Bishop Viv's Diocesan Synod Address on Prayers of Love and Faith

First published 22nd November 2023

The following address was delivered by the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol to the Diocesan Synod that took place at Pattern Church, Swindon on Saturday 18 November.

On Wednesday evening, after the prorogation of General Synod, I went across Parliament Square to the House of Lords where one of my colleagues was speaking in the debate on Foreign Policy and Defence, and responding to that day’s Supreme Court Judgement. The Bishop of Chelmsford concluded: “My colleagues on the bishops' benches will continue focussing on aspects of how our foreign policy is driven by wider ethical and humanitarian factors.”

I attempted to cross back over Parliament Square but was advised by kindly staff to go home by another route as the peace gathering outside parliament, and Church House had become somewhat lively.

Whether inside parliament or outside it or in the main hall of Church House it was clear that we journey through times when there are profound and deeply held differences of view and policy. The two-day debate in General Synod had been tense and testing, and your representatives, with their different perspectives, who were called to speak (and not all were called) spoke with clarity and courage. You should be proud of them and grateful for them.

As most but perhaps not all here will know the most debated and commented on at and after General Synod was the agreement that special services of prayer and dedication asking for God’s blessing for same-sex couples should be introduced soon in the Church of England on a trial basis.

The final motion contained an amendment tabled by the Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, to bring forward the standalone services based around texts known as Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF). The amendment was passed by one vote (after a vote by houses) and the amended motion passed with somewhat greater support.

As you know Prayers of Love and Faith is a collection of prayers, readings and other resources for praying with and for a same-sex couple who love one another and who wish to give thanks for and mark that love in faith before God.

Last month the House of Bishops agreed to commend the Prayers of Love and Faith for use in existing church services. Synod heard that that is likely to take place by mid-December.

At last month’s meeting the House of Bishops also agreed that structures for special standalone services based on the PLF could also go forward to be formally authorised under canon law under a process expected to take about two years.

However, the amended motion means that the services could be authorised for use sooner, but temporarily, under separate legislation. That would enable the first standalone Prayers of Love and Faith services to take place in churches at the same time as the process of seeking permanent authorisation is underway.

Synod also reviewed other work to implement the landmark motion agreed by Synod in February on the Church’s approach to same-sex relationships. That motion called on the Church to “lament and repent” of the Church’s treatment of LGBTQI+ people, and called on the House of Bishops to further refine and commend the Prayers of Love and Faith for use in the Church of England, together with new pastoral guidance and proposals for pastoral reassurance.

You are well aware that the General Synod, and by extension, the Church, is divided in its views on same-sex relationships.

Differences of view about the deepest matters of faith and teaching and liturgical practice are not new. It was part of the Christian Church’s DNA from the start, as those from different cultures, nations, spiritual experiences and psychological preferences were drawn into the life of the body of Christ. The Christ who is wounded and glorious, and whose body is wounded and glorious. 

Whether we read the Book of the Acts of the Apostles or the history of our own Church in the 16th and 17th centuries we have found ways of continuing to journey together and so proclaim the good news together.

And let us be honest: that has been hard and painful work, sometimes with tragic consequences. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Christians in England killed each other over different interpretations of scripture, killed each other to settle contested authority, and killed each other over doctrinal differences.

A nation worn out by these conflicts re-established the Church, our Church, in 1660 with a broad space bounded by scripture, creeds, the thirty-nine articles, the book of common prayer and the ordinal.  And within that was considerable latitude for difference of belief and practice and for development of belief and practice and doctrine.

For what held, and holds the Church of England together is not a doctrinal statement (though we have firm doctrinal foundations) but place, the calling to serve the whole nation and all its people each in their particular location, in parish, in diocese, in province.

Looking back, the two remarkable debates of my time in ministry have been:

  • about defence policy and the use of nuclear weapons in the debate on the Church and the Bomb
  • about the claims of the poor on the heart and mind of the Church in the debate on Faith in the City

Those debates have their echoes today in the international and local debate on the tragedy in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. They bear fruit in the lament and against war and cries to God of the faith leaders in Bristol and their witness last Sunday at Remembrance.

They have their echoes today in the national debate on the impact of austerity, of the precarious state of our public services, of the imprisoned, hungry and homeless all being played out in the evacuation of the tower block next to the church and vicarage in Barton Hill. They bear fruit in the creation of the post of Dean of Priority Communities which Andy Murray takes up this month.

We will, now, and in the days ahead consider and attend to the deep divisions over and around the particular set of doctrines concerning human identity and sexual relating, This is not easy work. It has not been easy through the more than 6 hard years of work of Living in Love and Faith. But, as we have been at best in recent years, may we turn away from the temptation of schism. May we continue to honour each other, respect each other, love each other, and yearn for the best for each other, so that our parishes, our communities, and our nation may see Christ in our lives.

I began with listening to one of my episcopal colleagues speaking in parliament on our calling as the Church to care for the poorest of the earth.  Another colleague, reflecting on the task which lies ahead, messaged me from the tube where she had spotted this poem on the underground.

The Place Where We Are Right by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined House once stood.

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