What's happening in the Church of England?
Prayers of Love and Faith, Bishops, Synods and the current controversies in the CofE
What has been proposed and why does it matter?
- Prayers of love and faith - praying for God’s blessing on people in relationships outside of marriage.
- On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that! Of course we want to pray for people in a wide range of relationships including people in same sex relationships.
- The issue is that this is being packaged and presented as a move towards inclusion and acceptance of same sex relationships and other relationships outside of biblical marriage. The implication therefore is that by praying for God’s blessing on people in such relationships (in ways that are structured to look like marriage) we’re asking God to essentially leave them as they are with his blessing. But biblically the thing we’d want to do is to welcome such people (and indeed all people) with the call of the gospel - i.e. not to stay as they are but to turn to Jesus in faith and repentance. Sex outside of biblical marriage is one among many things which Jesus’ call to grow in holiness will lead us to repent of. These prayers of blessing are asking God to turn a blind eye to things which he has called us to repent of. Or declaring that God says we’re OK as we are in ways which he has not said.
- The big issue here is therefore not actually what we say about LGBTQI+ stuff - the big issue is what we say about the Bible. Officially the church of England sits under the authority of “God’s word written”, and cannot decree anything which is against the Bible (article 20 of the 39 articles). Although of course this is not always the case with individuals in the church, this new situation is a change in that the bishops themselves en masse are proposing a course of action which seems to be against what God’s word says.
- What the prayers actually mean has been left deliberately legally foggy.
- It is stated clearly that the church’s teaching on marriage hasn’t changed.
- There is a problem here though as in Anglicanism “what is prayed is what is believed” (lex orandi lex credendi). So if our liturgies and beliefs go off in separate directions, there’s a big issue.
- The prayers neither mention sex nor marriage - so it’s unclear in the prayers themselves what is being asked for. If we’re just asking for God to help people who are currently in same sex relationships or other relationships to grow in their relationship with the Lord and in holiness, great! I’d love to pray for that. But in the packaging and the way it’s been described by bishops, that doesn’t at all seem like what is being said.
- Pastoral guidance, originally being prepared for July (although now delayed until November at the earliest) , is meant to clear some of these things up.
- Jesus is the Lord of his church. The Bishop of London has said that because the bishops have not been able to agree on this, that therefore it seems that God wants us to live in a state of disagreement. That doesn’t seem to make sense to me - I’m struck by the fact that Jesus wants churches to listen to his calls to repent and to love the Lord and to love each other, and is well able to close them down if they turn away from this. (e.g. Revelation 2:4-5).
What’s happening now?
- The bishops are redrafting the prayers in the light of things which have been said at synod and which are being said to them now. This process is due to be completed perhaps by November, when the completed prayers will be brought before synod again to be given formal acceptance.
- Also ready as soon as they can get it together: the bishops are preparing some pastoral guidance to spell out more clearly what they mean regarding how clergy ought to act and teach. In lots of ways this will be more significant than the prayers themselves.
- Lots of statements are being made. Large chunks of the global anglican communion (the largest being the ‘Global South’ group of Anglican provinces) have distanced themselves from the Church of England in response.
- Anecdotally, it feels like something has changed. A rift now exists. One analogy is the crystallisation of supercooled water (look it up): it happens very fast when it gets a knock. It’s a bit like that - everyone now finds themselves having a position whether they’ve thought this through or not.
- Lots of evangelicals are speaking up at once and praying together. There have been some lovely things coming out of this as people pray earnestly together for the revival of the church. It’s been great to pray with our neighbours at St Paul’s and St Barnabas, for example.
- A significant number of churches have stopped paying parish share, some ordinands are wondering whether to get ordained, some churches and individuals are wondering whether to leave the Cof E…
- Different proposals are being drawn up for possible ways for the church of england to remain in existence while not agreeing and not all pretending to be together in this. “Visible differentiation” and “alternative episcopal oversight” are key ideas here.
What can we do now?
- Pause: It is going to take time to work out what is going to happen and what options lie before us. We don't do anything rash now - our main task is to keep on with the main thing of making Jesus known where we are.
- Pray. The Lord cares intensely about his church, and about bringing people to Jesus. We need to pray for the Church of England to have confidence in him, and to turn back to him where needed and be reconciled in the truth of Jesus. Pray for the different teams of people who are working hard in the Church of England to try and map out a way forward.
- Prepare: It's important for our church council and representatives on synods to be aware of this and to have a prayerful sense of possible actions we may have to take in the future. We are giving some attention to this.
If you want to know more, the Church of England Evangelical Council is perhaps the best place to go.
What we have said:
This is what we wrote to Bishop Sarah (Bishop of London) as a Church Council:
Dear Bishop Sarah,
We are writing as a PCC to express our concern about current tensions and trajectories in the Church of England in the discussion surrounding Prayers of Love and Faith. At Christ Church we are delighted to see a wide range of people from very different cultures and backgrounds meeting together and being united by Jesus. In our local setting we are committed to sharing the message of God’s wonderfully generous grace, love and forgiveness to everyone and anyone, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, marital status or any other category into which people may be grouped. We are convinced that Jesus is good news for every kind of person, and that his call to turn to him in faith and to become his disciples should be offered to everyone.
Last year we ran a series of Living in Love and Faith discussion evenings, which were received well. They challenged our blind spots and prejudices, and allowed some of our members to share personal experiences with greater openness. We are aware that questions of identity, gender and sexuality are relevant and deeply personal within our church family, not just things which are ‘out there in society’. These evenings helped us to dig into some of the deep biblical visions of fellowship, community, family, friendship, marriage, sexuality and so on, placing them within the big story of God’s re-creating love.
Our concerns relating to the Prayers of Love and Faith (and the yet-to-be-released pastoral guidance) are to do with how that gospel message is offered. Jesus’ call to discipleship always includes the call to repentance for all of us, a call to turn to Jesus away from sin. Our concern is that the Prayers of Love and Faith change this, by offering a message of God’s blessing and acceptance which is separated from the call to repentance. By implying God’s acceptance of and blessing on sexual relationships outside of biblical marriage, they effectively create a new space where the call to repentance does not apply. This goes far beyond welcoming and praying for people who identify as LGBTQI+ (something which of course we do and want to do) - it makes changes to the gospel which we offer to people.
As a PCC we have discussed this and are also aware of the concerns expressed by larger groups such as the Church of England Evangelical Council, the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans and GAFCON, concerns with which we express much sympathy. We know that for you and for other bishops this must be a very trying experience, and we assure you of our prayers for you. We will pray especially as we await the publication of the prayers and pastoral guidance. We do not wish to see the Church of England or Anglicanism divided, but we recognise at the moment that there is a great likelihood that this will happen, and if things continue some kind of structural realignment will necessarily result, which would include painful division. We would then have to make difficult decisions about the form of our future relationships with our bishops and diocese. We pray therefore that there may be a change of direction.
Yours in Christ,