Coupled Together

Perhaps one of the most unexpected things that could have happened this year in religious terms is that in the last days of the year, both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have moved to similar positions on same-sex couples.

Now, precisely what those positions are is complex, almost falling into the realm of holy mystery. However, it is clear that some form of prayer is going to be allowed in each of those churches for which the context of those prayers is a public recognition of such a couple. Both churches seem to want to have their wedding cake and eat it however and seem to be saying that whilst such love is the context for such a blessing, it is not the fact of that love or the union, partnership or marriage which is being blessed. It is a position that isn’t easy to understand, not least because it is nonsense. However, that’s where each church seems to be.

In the Church of England this comes after an enormously long and expensive process which has resulted in the bishops of the Church of England publishing a set of prayers and commending them to that Church. These can be used during already existing services but not as yet in stand-alone services. This is a curious position as it seems to stand a good chance of annoying just about everyone. Generally speaking, my view has been that the best answer to people who don’t approve of same-sex marriages/partnerships/blessings/hand-fastings/broom-leapings or whatever is that they simply shouldn’t enter into them and they don’t have to go to them. However the Church of England bishops by insisting that their pseudo-blessings have to take place during pre-existing kinds of services are basically insisting that those who go to church regularly and who don’t approve of such ceremonies are going to have their noses rubbed in them. Cue maximum offence all around. The pseudo-blessings are not really what the vast majority of what people who want same-sex couples to be treated with dignity and respect want to happen and they are going to be force-fed to at least some of those who don’t approve of them at all. The texts of the prayers themselves don’t seem particularly innovative either – they seem pretty much to be texts of the kinds of prayers that C of E clergy have been able to do all along.

Meanwhile, in the Roman Catholic Church there’s also been a process of introspective reflection going on for the last few years. The Synodal process is far less like a decision making process that Anglicans are familiar with but there is more than a whiff of change in the air. Today’s announcement from the Pope that in some circumstances those in same-sex coupledom may be blessed by priests is a wonderful Christmas surprise for those in that church who find a blessing in the Pope’s emphasis on mercy and pastoral care. Again, it is not the coupledom that is being blessed but the people in the couple being blessed. But again, the very fact of the coupledom of the couple is the only context that gives rise to such blessings. Once again, much like with the Church of England, it is difficult to make much sense of this without an extensive knowledge of the church as a political animal with leaders trying to bring about change whilst also being buffetted by forces that are not within their control, forces whose own leaders have a completely different vision for the future. Again, the suggestion is being made that what the Pope is saying can happen is no different from what Roman Catholic priests have been able to do in the past. All he seems to be doing is making that position a matter of public record.

I am reminded of the Roman Catholic priest that I know who claims that on the day that the Roman Catholic Church first ordains women as priests, the liturgy will begin with the words, “As the Roman Catholic Church has always taught…”

All of this seems a world away from the position of the Scottish Episcopal Church in which same-sex couples can just get married in exactly the same way as opposite-sex couples. Indeed, we’ve largely stopped talking about this and moved on since it simply became a matter of conscience after our General Synod in 2023. It isn’t a controversy any more and it is difficult to think that the position that we’ve come to is not the one that others will come around to in the end. Respecting everyone’s consciences is the only place that the Church of England can logically end up on this issue but respecting conscience isn’t to be underestimated within Roman Catholic thinking either.

A curious and unexpected thing is how closely the positions of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are at the moment. At least in the UK, they are both quite a long way behind public opinion. They are also significantly behind the position of those who claim to be their members. People are often surprised that the Roman Catholic Church has been shown in a number of social attitudes surveys to have a membership that is more strongly behind same-sex marriages than the other churches in this country.

These two churches seem unexpectedly coupled together in offering blessings that fall a long way away from what those they want to bless seem to want. However, the most curious thing of all is that despite moving to the same position, it feels as though the Church of England is moving backwards whilst the Roman Catholic Church is moving forwards.

Neither has ended up with a stable position that will stand the test of time. I wouldn’t like to place a bet on which one moves to a more inclusive position first.


  1. Juan Oliver says

    Mmmm the marriage rite does NOT bless the marriage, but the two persons entering into it.

  2. Malcolm Green says

    Fiducia supplicans makes clear that any priestly blessing of gay couples must be spontaneous, informal, performed outwith the church and must not be accompanied by any words, gestures or clothing which might suggest marriage. It amounts to little more than an exhortation not to ostracise gay people. It could even be compatible with “God bless you to go and sin no more”.

    Its importance lies in what liberal-minded priests and bishops will make of it in practice. And how those clergy who now abuse Pope Francis as “Satan” will react. It may (just) enable the 86-year-old Pope to see out his pontificate without changing anything else.

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