Why Synod should say yes to prayers of love and faith
At the July General Synod there will be a presentation on the continued work on Prayers of Love and Faith following their original commendation by the House of Bishops and the supporting majority vote by General Synod in February. In this article Savitri (Savi) Hensman reviews the journey of the church that brings us to the point and urges the importance of a continued 'Yes'.
Savi is a British Sri Lankan Anglican. She lives in London and writes widely on issues including the relationship of faith and society, social justice and inclusion. She works in health and care involvement. This article was first published in the Church of England Newspaper. We are grateful for her permission to reprint it here.
Over the past century, there has been a major shift in Christian thinking about same-sex love and partnerships. Numerous biblical scholars and other theologians have made a powerful case that the handful of Bible passages sometimes quoted in discussions on sexuality cannot be applied to lifelong, faithful, self-giving relationships, though others disagree.
A formal process of study and dialogue in the Church of England began over 55 years ago. A more pastoral approach to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender was repeatedly urged, though views on whether relationships should be affirmed varied. A working party concluded in 1979 that “there are circumstances in which individuals may justifiably choose to enter into a homosexual relationship with the hope of enjoying a companionship and physical expression of sexual love similar to that which is to be found in marriage.” But this was not taken forward.
Over the decades, views among parishioners shifted considerably (reflected in the British Social Attitudes and other surveys), so most British Anglicans came to believe that same-sex sexual intimacy was not always wrong. There was increasing pressure for change from people who believed that the current stance was at odds with Gospel values.
Recently General Synod decided that clergy who so wished could request God’s blessing on couples using Prayers of Love and Faith, though the doctrine of marriage remained unchanged. This left many affirming Christians feeling disappointed or treated like second-class citizens: the draft wording was rather tentative and suitable for celibate covenanted friendship, though it could be used for spouses. However others felt it was a modest advance; while the strongest resistance came from those who felt this went too far.
Some assert that the Bible is clear-cut in condemning physically intimate same-sex love. Such claims are not convincing.
"Some assert that the Bible is clear-cut in condemning physically intimate same-sex love.
Such claims are not convincing."
Homosexuality is a topic touched on sparingly and hazily in Scripture, compared with other themes such as inhospitality, social and economic injustice, which appear repeatedly.
The story of Sodom is about the latter, with no bearing on consensual love. In Genesis 18.1- 19.29, the hospitality of Abraham is contrasted with the men of Sodom’s attempt to violently mistreat strangers. His generous welcome of the visitors brings new life and abundant blessings, in contrast to the destruction experienced by that city when the angels are met with cruel intent. In the Old Testament, the abuse or neglect of socially vulnerable groups (such as the alien, poor, widow or fatherless) is often a marker of wider injustice and spiritual failing. It is in that context that Sodom is referred to, for instance in Isaiah 1.10-17. To quote Ezekiel 16.49,“This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
In a fractured, unequal society in which John the Baptist is arrested and later killed, which is on the path to disaster at the hands of the occupying army, Jesus compares those who reject the good news and its messengers with the people of Sodom (Matthew 10.5-15, 11.7-24, 23.37- 24.2).
When Jesus refers to marriage, he unsurprisingly does so in a heterosexual context. In those times women faced deep inequality; a wife could easily be ditched by her husband. So if a man wished to marry a younger woman whom he found more attractive or the family wanted more sons, he could readily divorce her, leaving her in a difficult social and financial position on top of personal loss. Jesus underlined the fact that a husband-wife relationship was not simply one in which the woman could be abandoned if no longer convenient, nor was eying up women (however uncomfortably for them) when competing with other men acceptable behaviour (Matthew 5.27-28, 19.3-9).
"While marriage was to be taken seriously, this did
not mean that other types of closeness or family life were ruled out, nor minorities pushed to the margins in the community he [Jesus] was building,
which testified to God’s inclusive love."
While marriage was to be taken seriously, this did not mean that other types of closeness or family life were ruled out, nor minorities pushed to the margins in the community he was building, which testified to God’s inclusive love. Eunuchs, banned from the assembly in ancient law (Deuteronomy 23.1), were welcomed and those who voluntarily set aside the usual household patterns to help bring about God’s kingdom had a place of honour. Jesus himself, as far as we know, did not marry, yet experienced loving friendships of various kinds, for instance with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, who might or might not have been the “disciple Jesus loved” (sometimes identified with John). And in the early church, while some key figures were clearly married, others were not.
A few passages in the Epistles do, or may, refer to sexual relations between two persons of the same sex; in some instances the translation is contested, and in all instances the interpretation. The types of relationships referred to, and which would have been common in the Roman world, involved infidelity, abuse and/or exploitation. While ancient Greece and Rome allowed considerable sexual freedom in certain ways, they were deeply hierarchical with regard to class, gender, age etc.
No doubt, then as now, some people yearned for a lover they could settle down with openly and faithfully on a basis of equality and mutual care, until parted by death, but this was hard to achieve. Those lower down the ladder had limited freedom, while a free adult man who let himself be treated as if a mere woman would generally have faced contempt.
Some of those opposed to accepting faithful lifelong loving partnerships between equals of the same sex appear to believe these were common in the first century. An article last month, ‘Why Synod should say no to prayers of love and faith’, by Nigel Scotland, gives some examples; but in fact these underline my point (CEN, 26 May 2023).
He mentions first century emperors, yet all these married women, often repeatedly and sometimes in scandalous circumstances. Nero had a string of sometimes brutal heterosexual relationships, including allegedly murdering more than one wife, as well as pursuing males. The renowned Marcus Antonius, according to his political enemy Cicero, had a passionate youthful fling with a male friend; whether or not this was true, he had a succession of wives and female lovers, most famously Queen Cleopatra. None of these bears much resemblance to the kind of relationship which some Christians wish to mark in church, any more than their heterosexual relationships resemble the ideal of Christian marriage.
The writer Martial referred with jocular disdain to men wedding each other, while Juvenal saw this as an example of social decay; even in such instances, exclusivity and permanence might not have been expected.
More positively, Paul’s anti-legalistic insistence (Roman 13.8- 10, Galatians 5.1-15) should not be ignored. Nor should Jesus’ emphasis on love of God and neighbour, treating others as one would wish to be treated and seeking “good fruit” (Luke 10.25- 37, Matthew 7.12, 15-20); his courageous declaration that the Sabbath was made for humans, not vice versa; or the centrality of love elsewhere in the New Testament. Theologians have spelt out at length the case for greater acceptance. And greater openness in society has enabled numerous Christians to observe the good emerging from same-sex as well as opposite-sex partnerships: tender and self-giving care for the sick and frail, mutual support in serving communities, caring for the needy, defending the weak and creating beauty and sharing in joy which overspills to family and neighbours.
"Theologians have spelt out at length the case for greater acceptance. And greater openness in society has enabled numerous Christians to observe the good emerging from same-sex as well as opposite-sex partnerships: tender and self-giving care for the sick and frail, mutual support in serving communities, caring for the needy, defending the weak and creating beauty and sharing in joy which overspills to family and neighbours."
Allowing Prayers of Love and Faith to be taken forward may seem a compromise which will not satisfy those on either “side”. Yet it permits greater freedom of conscience (if not complete) for those who strongly believe it is right to celebrate marriage in church; and options for pastoral care. Generous pastoral provision is already made for those whose heterosexual marriage has broken down and seek to remarry, yet at clergy’s discretion. Choice should be offered on whether to use these resources, while continuing to seek to discern together where God is calling the church.