Comments on the role of liturgy in the Pilling Report

The Church of England report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, or the Pilling Report, was commissioned by the House of Bishops of the Church of England in January 2012, and was published on the 28 November 2013. The issues of providing liturgies for the celebration or blessing of same-sex marriages and civil partnerships were discussed, and the following arguments were made:

380. So far the Church has resisted calls to celebrate civil partnerships in any formal or liturgical way. Objections often cited include the difficulty of knowing whether a couple adhere to the Church’s teaching on sexual activity within the relationship without imposing intrusive or distasteful questioning, the fear that recognition of celibate civil partnerships will constitute the thin end of a wedge and open the way to celebrating formally sexually active relationships, and the fact that any formal liturgy, in itself, would be taken to constitute a revision of the Church’s moral and doctrinal teaching.

384. We all recognize, however, that a formal liturgy, episcopally and Synodically approved, for the celebration of civil partnerships (and the more so for same sex marriage) would have important doctrinal implications, since the doctrines of the Church of England are, in part, expressed through its liturgy. So, although some of our members would like to see such an approved liturgy, we recognize that this would, as it were, put the cart before the horse. Unless the Church of England agrees to some modification of its current teaching on committed, permanent and faithful relationships between two men or two women, it cannot prescribe a liturgy to celebrate them.

387. So whilst we are cognisant of the objections to the liturgical celebration of committed same sex relationships, whether civil partnerships or in future same sex marriage, and not all our group would support any step in that direction, some of us believe there is scope to consider less formal approaches to recognizing and praying for same sex couples after they have registered a civil partnership or entered into a same sex marriage. This would be consistent with the statement in the 2005 Pastoral Statement that, ‘Where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case.’

Recommendations 16 and 17 of the report conclude:

16. We believe that there can be circumstances where a priest, with the agreement of the relevant PCC, should be free to mark the formation of a permanent same sex relationship in a public service but should be under no obligation to do so. Some of us do not believe that this can be extended to same sex marriage.

17. While the Church abides by its traditional teaching such public services would be of the nature of a pastoral accommodation and so the Church of England should not authorize a formal liturgy for use for this purpose. The House of Bishops should consider whether guidance should be issued.

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