After hours of intense debate on 15 November, the General Synod of the Church of England narrowly approved proposals made by the House of Bishops to back prayers of blessing and services for same-sex couples. Considering this significant move, Evangelical Alliance UK director Peter Lynas spoke with John Dunnett, national director of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) to find out more about the decision, its implications and how CEEC are responding.

Peter: John, thank you for joining us. Can you help us understand what happened at the most recent Church of England synod in November?

John: There was a nine-hour debate, a lot of amendments, but at the end of the day a tiny majority voted in a way that will be taken by the bishops as a green light to continue with the next step of the Living in Love and Faith project.

Peter: So, to clarify, the bishops have been heading in the direction of trying to bless same-sex relationships for some time, and they claim to be doing so without changing the doctrine of the church on marriage. Now not all the bishops are agreed on this, but the majority are committed, along with the archbishops, to this direction of travel. So, the bishops now have a green light to offer prayers for use in existing services and to prepare standalone services as well?


John: Yes. So, from a Church of England point of view, that means this side of Christmas, it will be possible to use prayers of blessing for a couple who are not married, including a same-sex couple, as part of a normal service in a Church of England parish church.

The Synod also gave a green light for the bishops to go away and do some work on standalone services. This was the impact of the amendment of Steven Croft, the Bishop of Oxford. That means that early next year, the church in your town or village will be able to have a Saturday afternoon blessing. Again, this could be for a same-sex or straight couple who might be married or not. And as the Guardian newspaper pointed out – it will look to all intents and purposes like a wedding.

Peter: So, the Croft amendment allows for this experimental standalone service – which to most people will look like a wedding. Technically you can’t bless the rings, but you can give thanks for them? 

John: Yes, and the bishops are also going to go and write what they call guidance, for those who want to minister in the Church of England. Some of us have seen a draft of this guidance which asks the question, can a clergy person marry their same-sex partner? And the response is yes. And then elsewhere it says it would be inappropriate to ask questions of people who are offering for ordination about their lifestyle and sexual intimacy. In other words, you can get through the door of entry to ministry in the Church of England even if you’re in a polyamorous relationship, because no one’s going to ask you about it.

Some say this is sabre-rattling, but we are working from the draft guidance that the bishops have been given. Now, we still don’t know how you can say that a clergy person can marry their same-sex partner, and that would not be contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England. But you see, they’re starting to say things like there’s a difference between civil marriage and holy matrimony, there’s a difference between doctrine and essential doctrine. So, we’re through the looking-glass where words mean what someone says they mean!

Peter: So officially, the line is that the Church of England is not changing its doctrine on marriage, but you are saying they are, in all but name?

John: There’s absolutely no doubt about that. Because if two people of the same-sex can stand in church and be blessed, or further down the line, a vicar can marry their same-sex partner, how on earth are you saying that isn’t a change in doctrine? If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it just may be a duck!

Peter: So why doesn’t the Church of England just change its doctrine?

John: Because to change the doctrine of marriage of the Church of England would require a two thirds majority in every house – bishops, clergy and laity. The General Synod and the bishops in particular know they would not get that through at the moment – they don’t have the votes. 

Peter: Why should non-Anglicans care about what is happening in the Church of England?

John: That’s a good question, but it’s non-Anglicans who are saying to me that this matters. And when I ask them why, they tell me of their concerns that if the Church of England goes this way, they will lose some [of] the protections they have. Ministers with orthodox views in other churches feel they have a certain amount of cover because the Church of England as the state church has a biblical view of marriage. They are worried that as the Church of England changes, the protections they have will come under increasing pressure. 

Peter: It also makes it harder for the rest of us to explain why marriage between a man and woman matters and that it is God’s design. But it also brings clarity – the Church of England is not the church in England or the rest of the UK. They are now pursuing a minority agenda that is unrepresentative of the biblical orthodoxy of the global and historic church. Now, in terms of CEEC’s response to this, you’ve obviously been very clear and public about your disagreement with the steps being taken. But you’ve also offered a practical response – tell us about the spiritual oversight you are offering.

John: There are two key aspects to the spiritual oversight – it’s informal and it’s temporary. If a vicar or PCC doesn’t have confidence in the spiritual leadership they’re under they can ask CEEC for spiritual oversight. That doesn’t remove their obligations in law to their diocesan bishop, nor their obligations under safeguarding to the diocese. So those remain in place as the legal structures. But they can recover pastoral support from someone who holds to an orthodox view of marriage. It’s also temporary. This is a stop gap measure to stop people walking away from the Church of England, but it’s not going to be sufficient in the long run. We at CEEC have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we need a radical restructuring. The critical nature of the issue – a doctrinal issue – and the number of churches means this requires a new differentiated structure. 

Peter: So, we’ve got spiritual oversight but also a new scheme to steward the resources of orthodox Anglican Christians and churches. Can you say something more on that?

John: Yes, we have set up the Ephesian Fund for two reasons. Firstly, lay people have said to us, I don’t know that I want to give my money anymore. Because when I put it in the offering plate in my church that goes into the diocesan coffers. So, we’re saying you can give the same money to the Ephesian Fund who can pass it on to the local parish church with a restriction added that it has to be spent on orthodox ministers and churches. So, this will secure giving to local churches, but means the parish can’t simply pass it on to the diocese, because it’s coming with a restriction. 

Secondly, clergy and PCCs are asking if they could make their gift to the diocese through the Ephesian Fund, again with restrictions, and we are facilitating this. In reality this is more difficult for the diocese in terms of administration and adding a third party, but evangelicals are not going to fund those trying to undermine the doctrine of the church. 

Peter: So, there is quite an intentionally disruptive element to this – you are pulling on the purse strings to force a better solution?

John: Our narrative has changed post-Synod. Our first hope and prayer was that the bishops would do a U-turn and stop the whole thing. Our second prayer was that we could defeat them at General Synod. Our third prayer would be that they give us adequate provision. And our fourth would be that we get adequate provision. The first two have gone. We’re on a twin track of disruption and provision. We need to provide for people to keep them in the Church of England. But we also need to be disruptive in the Church of England to ensure it provides permanent provision for those holding to orthodoxy.

Peter: It seems that the Church of England hierarchy have operated in quite an irresponsible way – they have essentially changed the doctrine of marriage while claiming not to and have alienated many in the process. And in response CEEC are engaging in some holy disruption while ensuring pastoral provision is in place, allowing people to remain in the Church of England in the hope of a more permanent provision for those holding a biblical view of marriage.

John: I couldn’t have put it better myself!