Canon B5 and the Prayers of Love and Faith

by Philip Jones

Legal Office Note, GS Misc 1339, January 2023

The Note discusses certain liturgical Prayers, described as ‘Prayers of Love and Faith’, which have been commended by the House of Bishops for use with same-sex couples.

Canon B5 regulates ‘the discretion of ministers in conduct of public prayer’.  It provides that ‘all forms of service [i.e liturgical prayers] used … shall be

[1] neither contrary to,

[2] nor indicative of any departure from,

the doctrine of the Church of England …’ (canon B5(3)).

The Church of England’s doctrine opposes same-sex relationships in 2 respects. It asserts that

(1) ‘Marriage is in its nature a union … of 1 man with 1 woman’ (canon B30(1)).  This is ‘the teaching of our Lord, affirmed by the Church of England … in the Book of Common Prayer’ (B30(2)) and

(2) the baptismal duty of every Christian is ‘to keep my body in chastity’ (Book of Common Prayer, Catechism).

The Legal Office ‘has carefully examined’ the commended Prayers.  Its Note addresses both the doctrinal difficulties:

(1) The Prayers ‘recognise that the couple’s relationship has been marked by their entering into a particular civil status … regarded by the State as ‘marriage’ (para 8).  However, recognising the status is not the same as blessing it. The Prayers ‘do not bless civil marriages (or civil partnerships)’ (para 4).

(2) ‘A sexual relationship is not inherent in a same-sex marriage, any more than it is in a civil partnership.  The draft Prayers contain no implication that what is being celebrated or blessed is a sexual relationship … they are simply silent on that point’ (para 9). Silence is not approval.

For these reasons, the Legal Office concludes (most fortunately) that the proposed Prayers do not depart from the Church’s doctrine, and are therefore lawful under canon B5(3)).

Thus the Legal Office’s view is that the Prayers are not offered either for

(1) the contractual relationship between the same-sex couple – whether this takes the form of a ‘marriage’ contract, a civil partnership agreement or a ‘covenanted friendship’ (cf para 4) or

(2) any sexual relationship between the couple.

This raises the question – what is the point of the Prayers at all?  What are they offered for, if not for the contractual and sexual relationship between the couple?

The Note concentrates much more on what the Prayers do not bless, than on what they do bless.  It suggests, rather tersely, that ‘any blessing is of the couple and the good in their relationship’ (para 4).  It does not expand on what this ‘good’ is.  Presumably it refers to ‘the mutual society, help and comfort’ (to use the language of the Prayer Book) that is possible in a same-sex relationship.

So the Note identifies 3 aspects of a same-sex relationship

(1) contract

(2) sexual activity (if any) and

(3) ‘the good in [the] relationship’.

The proposed Prayers are offered only for (3), not (1) or (2).

This, of course, implies that the 3 possible aspects of the same-sex relationship are discrete and separable.  It is possible to bless (3) without blessing (1) or (2).

It may be instructive to compare the Legal Office’s Note with a similar Roman Catholic document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or ‘CDF’ for short.  (Perhaps the Legal Office is the nearest Anglican equivalent of the CDF!)  The CDF Note was published in February 2021, almost exactly 2 years ago now, with the express approval of the Pope.

Unsurprisingly, the CDF reached the opposite conclusion from the Legal Office.  It held that the Church does not have the right to bless same-sex relationships.

The CDF agrees with the Legal Office about the possible good in a same-sex relationship.  It acknowledges ‘the presence in such relationships of positive elements, which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated’.

However, the CDF disagrees with the Legal Office about the separability of the good in a same-sex relationship, i.e aspect (3) above, from aspects (1) and (2).  On the CDF’s view it is not possible to bless (3) without also blessing (1) and (2).  A liturgical blessing of a same-sex relationship must either bless the totality of the relationship (including its contractual and sexual aspects) or none of it.

Thus a liturgical blessing of a same-sex relationship ‘would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing’, even if this is not intended.  The Note quotes from a document issued by the present Pope which states unequivocally that ‘there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family’ (Amoris Laetitia, para 251).

Acknowledging the good in a same-sex relationship does not mean ignoring the sexual aspect of such a relationship: ‘it is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships … even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage’.  Monogamy is preferable to promiscuity. But it is not the same as chastity.

Thus the CDF implicitly rejects the contention that a sexual relationship is ‘not inherent’ in a same-sex contract, i.e is not characteristic of such contract, as the Legal Office suggests.  Of course it is possible to have a same-sex contract with no sexual activity, just as it is possible to have an unconsummated marriage.  But it is going too far to suggest that sexual activity is not characteristic of a same-sex contract. 

The CDF Note also draws attention to the difference between the Church’s liturgical function and its pastoral function.

The Legal Office refers to ‘blessing … the couple and the good in their relationship’ (para 4).  This effectively identifies the couple with their relationship.  The CDF, by contrast, asserts ‘the fundamental and decisive distinction between persons and the [same-sex] union’. 

The liturgical function cannot separate out the good aspect of a same-sex relationship from its other aspects, and bless that in isolation.  However, the pastoral function is more subtle and flexible than the liturgical function.  The pastoral function can, and should, acknowledge and encourage the good in such relationship.

Thus the CDF Note observes that ‘pastors are called to welcome with respect and sensitivity [homosexual] persons … and … find the most appropriate ways, consistent with Church teaching, to proclaim to them the Gospel …’.

Liturgy is, by definition, public.  (The very word ‘liturgy’ originally meant ‘public function’.)  As its title makes clear, canon B5 is concerned with the ‘conduct of public prayer’.  Ecclesiastical law does not, and realistically cannot, regulate private prayer.  The whole point of these ‘Prayers of Love and Faith’ is that they are, or will be, public, used in public, as part of the Church’s liturgy.

If the public character of liturgy is understood, the true meaning of canon B5(3), as quoted above, becomes clear.  Canon B5(3) imposes a 2-stage test of the liturgy that it authorises

(1) doctrinal soundness and

(2) public perception.

Hence the requirement of canon B5(3), in [2] above, that prayers must not be ‘indicative of any departure from … doctrine’.  It is not sufficient that they are merely not contrary to doctrine.  Prayers may still confuse or mislead the public about the Church’s doctrine, even without actually contradicting that doctrine.  Canon B5(3) is worded to prevent this.  Like justice, sound doctrine must not only be done, it must be seen to be done – by Anglican lay worshippers, and by persons of any religion and none.  Not just by the Legal Office.

It is argued that the Legal Office Note fails to understand and apply the 2-stage test imposed by canon B5(3).  It effectively treats the 2 stages as one and the same.  The Note asserts more than once that the commended Prayers are ‘not indicative’ of any departure from doctrine.  But not indicative to whom?  The Note neither asks nor answers this question.  It fails to consider the public perception of the commended Prayers.

This failure to apply B5(3) correctly means that the Legal Office’s conclusion on the commended Prayers is flawed.  Even if it was possible to accept that the Prayers do not actually contradict Church doctrine, it is still necessary to consider how they will affect the public perception of that doctrine.