Church of England now allows blessing of same-sex relationships

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Church of England now allows blessing of same-sex relationships

Does God bless same-sex couples? The Church of England has decided He does, in a move that is already causing a stir among Christians.

Does God sanction committed romantic relationships between members of the same sex? This question has haunted the Church of England (CoE) and many other Christian denominations for decades.

However, from 17 December 2023, CoE clergy have been able to give blessings to same-sex couples.[1] And other churches seem to be following suit.

But the controversy is far from over, with liberals and conservatives both criticising the move, and some threatening to break away. Will same-sex blessings be the making of the CoE, or its undoing?

A defining controversy

The CoE has struggled with the issue of homosexuality since at least the 1990s, when it came under increased pressure to take a stance. In 1998, Anglican bishops passed a resolution “rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture.”[2]

More liberal parts of the Anglican communion took steps to allow and celebrate same-sex members of the communion from as early as 2002. In that year, part of the Anglican Church of Canada permitted the blessing of same-sex couples.[3]

Other Protestant denominations have explicitly welcomed same-sex couples since the 1980s. This has largely followed wider societal trends towards acceptance, and generally occurs in countries that are socially liberal.[4] Parts of Christianity that remain largely unfavourable include Eastern Orthodox churches, and churches where homosexuality is socially unacceptable (e.g. Africa).[5]

Differing approaches to scripture lie behind the diverse positions. Conservatives point to specific verses in the Bible that appear to condemn homosexuality. Liberals often refer to the ‘spirit’ of scripture, and its imperative to love. Scholars also question whether a modern same-sex relationship between consenting adults can be compared to the homosexuality referred to in scripture, which may have involved power imbalances between partners.[6]

Decision on same-sex blessings at last

On 12 December 2023 the House of Bishops decided to commend Prayers of Love and Faith (prayers of blessing for same-sex couples) for use by CoE priests.[7] Prayers of Love and Faith includes various prayers asking God to bless and guide same-sex couples, “covenanted friendships,” and bless their homes. The publication also includes passages from scripture suitable to accompany the prayers, and a prayer by St Augustine of Hippo.[8]

These may only be used within the context of regular services at this point. Discussion continues about whether special services to celebrate partnerships should be allowed.[9] Clergy are not obligated to bless same-sex couples, though may do so voluntarily.[10]

Two CoE priests were the first to be blessed with the new prayers. Catherine Bond and Jane Pearce received their blessings in St John the Baptist Church in Felixstowe, Suffolk.[11]

Vocal criticism of Church’s leadership

The move has been welcomed by many as a step towards equality and tolerance of difference. However, it has also received criticism from both ends of the ecclesiastical spectrum.

Two bishops have called the decision ‘illegal’ under the CoE’s regulations, and argued that it is a change of the church’s doctrine. The prayers’ “use is divisive, their legal status is questionable, [and] the implications of their use will confuse clear biblical teaching,” wrote Rob Munro, Bishop of Ebbsfleet. Many priests have also registered their disapproval of the move, and indicated they will not use the prayers.[12] The conservative CoE group GAFCON also strongly condemned the move.[13] [14]

However, some liberals have downplayed the significance of the prayers,[15] pointing to the abuse and discrimination of LGBTQ Christians that still occurs in the CoE.[16] Some welcomed the change, though point to the long road ahead before the CoE treats same-sex couples equally to heterosexual couples: marriage for same-sex couples is the next step.[17]

What is next?

In a shock move, the Vatican approved a ruling allowing Roman Catholic priests to bless unmarried and same-sex couples. As recently as 2021, the church said it would not bless same-sex couples, as God “does not bless sin.”[18] The announcement came on 18 December: the day following the CoE’s Prayers of Love and Faith came into effect. It is difficult not to view the moves as connected.

Other churches will be watching closely over the coming months to see how this move affects the CoE, and now the Roman Catholic Church. Will it tear it further apart or in fact bring it closer together?

In the meantime, dozens of same-sex couples are expected to follow Catherine and Jane to be blessed using the new prayers.

Frazer MacDiarmid

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[1] Prayers of Love and Faith to be made available for use from Sunday

[2] Lambeth Conference 1998: Resolution 1.10 Human Sexuality

[3] Homosexuality and the Anglican Communion

[4] Christianity and homosexuality

[5] Christianity and homosexuality

[6] Gnuse, Robert K. (2015), “Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality”. Biblical Theology Bulletin 45 (2): 75.

[7] Prayers of Love and Faith to be made available for use from Sunday

[8] Prayers of Love and Faith

[9] Prayers of Love and Faith to be made available for use from Sunday

[10] Church of England blesses same-sex couples for the first time

[11] Church of England blesses same-sex couples for the first time

[12] Two C of E Bishops: Same-Sex Liturgies ‘Illegal’

[13] Statement from the Gafcon Primates on Church of England General Synod

[14] Orthodox believers in the Church of England

[15] Church of England’s blessings are heavily in disguise for same-sex couples

[16] ‘A long journey’: blessings for same-sex couples expose Church of England divisions

[17] ‘A long journey’: blessings for same-sex couples expose Church of England divisions

[18] Vatican gives conditional approval to blessings for same-sex couples