Spare a thought for the soon-to-be-appointed Pastoral Consultative Group. According to GS 2289 (The Bishops' Response to LLF), this will include "a number of bishops," "supported by consultants" and will strive to be as "diverse and inclusive as possible." Their job will be to produce the new Pastoral Guidance which will, "replace Issues in Human Sexuality."
In other words, their job is to deal with all the difficult questions that stem from the Bishops' announcement that they are introducing Prayers of Love and Faith to bless faithful couples at "a significant stage in their relationship".
Central to the decisions of the House of Bishops, is the difference between 'civil marriage' and 'Holy Matrimony,' so for the sake of clarity this blog will not use the term 'marriage' when speaking of 'Holy Matrimony.' Or, does that in fact undermine the Church of England's stake in the institution of 'marriage'? Should we instead insist those who have not entered 'Holy Matrimony' only ever refer to their relationship as being 'civilly-married'? Perhaps, that is the first question the Pastoral Consultative Group will need to deal with?
Will it be the legal or the theological consultants who help them with the distinction between the 'doctrine' of the church (that isn't changing) and the 'teaching' of the church that is? After all the legal advice was the Bishops could not go ahead with these prayers if the expression of teaching from 1999,"Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively," remained unchanged.
So, presuming they are changing that teaching, how will they now define the sin of 'fornication,' which Holy Matrimony was ordained to avoid, according to the Book of Common Prayer? How should clergy deal with the idea of 'sexual immorality' when it pops up in the Lectionary bible readings, as it did on the morning when the bishops approved this plan.
Who will assist them in agreeing "the necessary qualities for a relationship to be considered faithful and holy"? How long should people have been living in a "less formal expression of relationship" before the Church of England recognises their faithfulness? And perhaps more importantly, how will 'faithfulness' be defined? After all, the Bishops recognise that "couples inhabit their relationships differently" and there is a growing acceptance among some couples that sexual exclusivity is not required for a 'faithful' relationship.
Should clergy be able to now enter into 'civil marriages' without any intrusive questioning about sexual intimacy? We are promised the Pastoral Guidance Group will be answering that question very soon. If the answer is 'yes', won't it raise all kinds of questions about 'compensation' for those who have lost their livings for doing just that?
What happens if a same-sex couple have actually entered into 'Holy Matrimony' in Florida or Fife and want to celebrate that significant stage of their relationship in Bradford or Bath? Will that couple be able to have their relationship "joyfully affirmed and celebrated in church"?
And if one of the couple happened to be a vicar - would they be disciplined for entering into Holy Matrimony rather than a civil marriage? Or does 'Holy Matrimony' in the eyes of TEC or the Scottish Episcopal Church, become a 'civil marriage' in the eyes of the Church of England, as the couple cross the Atlantic or head south from Gretna Green?
And that is before the Pastoral Guidance Group start trying to explain the mental gymnastics involved in explaining this decision to the rest of the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury was clear that we bless the people not the relationship, which in his eyes keeps the Church of England within the guidance of Lambeth I.10 - and yet the Bishops' response is also very clear that:
"...we have agreed to develop and commend a suite of resources called Prayers of Love and Faith by means of which relationships between two people can be joyfully affirmed and celebrated in church."
So, as you can see, this is going to be a nigh on impossible job. And what happens if the Pastoral Guidance Group avoid giving any real answers? Well, someone has to give an answer, so in reality they will be leaving the vicar to come up with an answer each time a couple knocks on the door.
What would you say?
We would love to read your comments below - just scroll down and write in the comment box. There is no need to become a site member.
Photo credit - Hello I'm Nik at Unsplash