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Getting it in writing

If Sarah Mullally told this week’s London Diocesan Synod that the “Prayers of Love and Faith” had not changed the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage once, she quite literally said it ten times.

And that was just in the written answers:

London Diocesan Synod - 22 March 2023 - Questions and Answers
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So, for example - in reply to question D(c),

“The doctrine of the Church of England on marriage as being a lifelong, faithful relationship between one man and one woman is unchanged.”

Or to question E(1.1),

“The prayers of Love and Faith… do not indicate any departure from the orthodox doctrines of the Church of England”.

And so on and so on.

Written answers matter - they allow a properly considered response to be placed on the record, with appropriate nuance and precision. The ambiguities frequently and unavoidably present in answers given extempore can be avoided in a concise, well-thought out piece of text.

So, all is clear - the Prayers of Love and Faith can be offered after a civil marriage, but they have no impact whatsoever on what the Church’s understanding of marriage has been up to this point.

Which makes this exchange in the same set of questions and answers rather interesting,

“I. From Jeremy Thomas to the Diocesan Registrar…

In view of the change to marriage law that prohibits from 27th Feb under 18’s getting married, can the proposed prayers be used for 16-18’s who feel themselves to be in a committed relationship?”

To which the answer came,

“No. The secular law has changed, largely in response to safeguarding concerns in respect of those under the age of 18, and it would be irresponsible for the Church of England to seek to undermine care for young people. A genuine committed relationship can be expected to stand a brief wait until the parties are both of an age to marry”.

So, the Prayers of Love and Faith do nothing to change the Church’s understanding of marriage, save that if the state changes the definition of marriage the use of the prayers must reflect that. Okay…

Of course, the chaste committed relationship of a holy sixteen year old boy and equally godly sixteen year old girl has absolutely nothing to do with marriage. They may just wish to show their commitment and ask for the Lord’s aid in their relationship before one moves away, or abroad. Perhaps, in the form of a 'covenanted friendship,' as proposed by the bishops themselves. So why the ban?

The only reason given is… safeguarding, which has nothing to do with such a relationship either. If anything this youthful relationship, might itself be a protective, even life-enhancing, blessing. So, again, why can’t this couple be blessed?

Clearly, the actual reason is because of the state’s position on marriage. So, it’s almost as if these prayers do after all impact the Church’s understanding of marriage, especially given the emphasis that getting married is what our hypothetical young couple have to do to have their relationship blessed two years down the line.

Incidentally, quite why two sensible teenagers have a mandatory two year qualifying period to prove the 'commitment' of their sexually abstinent relationship, when the local pair of serial adulterers, or anyone else does not, is anyone’s guess, but back to the Bishop of London.

“V. From Paul Hawkins to the Bishop of London

Can the proposed Prayers of Love and Faith be offered for loving and faithful throuples? If not, why not?”

To which Dame Mullally replied,

“The law does not recognise polyamory in the same way that marriage and civil partnerships are recognised. The Prayers of Love and Faith are for people in life long [sic] monogamous faithful relationships”.

In fact, the prayers are not supposed to be just for 'lifelong monogamous faithful relationships' because they are meant to be equally suitable for non-sexual relationships (see in fact, question D(a)), where there is no logical definition of 'monogamous'. Again, this makes it look awfully like, at least to the bishop, the prayers are about the Church’s understanding of what does, and doesn’t, correspond, at least in some ways, to traditional marriage.

And it is worth noting once again that, apparently those entering civil partnerships can be blessed because of what the state recognises. But throuples cannot be blessed because the state doesn’t (yet) recognise them 'in the same way'. If the Church has now decided that what determines its view of what relationships can and can’t be blessed is what the state permits and acknowledges, including as to age, type of institution and number of parties, is that not in itself a fundamental change in the doctrine of marriage? For a national government, not Scripture read in the light of tradition and reason, to control the definition is surely way outside the doctrine as it has been received up to now.

Of course, such an approach also has wider implications. Four questions in particular occur:

  1. If a UK government succumbs to growing demands to recognise polyamory and/or polygamy in law (examples: here and here) will the Church of England, by the same logic, need to bless throuples in such relationships too?

  2. Because the UK government does in fact recognise the validity of polygamous marriages (provided that the parties are be domiciled in a country where polygamous marriage is permitted and entered into the marriage in a country which permits polygamy), for the sake of consistency should not the Church of England follow suit?

  3. Why would the Church of England only follow the views of the UK government and not a competent foreign government, particularly in the case of nationals of that country?

  4. Have the implications for the wider Communion been considered - especially for those Provinces in which polygamy is legal? Should they follow the lead of the mother Church as to which relationships can be blessed and how that is justified?

In relation to each of these issues it is tempting to join with the original questioner in asking: “if not, why not?”

Perhaps, Mullally thinks that if she says often enough that the Church’s view of marriage is unchanged in all this, people will believe it, even when the evidence points to the contrary.

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