Assessing the bishops’ prayers for blessing

As expected, on Friday January 20, the College of Bishops of the Church of England released Prayers of Love and Faith along with a larger report on the Living in Love and Faith process and an apology to the LGBTQ+ community on behalf of the church. In the apology the bishops confess, “We have not loved you as God loves you, and that is profoundly wrong.”

Prayers of Love and Faith, is described by the bishops as a “book of draft worship resources [that includes] a range of prayers and readings which could be used in a church service, such as a Service of the Word or a Service within a Celebration of Holy Communion.”  As previewed in Part I of this post, the materials released by the bishops will be presented to the General Synod of the Church of England this February. The bishops are asking that the Synod affirm their apology and draft prayers after debate. Taking into consideration the comments of Synod, the bishops will then finalise and approve for use Prayers of Love and Faith. Because, according to the bishops, the prayers contain no change to doctrine, they will not require the consent of Synod for publication and use. Individual clergy will be able to opt in, or opt out of using the prayers.

According to the introductory notes of Prayers of Love and Faith, “the resource may be used by a couple who have marked a significant stage in the development of their relationship, sealed a covenanted friendship, registered a civil partnership, or entered a civil marriage.”  At the same time, the bishops are clear that the proposed prayers are not meant to be a version of marriage, nor is the church blessing a civil (natural?, see my previous post) marriage.  At the Friday press conference introducing the materials the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, suggested that, “When you see the prayers in the way they are written and thought about, that they fall very clearly, that is technical language, [within] what is Lambeth resolution 1.10.1998, […] which is one that says we cannot bless same-sex marriages, and this seeks to bless the people, and that is really important.” Comments by Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York, however, seemed to suggest a contrasting nuance stating, “we need to acknowledge there is a change today, we are acknowledging the goodness and faithfulness of same-sex civil marriages and partnerships within the life of the church.”  Seemingly, the fragile consensus the College of Bishops were able to come to is based upon the question of what is being blessed within the prayers, and by whom.  In the introduction to Prayers of Love and Faith a call out box proposes a brief theology of blessing stating that in scripture people are blessed, rather than “things, actions, or ways of life.”  It then concludes, that where the bishops’ proposed prayers speak of blessing, “we ask for God’s blessing – recognising that it is not our blessing or approval that is conferred, but a prayer for God to bring about flourishing and growth in the ways of God.”  A fuller account of the ‘not a blessing’ argument has been given by Paul Roberts.  

What I am keen to observe is the singular attention given thus far to the wording of the prayers as determinative of what is ‘happening’ in the rite.  Such thinking almost broaches a medieval sacramental theology which divides verbum audibile and verbum visibile (Berkouwer, The Sacraments, 1969) – A type of ‘at the very words’ thinking which sees liturgical prayer simply as formulae, and subsequent grace received as the result of formulae. But context, ritual, and the broader sense of the prayers when used together must be taken into account as well.  As already noted, the bishops foresee the prayers being used as a Service of the Word, or during the Holy Eucharist, suggesting a structure that is different than, but not unlike, the blessing or solemnization of Holy Matrimony in Common Worship.  The example services given by the bishops include options for the blessing of rings (by your blessing, may these rings worn by your servants N and N be signs of their hope-filled covenant) and what can only be understood as the lighting of the ubiquitous nuptial candle, called in the text “a shared candle of dedication”.  One also notices the consistent use of language throughout the prayers that contain expressions of the traditional goods of marriage: permanence, partnership, fidelity, fruitfulness.  For example, 

For grace to live well 

Faithful God, giver of all good things, give N and N wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their life together. May they dwell together in love and peace all the days of their life, seeking one another’s welfare, bearing one another’s burdens and sharing one another’s joys; through Jesus Christ our Lord.               

For discipleship 

Eternal God, without your grace nothing is strong, nothing is sure. Strengthen N and N with patience, kindness, gentleness and all other gifts of the Holy Spirit, so that they may fulfill the commitment they have made. Keep them faithful to each other and to you. Fill them with such love and joy that they may build a home of peace and welcome. Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love in this broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Moreover, while the prayers assiduously avoid the language or issue of sexual intimacy, there is a prayer for family included so that the reality of same-sex couples who have family is not ignored.

Taking a broader liturgical view, the assertion that the bishops’ proposed prayers are not indicative of the church blessing the “covenant”, or “commitment” made by two persons, to use the language of some of the draft prayers, or are not pronouncing a judgement upon the relationships, seems to me to be an impossible argument, for good or bad.  A hallmark of contemporary liturgical theology is the understanding that the church gathered at prayer is itself the ministry of Christ: One cannot bracket out the ministry of the church from God’s blessing as if priest or assembly are innocent and unsure bystanders: “The liturgical assembly is not simply a gathering of people to do something extraneous, but the means whereby what the church is, is divulged” (Butcher, Liturgical Theology, 2018).   The other hallmark of contemporary sacramental theology is the church as liturgical subject.  In short, a couple in prayer before the church express in their lives and demonstrate to others the mystery that is Christ. Frankly, the idea that if the priest is not addressing the couple directly in the name of the church then the church is not itself blessing, condoning, or celebrating said relationships, is both liturgically and ecclesiologically unsustainable it seems to me.  A liturgical theology along the lines of that developed by Louis Bouyer would suggest greater attention must be paid to the nexus of meanings that emerge from words, gestures, assembly, priest and the life situations of the couples who are the direct subjects of the prayers. 

I’m not suggesting, contrary to the bishops’ assertions, that the prayers comprise in fact matrimony by different words, a pseudo-sacrament, are sacramental, or alternatively, are just a vague hope for God’s action. My essential point is that addressing the draft prayers in a more liturgically sophisticated manner would be helpful in assessing what they are and are not. It seems to me that doing so reveals that the prayers offered are indeed something ‘more’ than some are suggesting and do open up new ways of believing (to the consternation and concern of some). This reality seems to be reflected in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury when during Friday’s press conference he stated “I’m sure the last word hasn’t been said”.  In short, looking at Prayers of Love and Faith through a larger prism may broaden further insights into their pastoral use.

A final point to be made, and perhaps the most interesting, is that one does well to consider the draft prayers in the context of the bishops’ final report to the Living in Love and Faith process which acts as a type of Prænotanda – a ‘how to’ on contextualizing and interpreting the prayers.  Doing so reveals that the prayers are not proposed as a yay or nay response to same-sex marriage.  They are in fact composed as a pastoral response to the entire LLF process.  The bishops are explicit that they are attempting to respond to the breadth of shifting human relationships and the many forms they are taking on in contemporary culture.  Both the report, and the Bishop of London (Sarah Mullally) during Friday’s press conference, honestly acknowledge a range of personal identity questions and diverse human relationships at hand within society and the church;  The prayers are offered as a form of flexible pastoral accompaniment acknowledging the reality of contemporary human life-patterns.  While equal marriage campaigners may be frustrated that marriage canons were not simply re-written pronoun free, in the long run the College of Bishops may have opened a door no other church has, and embarked upon a far more courageous pastoral approach to human relationships and pastoral accompaniment that is just beginning.  As the bishops reflect in their final report: The Church seeks to be a community of character and grace in which the rich diversity of God-given humanity can flourish and grow ever more into the likeness and pattern of Christ.

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