The strange world of modern Anglican blessings
The Diocese of New Westminster in Canada has devised a rite which it calls ‘The Celebration of a Covenant’. It seems to be intended to bless the physical union of gays and lesbians; but it does not say so. Indeed, it does not say much.
It is not expected to accomplish anything. It simply recognizes a pre-existent situation. It purports to be a blessing, but ‘the act of blessing does not make the relationship more holy’ – or indeed achieve anything else that a blessing might be sought for. So we are told in the preamble. Like many another modern rite, there seems to be more commentary and notes than actual prayer.
The full text is printed below. It is worth studying, for as Bishop Edwin Barnes reveals in his commentary that follows it, there are many elements that can already be found in Common Worship. We may need to look to our own church services, before being too quick to condemn those of others.
NWCC, as I shall refer to it, uses familiar names – ‘God’, ‘Blessing’ – to help the participants feel comfortable. And to make the holy glow even warmer, it is to take place if possible within the Eucharist.
A long-standing friend of mine decided he wanted to set up a ménage à trois. His wife was not happy with the idea, so he came asking me to tell her it would be all right. When I told him that what he proposed was immoral, and that I certainly would not condone it, he was most upset. But on the principles of New Westminster, he would have had every right to expect the Church to bless this new situation for (so says this rite) ‘All human relationships have the potential to be agents of God’s purpose.’ All that is required is to suborn God into condoning your desires.
Curiously, though, the ‘Guidelines’ do not continue the logic of what I quoted above about the ‘potential to be agents of God’s purpose’. Instead, they set about hedging that freedom round; with what looks suspiciously like a parody of marriage. Each member must be ‘free to enter into such a covenant’, must have a purpose of exclusivity, and must (curious phrase) ‘satisfy the requirements of any previous relationship’ – which means support the children of a previous marriage.
Now it is very easy to knock these proposals in a homosexual context. The fact is, very similar guidelines accompany the Church of England’s latest conclusions on remarriage after divorce. Just as this rite asks for ‘blessing’ while only saying what blessing is not, so too the Common Worship rite for use after a civil ceremony (in other words, a wedding which has taken place while a husband or wife of one or both participants is still alive) asks that God will consecrate your marriage – a marriage the Church could not perform – and ‘empower you to keep the covenant and promise you have solemnly declared.’ Small wonder that people are pressing for same-sex blessings when they see heterosexuals similarly ignoring Scripture, and expecting the Church’s blessing on their serial marriages. And since the appearance of Common Worship the bishops have given up any control of who marries whom, and have left it to the parish clergy to sort out.
It would be very easy to go through this entire NWCC rite mocking the mealy-mouthed phrases, the lack of content, the glossing over of any mention of sexual activity. But that would be unfair, unless we are also prepared to take the same approach to our own modernized marriage rites.
There is a common fluffy marshmallow language in much modern liturgy. So the penitential section in CW’s ‘Dedication after a Civil Marriage’ runs ‘we have avoided your call. Our love for you is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. Have mercy on us, deliver us from judgement, bind up our wounds and revive us.’ Nothing to suggest that we have lusted after women other than our own wife, betrayed our children, disobeyed the plain commandment of God. Nothing to say we are sorry for what we have done. Just ‘we have avoided your call’, as we might hide behind the curtains when the vicar comes round. Sin is not about determined disobedience, rather it is like getting a nasty graze in the playground – ‘bind up our wounds and revive us’.
The Orthodox permit a second marriage after the failure of a first one; but their theology only allow this as a concession (‘For the hardness of your hearts Moses gave you this commandment’) and the second marriage is seen as a second-best, after proper penitence. For their priests, no second marriage is possible – not even after the death of a first wife.
It is theology which is missing in our rites, and confusion results. Here is a strange piece of special pleading, again in the CW ‘blessing’ rite. ‘Because the marriage has already taken place, no ring is to be given or received in the course of the service. If a ring is worn and the prayer of blessing is to be used, the hand should be extended towards the minister’. Honestly. I kid you not. Look it up, it is there in Common Worship. Is there a blessing of a ring or isn’t there? Is it withheld for the sake of the priest’s conscience, or because there is some magic attached to a gold band? And why is it OK to bless rings which have been exchanged half an hour earlier, but not at the time the priest blesses them on the extended hand?
What is happening?
It is this sort of confusion, with the church blessing but not really blessing civil marriages (which hitherto the Church has said were not marriages), which has driven the agenda for seeking rites for gay couples. There is a list of readings which are given as ‘appropriate’; though others may be chosen ‘from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament’ (doubtless there are certain passages from Leviticus or the letters of St Paul which would be thought distinctly inappropriate). If you are careful about what you choose to read, it should be possible to say after the reading, ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church’, fully expecting the reply ‘Thanks be to God’.
So, on we go, believing ‘God has called you into a life-long covenant of love and fidelity’. In the end the question must be, Why drag God into this? Why involve him? Clearly there are worries about what you can say in a gay rite. ‘With my body I thee worship’ does not feature – but then even its toned-down CW version is absent from the ‘Dedication after a Civil Ceremony’ rite.
It was all so clear in the Prayer Book; marriage was blessed by Our Lord’s own presence and first miracle at Cana in Galilee. It was commended by St Paul to be honourable among all men. Therefore it is not ‘by any to be enterprized nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly and in the fear of God.’
The theology that informs the Prayer Book’s Solemnization of Matrimony has been filleted, mocked and forgotten. It was already weakened in ASB, and CW completed the rout. So who is to blame over the New Westminster rite which threatens to tear the Anglican Communion into shreds? Surely all of us who have gone along with adapting marriage to fit modern licentiousness have only ourselves to blame? Though why any sane gay person would want to use the NWCC is beyond my understanding.
A RITE FOR THE CELEBRATION OF GAY AND LESBIAN COVENANTS CONCERNING THE RITE
Blessing is a common feature of Christian worship. For centuries the church has blessed people, places and things. Every prayer of blessing is thanksgiving for creation and redemption offered in petition for the fulfillment of God’s purpose in the world.
All human relationships have the potential to be agents of God’s purpose. Regardless of the specific characteristics of the relationship, the act of blessing does not make the relationship more holy but rather, in giving thanks to God and invoking God’s holy name, releases the relationship to realize its full potential as an expression of God’s love and peace.
The act of blessing recognizes the pre-existent reality of the relationship; confers the community’s authority upon the recipients to conduct themselves as formal and public participants in such a relationship; establishes a communal context of responsibility, accountability and privilege; and petitions God to endow the partners with all such grace and strength necessary to fulfill the vows and commitments being made.
This Rite of Blessing is a public service of the church and is celebrated before God in the body of the church and in the presence of friends, family and the congregation. Friends and family members are encouraged to participate in the Rite where indicated.
All matters relating to the conduct of the Rite shall be in accordance with the liturgical policy and practice of the diocese. It is desirable that the order of service be incorporated into the Eucharist wherever possible.
GUIDELINES FOR ADMISSION
In order to request this Rite of Blessing each member of the couple must:
a) be free to enter into such a covenant. That is, they must not be in an existing covenantal relationship, including marriage.
b) Enter the rite with an understanding that the relationship is to be exclusive of any other partners and have the expectation of permanence.
c) Satisfy the requirements of any previous relationship. This involves appropriate support of dependants from any previous relationship and the appropriate dissolution and meeting of obligations that arise from the same.
THE CELEBRATION OF A COVENANT
GATHERING OF THE COMMUNITY
As the community gathers, a hymn, anthem, or canticle may be sung. Instrumental music may also be played. The presider welcomes the community. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. And also with you.
After the greeting the presider may continue as follows:
Holy and Eternal One, in the quiet night you have called us each by our own name. In our very heart you have named us beloved. You surprise us by your grace.
We are the fruit of your boundless love. On our exodus way you nourish and free us. You give us companions for our journey.
You set us apart, shaped by our love, yet call us into the midst of your people, Where we will be your word of blessing.
Here follows one of the following collects. Let us pray,
Blessed are you, 0 Holy One, for you are pleased to dwell among us and to fill our lives with your presence. May N. and N. who seek your blessing upon their covenant be filled with your love. May their life together be to us a sign of your promised reign of justice and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Searching and saving God, whose unfailing love alone can satisfy our longing, in your mercy you befriend those who wander in loneliness and shame, those oppressed because of difference, those who do not know the value of their unique and sacred gift. By your Holy Spirit you awaken in them the dignity of human being and the responsibility of embodied love, as perfected by Jesus Christ, who loved and gave himself for us, showing us the way to intimacy with you and with one another. We offer praise and thanks to you, our Creator, Redeemer, and Lifegiver, for your love endures for ever. Amen. Or
Blessed are you, loving God, for you awaken our desire for companionship and our hope for community with you and with one another. In your mercy you call us out of solitary darkness and redeem us to love you with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Renew in us a sense of true belonging and call us to love our neighbour as ourselves. We pray that the covenant of faithfulness and love we celebrate today will reflect your unending faithfulness and great love for the world. May N. and N. so love one another that they may be a blessing to you and all whom they encounter. We ask these things in thanksgiving and praise to you, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, one God now and for ever. Amen.
PROCLAMATION OF THE WORD OF GOD
The Readings Two or three readings, including a Gospel reading, shall normally be read. If the Holy Communion is celebrated, then a Gospel reading must be included. Members of the family and friends of the couple may read the lessons. It is appropriate to respond to a reading with a psalm, canticle, hymn, anthem, instrumental music, or silence.
The following readings are appropriate for the celebration of a covenant. Other readings may be chosen in consultation with the presider.
Ruth 1.16-18; Song of Solomon 2.1-13; Song of Solomon 3.1-4; Song of Solomon 8.6-7; Ecclesiastes 4.9-12; Psalm 100.1-5; Psalm 107.1-9; Psalm 108.15; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; Psalm 126.1-3; Psalm 133; Psalm 139.1-18,23-24; Psalm 145; Psalm 146; Romans 12.9-21; 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; 2 Corinthians 5.16-20; Galatians 5.13-14, 22-26; Ephesians 4.25-27, 29-32; Philippians 2.1-4; Colossians 3.12-17; 1 John 3.18-24; 1 John 4.7-21; Matthew 5.1-16; Luke 6.3238; John 15.9-17; John 17.1, 18-26.
At the conclusion of readings from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament writings other than the Gospels, the reader says,
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
Thanks be to God.
All stand for the Gospel. The reader says,
The Lord be with you. And also with you.
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to … Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
At the conclusion of the Gospel, the reader says,
The Gospel of Christ. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
The presider invites the couple to stand in the full view of the gathered community and addresses the couple in these or similar words.
A covenant is an ancient form of promise, a public declaration of commitment that binds people in an enduring relationship. The Bible tells the story of God’s covenant with human beings.
God’s covenant with Israel was the basis of the people’s liberation from slavery and exile. God’s covenant with the followers of Jesus brings us into a new community where there is no male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, but one people united in Christ.
All our covenants with family and friends are signs of God’s faithfulness and love. They are living expressions of God’s promises to us and sources of hope to others. Today we gather to witness and to bless the public commitment of N. and N. to such a covenant.
The presider then addresses the couple as follows.
N. and N., do you believe God has called you into a life-long covenant of love and fidelity?
Couple: We do believe.
Will you live together in love? Couple: We will, with God’s help.
Will you be faithful to one another? Couple: We will, with God’s help.
Will you support one another in love so that you may both grow into maturity of faith in Jesus Christ?
Couple: We will, with God’s help.
Will you do all in your power to make your life together a witness to the love of God in the world?
Couple: We will, with God’s help.
The presider invites the couple to stand in full view of the congregation and to face each other. Taking each other by the hand(s), each says to the other in turn. N., I give myself to you. I love you, trust you, and delight in you. I will share your burdens and your joys. I will go with you wherever God calls us. This is my solemn promise.
THE BLESSING OF THE COVENANT
The presider then addresses the community as follows.
You, friends and members of the families of N. and N., are witnesses to this
covenant. Will you support N. and N. in the promises they have made?
Will you celebrate the goodness of God’s grace evident in their lives?
Will you stand by them, encourage, guide, and pray for them in times of trouble
Do you give them your blessing?
The presider then says one of the following blessings.
Let us pray.
We give thanks and praise to you, 0 gracious God, for your unfailing love and wonderful deeds among us: for the splendour of creation, the beauty of this world, the mystery of our lives and the surprises of human love. We give you thanks and praise for N. and N., because you create in them the desire for intimacy and companionship, calling them out of isolation and exile, strengthening them against prejudice and fear, and embracing them in a family of friends and loved ones.
Pour out your abundant blessing upon N. and N. May they grow in love for one another and for all your creation. Lead them into accomplishments that satisfy and delight. Grant that in the years ahead they may be faithful to the promises they make this day, and that in the strength of the Holy Spirit they may grow together in the love, joy, and peace of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Blessed are you, 0 gracious God, source of all love, now and for ever. Amen.
THE EXCHANGE OF THE PEACE
The peace of the Lord be always with you.
(or The peace of Christ be always with you.) And also with you.
The couple greet each other and then greet their families and friends. If there is no celebration of the Holy Communion, then the liturgy continues with the Lord’s Prayer and the Commissioning of the Community.
THE HOLY COMMUNION
The Prayer over the Gifts
During the preparation of the bread and wine, a hymn, canticle, or psalm may be sung or instrumental music played. The following prayer may be used. Faithful God, with these gifts you offer us communion in your Servant, Jesus Christ. May we who celebrate this sacrament be filled with the same self-offering love made manifest in him. This we ask in Christ’s name. Amen.
The Great Thanksgiving
Any of the eucharistic prayers in The Book of Alternative Services or the three eucharistic prayers authorized by General Synod 1998 are appropriate for this occasion. If a proper preface is needed, then the following may be used.
Blessed are you, gracious God, creator of heaven and earth; you are the source of light and life for all your creation, you made us in your own image, and call us to new life in Jesus Christ our Saviour.
The Lord’s Prayer
The Breaking of the Bread
The presider breaks the consecrated bread for distribution.
The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. The bread which we break is communion in the body of Christ. The gifts of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Hymns or anthems may be sung during the distribution of communion.
THE COMMISSIONING OF THE COMMUNITY
A Litany of Blessing
After communion has been distributed, the presider, a friend, or a member of the family leads the community in the following litany of blessing. Additional petitions may be included if so desired.
Dear friends, N. and N. have been drawn by God into a covenant of mind and body, heart and will. We have celebrated this covenant and pray that the life they share will reflect the love of God for the whole world. Let us join in prayer asking God’s blessing upon us as we go forth with N. and N. to proclaim with our lives the reconciling and renewing love of God made known in Jesus Christ.
Abundant God, Lover of all creation, pour out your blessing on us and the covenant we have celebrated.
May we be blessed by you for ever. In our solitude and our companionship,
May we be blessed by you for ever. In our acts of tenderness and intimacy,
May we be blessed by you for ever.
In our delight at knowing and being known,
May we be blessed by you for ever.
In our acts of self-sacrifice to build up one another,
May we be blessed by you for ever. In our being comfort to each other,
May we be blessed by you for ever. In our passion for justice,
May we be blessed by you for ever. In our generosity and tenacity,
May we be blessed by you for ever. In all our fruitfulness,
May we be blessed by you for ever.
A hymn or anthem may be sung before the dismissal or instrumental music played. The deacon, or other leader, dismisses the people.
Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Bishop Edwin Barnes was the first Bishop of Richborough.