The Rt Revd John Saxbee, Bishop of Lincoln and a patron of Changing Attitude, has commissioned a liturgy for use by those in “non-marriage relationships” enabling them to give thanks to God in church for their union. The service could be used by gay couples and cohabiting heterosexuals. Although there have been many services of blessing of gay relationships in parish churches, this is the first time a diocese or a bishop has authorised a rite for use in lesbian and gay relationships. A draft of the service has been completed and the committee responsible has suggested four books to help as a resource in planning services. Three of the four are gay prayer books.
The draft service has been produced by the Lincoln liturgical committee, chaired by Tim Ellis, Archdeacon of Stow. It includes a welcome and an opening reading chosen from about a dozen passages in the Bible on the nature of friendship. At one point couples step forward towards the altar and with the priest give thanks to God for the relationship. There is then an opportunity for the couple to declare a commitment, and an address and chance to exchange gifts. The service can be used by close friends, not necessarily couples with a sexual relationship. Peter Godden, rector of Owmby in Lincolnshire and secretary of the liturgical committee, said: “We do recognise that the service will be used by same-sex couples, but we have not provided any specific references to any kind of relationship or friendship.”
Bishop John Saxbee said, “When I arrived in the diocese, I saw a member of the clergy become a victim of tabloid sensationalism for being prepared to support same-sex friendships liturgically. Part of the impetus behind this initiative was to provide a way clergy could do that with diocesan support.” Bishop John argues that the new service will be “consistent with current Anglican guidelines” because it does not claim to sanctify or bless a relationship, but simply gives thanks for a friendship.
Two years ago John Saxbee publicly backed a vicar in the diocese who was blessing same-sex unions. He said then: “I have indicated I would not stand in the way so long as he abides by my condition that they must not be made to look like marriages.”
The new development in the Diocese of Lincoln suggests that there are those in the church, bishops as well as priests, who want to follow the lead set by parliament which recently passed the “civil partnerships” act, giving registered same-sex couples many of the same tax and inheritance advantages as married couples.
The move stops short of introducing a “marriage” service for gays, but it is likely to anger traditionalists. Conservatives say the service damages efforts to uphold the institution of marriage. “Who’s kidding who?” said David Banting, chairman of Reform. “Would liturgy for this sort of relationship have come forward for friendship’s sake were it not for the pressure from the gay lobby?” Another anonymous senior Anglican, clearly following a reactionary strategy, described John Saxbee’s move as “the kind of precipitate action that the primates under Williams have been urging against”.