which case Nick Holtam has questions to answer.

6 Comments on “More on SMitF and Same-Sex Blessings

  1. Are you saying that it is ok for a church to conduct a service of prayer and dedication after a civil partnership but not to bless the couple? The only such service I have been to was very careful not to include a specific blessing as such, but since it included a service of holy communion there certainly was a ‘blessing’. And we all, including the couple, left the church believing we had been blessed. The chuch may be ambivalent about blessing same sex reationships but it certainly isn’t about blessing its members and no doubt all at the St Martins service, and those held elsewhere, are all blessed, so what is the difference outside semantics?

    • @Richard Ashby In short, legally, yes. That is the current House of Bishop’s stance as outlined in the 2005 Pastoral Statement and it is the commonly understood boundary of “appropriate pastoral response”.

      The fact that such a service includes a Eucharist is not in and of itself an explicit blessing of the couple in question. It is the specific act of blessing the couple themselves (and their relationship) which is clearly forbidden. So if the service you went to at any point attempted to bless the couple, and only the couple, at any point then it would have been inappropriate.

      It’s my experience hearing accounts of these services that the parties involved are either very clear that they do not want to infringe the House of Bishops’ guidelines, so they have nothing even approximating a blessing OR they have little regard for the House of Bishops’ guidelines and so just get on with a blessing as they see fit.

      Of course, there is another discussion to be had altogether as to whether a service of prayer and dedication should take place in the first place… :-)

      • @peterould

        With Bishops blessing battleships and now stocks of road salt in Lincolnshire, the ban on blessing same sex relationships just seems increasingly wilful. And what if the couple, rather than being blessed by the priest, publicly themselves asked for God’s blessing on their partnerhip in the contetx of a service of prayer and dedication? The bishop has no doubt that God blessed the couple at St Martin’s and I am sure that the couple also had no doubt as did the people there. In the end, of course, this is just hair splitting and brings the church into further disrepute.

        We were reminded by our preacher this morning that when young people are asked about Jesus they use words like loving, accepting, kind. When they are asked about the Church they use words like excluding, judgemental, narrow. How ironic on a weekend when the papers and the BBC news are full of the reports that the CofE won’t bless civil partnerships in church.

        • @Richard Ashby Isn’t it a bit more than just the couple asking for God’s blessing? Surely when a priest blesses he does so on behalf of the Church catholic which itself does so on behalf of God. For a priest to bless is not simply to ask for God’s well-being towards that particular thing being blessed (the couple, a congregation) but rather more than that, to state that such a blessing is appropriate, that the thing being blessed is holy.

          And of course, that makes blessing battleships and piles of grit a nonsense. We can pray that those whose task it is to spread the grit are able to do so, pray that God may protect those who serve aboard a warship in time of conflict. But a true and proper blessing should be reserved for those things that God has stated are holy – a congregation (corporate) of the redeemed, a couple who in their union of man and woman physically and spiritually reflect the union of Christ and the Church. These things are truly holy since God has said as much. HMS Pompous on the other hand is no such thing.

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