Cocksworth Reveals LLF Failings

Bishop of Coventry Reveals LLF Failings
Question of Doctrinal Change has not been Answered

Bishop Christopher Cocksworth, chair of the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) Co-ordinating Group from 2017 to 2020, has written a personal reflection on the LLF debate at General Synod in February. He indicates that the House (and College) of Bishops rushed the last and vital stage of their process, and that the proposed prayers had not been adequately scrutinised. The Bishops’ failure to publish their Pastoral Guidance in tandem with the other material is also identified as an error, which led to more questions than answers at Synod.

This reflection from the Bishop of Coventry contains some of the episcopal wishful thinking within the process: “Most of the prayers  themselves — all of them optional — are without controversy and the two prayers for (for not of) God’s blessing seek to bless not the relationship itself, whether civil marriage, civil partnership, or an otherwise committed and faithful relationship, but the people, that they may  — as one of the prayers puts it — ‘rejoice in hope and be sustained in love.’ Moreover, an important note states that the prayers are “‘neither contrary to nor indicative of any departure from the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter,’ including but not limited to the definition of marriage in Canon B30.”

However this hopeful statement is tempered by a hard look at the Synod proceedings. “[We bishops] allowed ourselves to hurry the last and vital stage. We did not give the time and attention to hone the response and scrutinise the prayers with the great care that was needed for documents put into the synodical process and, in so doing, to check whether there was a sufficiently common mind among us to find secure expression in common texts.

“Furthermore, we promised pastoral guidelines on the practical outworking of the provision, with all their complex legal and theological questions, at a later point, rather than offering them alongside the liturgical provision. The result was that the response and prayers raised more questions than they answered, questions that could not be answered by the entirely reasonable probing of the synod. As well as other consequences, it soon became clear that different bishops had, after all, different understandings of what was being provided.”

The Bishop provides this assessment of the present situation: “The prayers are only drafts. They have not been commended. So we now move into the fourth stage of LLF. It is likely to be the most difficult. The risk of sustained and systemic disruption to the life of the Church of England has risen, the knock-on effects of the Synod vote to the structures of the Anglican Communion are already being seen (as evidenced by the recent meeting of ACC), and the Anglican contribution to the unity of the universal Church has become less clear.”

Bishop Cocksworth asked key questions about a number of areas, including the leadership and trustworthiness of Bishops and the liturgical issues. He also mentioned some specific concerns: legally, practically and theologically.

He raised these questions on the legality of the proposals: Is the provision genuinely consistent with the doctrine of the Church of England, and does it pass the strict canonical test it has set itself? Is its distinction (novel for the Church of England) between civil marriage and Holy Matrimony secure?

Practical issues included: How is the conscience of clergy and parishes who find themselves unable to use some or all of the liturgical provision to be respected? What level of pastoral provision will be needed for those who could not use them, and should it involve… serious forms of structural differentiation? Will clergy of the same sex be free to enter into civil marriage?

The Bishop identified these theological questions: Can the distinction between blessing a couple as people before God, rather than their relationship, carry the theological weight that is placed upon it? What is the provision saying or implying about the permissibility or otherwise of sexual intimacy in relationships of the same sex, and in opposite sex relationships that the Church does not recognise as marriage, and what is its theological case? How will the Church of England explain to other churches of the Communion, and its ecumenical partners, and the other major religions of its land, what exactly it is commending and provide the necessary theological reasoning?

Bishop Cocksworth is to be commended for an honest appraisal. There are disturbing revelations within it, most notably that the bishops have no answer to the question: Is the provision genuinely consistent with the doctrine of the Church of England, and does it pass the strict canonical test it has set itself?

As has been widely claimed through the Anglican Communion, the Church of England Bishops cannot demonstrate that the prayers are not a departure from the doctrine of the Church. It is mere assertion on their part. Their ‘theology of blessing’ has not been adequately defined or worked out, Prayers have been proposed without an underlying foundation for them. How can one insist on a distinction between ‘Prayers of blessing’ and ‘Prayers for blessing’, or between praying for two people rather than their relationship, when these nuances do not have any weighty theological reflection behind them anyway? 

In truth, these proposals were not ready to be brought before General Synod in February. Why should Synod proceed with this in July when the Bishops did not do their homework in the first place?