Vicars who bless gay couples in church could be sued, say lawyers

First published by The Daily Telegraph.

Vicars who bless same-sex couples in church could be taken to court, a group of lawyers warned the General Synod ahead of a crunch debate on the proposals.

On Wednesday, the Synod – the Church of England’s parliament – is due to discuss controversial plans by bishops to allow services of blessing after same-sex weddings.

But a group of six barristers and solicitors who sit on the Synod have warned that the legal basis for the blessings is flawed and could see priests who offer them sued in court.

In a document seen by The Telegraph, the group argue there is a “strong possibility [the bishops] are legally mistaken” and this would “expose the clergy to the risk of litigation”.

The bishops proposed the same-sex blessings – known as Prayers of Love and Faith – last month after six years of internal wrangling over LGBTQ issues.

Synodical rules mean a two-thirds majority would be needed to officially rewrite Church doctrine to mean marriage can include gay couples.

Knowing they could not reach this bar because of conservative opposition, the bishops instead argued that they could bless couples after same-sex civil weddings while leaving the traditional teaching of the church unchanged.

Accompanying guidance from the Church of England’s legal team argues that the Prayers of Love and Faith, despite blessing married same-sex couples, do not contradict the Church’s doctrine that marriage is only between one man and one woman.

This is because, since the introduction of gay marriage in 2013, civil marriage in the eyes of the state has been different to Holy Matrimony as the Church understands it.

Therefore, a couple entering into a same-sex civil marriage are not claiming to also be married in the eyes of God, meaning their civil status can be blessed without undermining the Church’s definition of marriage.

However, the lawyers’ document says this legal interpretation is “controversial”. It says it implies that heterosexual couples who marry in a town hall rather than their parish church must also now be seen as effectively unmarried and therefore sinfully cohabiting in the eyes of the Church.

Yet the Church has publicly affirmed that heterosexual couples who marry civilly are truly married and refuses to offer its own separate marriage service to them.

“Offering Prayers of Love and Faith for any couple who are living as a married couple (whether in a civil marriage or not) while they are not in a relationship of Holy Matrimony implies approval of their marriage-like relationship and risks creating confusion over the Church’s doctrine of marriage,” the letter states.

It says the Church’s canon law – which is also the law of the land rubber-stamped by Parliament because the Church of England is an established Church – prohibits clergy from offering any services that contradict doctrine, including the teaching on marriage being for one man and one woman only.

Therefore, any priest who does use Prayers of Love and Faith for a gay couple could be breaking the law and opening themselves up to being taken to court by conservative activists hoping to undermine bishops’ attempts to liberalise over same-sex issues, it warns.

Given that the risk would be taken not by the bishops who wrote the blessings but the vicar who carries them out, it is “incautious and unfair” to ask clergy to act as test cases for the bishops’ interpretation of the law, the letter concludes.

A spokesman for the Church of England declined to comment, except to point to a statement by the Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Sarah Mullally, during earlier questions at Synod.

In it, Bishop Mullally said the Prayers of Love and Faith “are neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter”, including the definition of Holy Matrimony.