The bishops and the principle of non-contradiction

There is a well-known and generally accepted philosophical principle known as the law or principle of non-contradiction that tells us that two contradictory propositions cannot both be true. To put it in terms of formal logic, a and not a cannot both be true. Thus, a statement cannot be both a statement of truth and a lie.

What follows from the principle of non-contradiction is that an argument that involves contradictory propositions must be false. For example, it is false to argue (a) a triangle has three sides, (b) shape x has four sides, (c) shape x is a triangle.  This argument cannot be true because for (c) to be true either (a) or (b) must be false.

I was led to thinking about the principle of non-contradiction because of the press-release concerning the most recent meeting of the House of Bishops. [1]

This press release tells us that the proposals from the House of Bishops which were debated in Synod in February and which form the basis for their continuing work in response to Living in Love and Faith were that:

…. that, for the first time, same-sex couples could have a service in church in which there would be prayers of dedication, thanksgiving or for God’s blessing following a civil marriage or civil partnership.

It then went on to say that the proposals ‘would not, however, change the Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony.’

Both these statements are a correct description of the proposals brought to Synod by the bishops. What needs to be noted in addition, however, is that an amendment was added by Synod to the motion brought by the bishops. This stated that Synod endorsed the intention of the bishops that the final version of the proposed prayers ‘should not be contrary to, or indicative of a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England.’

Putting these three elements together where we have now got to in the Church of England is that:

a) The bishops are proposing that same-sex couples could have a service in church in which there would be prayers of dedication, thanksgiving or for God’s blessing following a civil marriage or civil partnership;

b) The Church’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony will remain unchanged;

c) The proposed prayers must not be contrary to, or indicative of a departure from, this doctrine.

The problem with the combination of these elements is that the principle of non-contradiction comes into play. If (b) is true then either (a) or (c ) will not be able to be true.

To understand why this is that case the first thing that needs to be noted is that in both the Book of Common Prayer and Canon B.30 which are determinative on the matter ‘Holy Matrimony’ is simply a synonym for ‘marriage.’ The Church of England’s doctrine of Holy Matrimony is what it believes and teaches about marriage.

The second thing that needs to be noted is that if we consult the ‘historic formularies’ of the Church of England (the Prayer Book, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the 1662 Ordinal), The Second Book of Homilies, Canon B.30 and other recent Church of England documents we find that what the Church of England believes and teaches about marriage can be summarised in the following six points:

  1. Marriage is a state of life ordained by God himself at creation as such it is a way of life that applies to all people at all times and everywhere. Any state of life that does not accord with the form of marriage ordained by God is not marriage.
  2. Marriage is a serious vocation to which some, but not all, human beings are called by God. Those who are called to enter into it must do so with due thought and reverence for its God given character. Marriage and singleness are two ways of life, neither of which is necessarily more holy than the other.  
  3. Marriage is a sexually exclusive relationship entered into for life between one man and one woman, who are not married to anyone else, and who are not close blood relatives.
  4. Marriage is a relationship of ‘perpetual, friendly fellowship’ that is not a dominical sacrament in the same way as Baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but is a sign pointing to the loving union that exists between Christ and his Church and a means of grace through which a husband and wife can grow as the people God created them to be.
  5. Marriage a relationship that provides the sole proper context for sexual intercourse and which has as one of its key purposes the procreation and nurturing of children to be the next generation of God’s people.
  6. Clergy are free to be either married or single depending on the particular vocation to which God calls them, but they must live in a godly way in either vocation.

The third thing that needs to be noted is that if (1) and (3) are true then it follows that a same-sex relationship is not a marriage (even if that is what the law of the land calls it) and if  (5) is true then any form of same-sex sexual relationship (which necessarily cannot be a marital one) is a relationships will falls outside of the God-given limits for sexual intercourse. It is what the New Testament calls porneia, sexual activity contrary to the will of God.

What these three points mean is that the forms of prayer proposed by the House of Bishops are problematic.

 It would make no sense to offer to God prayers of dedication, thanksgiving, and blessing for a same-sex marriage if this relationship is by definition not really a marriage. You would be praying for a non -existent thing. The insuperable problem is that either you have to hold that a same-sex relationship is not a marriage (in which case you cannot rightly pray for it as a marriage) or hold that it is a marriage (in which case you have departed from the doctrine of the Church of England).

In the case of a same-sex civil partnerships, the problem is that you could not pray for such a partnership if it either was, or was believed to be, sexual in nature. According to the doctrine of the Church of England such a relationship would be a form of porneia and you cannot dedicate, give thanks for, or ask for God’s blessing upon, a relationship involving porneia (which is why you cannot pray, for instance, for an adulterous relationships). It would therefore be either contrary to, or indicative of a departure from, Church of England doctrine to offer the sort of prayers proposed by the bishops for any same-sex relationship that was not clearly known to be sexually abstinent.

The bishops therefore have four choices:

a) They can try to change the Church’s doctrine of marriage.

b) They can propose forms of prayer that are contrary to, or indicative of a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England.

c) They can restrict the prayers they offer solely to same-sex civil partnerships that are known to be sexually abstinent (and there would have to be some way of making this clear).

d) They can withdraw their current proposals entirely.

The problem with (a) is that there is currently no prospect of getting this through Synod and more fundamentally it is impossible to see how a change of doctrine would meet the Church of England’s threefold doctrinal test of being compatible with Scripture and with the witness to Scripture borne by the Fathers and the Church of England’s historic formularies (see Canons A 5 and C15).

The problem with (b) is thar such prayers would not only go against what Synod has voted for, but they would also be contrary to Canon Law (see Canons B2.1, B.41-3, B.5.3).

The problem with ( c) is that there is no sign of any demand for services of prayer for celibate same-sex Civil Partnerships so what would be point of introducing such prayers?

That leaves (d) as the only other way forward and because it is the only way forward it is the one the bishops should adopt. As we have seen, what the bishops are currently proposing is incoherent. It falls foul of the principle of non-contradiction because you cannot both uphold the Church of England’s current doctrine of marriage and introduce forms of prayer that are incompatible with it. You can do one or the other, but not both.  

[1] ‘Bishops agree key areas for further work implementing Living in Love and Faith’, 19 May 2023 at


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