Synod debates about liturgy open up bigger questions of truth and religious freedom

Feb 6, 2018 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

If the Church of England approves prayers to celebrate and affirm gender transition and / or same sex relationships, does it matter? Some would say it doesn’t, as long as individual parishes are not compelled to use such prayers. Some churches long ago stopped using most formal liturgies anyway, so perhaps the question is irrelevant. But others would say such prayers are very important. For the LGBT activist, specific prayers are necessary to publicly validate identity and experience in the setting of the church; “to actually name us and our reality”, as Christina Beardsley says about ‘trans’ people.

Theologian Martin Davie agrees with the LGBT activists about the importance of officially sanctioned liturgies in the C of E and how they express truth: what we all believe. In his recent essay he revisits the theme of ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’, meaning that what the church believes and what it prays must be aligned. Davie points out that unlike some other Protestant denominations, Anglicanism defines its system of belief not just on a statement (the Thirty Nine Articles), but also a series of prayers and rubrics (the BCP and the Ordinal). But of course Davie argues strongly against the adoption of the proposed new liturgies, precisely because they would imply that the church believes something different to what it has always believed. While some may claim that such prayers in church would only be a minor local expression of pastoral care for individuals, in fact LGBT activists know very well that they would be a symbol of a radical change in how the church understands itself and reality.

The Anglican formularies are derived from an accepted understanding of Christian faith based on Scripture, and prayers that we say reflect that. It’s not the case, as some have claimed, that prayers develop according to our evolving experience and understanding of God, and then we get our theology from these prayers (Davie cites the Anglican Church of Canada as having embraced this erroneous idea). Rather, Article 20 is quite clear:

‘The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies, and authority in controversies of faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s word written.’

In other words, Scripture comes before liturgy and controls its content. Considering the question of prayers of affirmation for same sex couples, Davie concludes that the only way this could be done with integrity is if the C of E repudiates all its existing teaching on sex and marriage in the Canons and Prayer Books, and says it no longer believes in the teaching of Scripture as historically understood. As it wouldn’t do this, what we would have is incoherence, where the church officially contradicts itself, for example by allowing prayers that celebrate same sex unions as the ‘Hereford Motion’ urges, while not contradicting the theology of the BCP marriage service.

But what about liturgies for gender transition? Davie is not impressed by the Episcopal sleight of hand, by which they did not recommend a new liturgy but have given permission for clergy to use an existing reaffirmation of baptismal vows service.

Regardless of the wording, the Bishops have in fact declared it is “an acceptable part of Christian discipleship for someone with male biology to identify themselves as female and vice versa”(Davie). While the Church has not sufficiently grappled with the recent phenomenon of transgender, and hasn’t produced any teaching which the new services may or may not align with, what is clear is that a biblical theology of creation and the nature of humanity is contradicted by the Bishops’ guidance. Prayers which celebrate someone’s ‘gender transition’ are not just a local expression of love and welcome for an individual – they articulate a new, non-Christian understanding of reality which is why the LGBT activists were so keen for the Bishops to go even further.

There is a contradiction at the heart of the new rhetoric of gender which is illogical, but also compelling. On one hand, we are told (for example in Beardsley’s article, and in the ‘Radical Inclusion’ speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury last February) that there is no ideology or agenda, just individuals with a profound personal conviction about their identity, who need to be welcomed with love and not shunned by the church. On the other hand, we are all expected simply to accept that a ‘trans person’ is not just identifying as a gender different from his/her biological sex, but that he/she is different on a profound ontological level. A ‘trans’ person according to this account, does not just feel ‘trapped in the wrong body’; rather he/she is a variant kind of human being, has been created as such, and has come to discover this previously hidden truth about gender and personhood which we all need to discover.

This is certainly an ideology. As Ryan Anderson explains, this is “a metaphysical claim”. It is in fact a religious claim, a manifestation of a faith. And it seems that the leadership of the Church of England are determined to avoid the necessary theological analysis of this faith. In accepting the concept of ‘trans children’ in the anti-bullying guidance issued to schools last November, and in speaking in official Synodical documents about ‘trans’ people’s journey to find their true identity somehow being equivalent to the Christian journey, the Bishops have gone further than advocating compassion for people with gender dysphoria – they have accepted aspects of the new Gnostic faith of gender fluidity, incorporated it uncritically into their understanding of Christian faith, and expected all Anglicans to simply go along with it.

But what about the responses with which we began this exploration – those who don’t use liturgy anyway, and those who think new liturgies don’t matter as long as they’re not compulsory?

Firstly, all churches use liturgy, and perhaps the most easily recognizable is the informal type used by worship leaders in charismatic churches. I’m not criticizing that style of worship at all – I’ve participated in it myself as a musician and worship leader. But the words used between songs to encourage devotion and worship, and the songs themselves, often develop a form that is repeated week by week. To what theology is it tethered? That’s another long discussion, but the point is that what a church believes is shown in its liturgy, formal and written or informal and spoken/sung, for good or ill. You can’t avoid lex orandi lex credendi just because you don’t use the Prayer Book.

Secondly, because the debate about LGBT liturgies is not just about compassion for individuals but about the nature of the Gospel, truth and justice for all, for many activists, once the Church has agreed to such liturgies, they and the worldview they illustrate should be mandatory. Jayne Ozanne argues that in the secular world, once “equality” laws have been passed, there should be no exemptions, for example for Christian bakers who object to icing a message on a cake supporting same sex marriage. Presumably she and others who think the same way would also insist that the same principle of “just love” (her phrase) should apply in the Church of England – that once Synod has approved services blessing a gay couple, or someone’s new gender identity, those prayers reflect what we now believe about reality, and the principle of “just love” should make this compulsory across the board.

What appeared at first to be a minor issue of pastoral provision for a small minority of individuals has quickly become first a theological crisis in the church, then a threat to religious freedom. Do enough faithful leaders in the church understand this, and can they turn the situation around?

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