With the momentous goings-on in Washington and over Brexit, this week’s dear old General Synod ought to provide some light relief. But I fear it will not be so, as we head for a really difficult day on Wednesday, preceded by some more-or-less routine business on Monday and Tuesday.
The main event will be a debate on the House of Bishops report on where we have got to in dealing with matters of human sexuality in the Church. Or, depending on your viewpoint, where we have not got to.
The document at the fulcrum of the debate is GS2055, ponderously titled Marriage and Same-sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations: A Report from the House of Bishops (read it here.) There has been huge reaction to it on social media. Even the mainstream papers have now got in on the act, as lobby groups and key individuals come out with their dissatisfaction.
The debate of the disappointed
So we are set for a humdinger on Wednesday. I don’t think it will be a dialogue of the deaf – more a debate of the disappointed. Because there are some seriously disappointed people at both ends of the spectrum. Conservatives think the document gives too much ground, those pressing for more inclusion and recognition of gay Christians believe it doesn’t go anything like far enough. They’re both going to make sure they say their piece, and they will both cast the poor Bishops as the villains of that piece.
If you are new to this, you might like to see how we got to where we are by looking at how synod handled its Shared Conversation last July. (Read my entirely objective and unbiased account here.) Some of that post bears repetition. I said:
- The mood of many congregations and clergy, and the government’s lock-out of the C of E from conducting same-sex marriages mean that we are not going to move to marrying same-sex couples in church any time soon. The Bishops may need to make that clear, which will not go down well with some, and will make others rejoice.
- There is a howling fudge going on in respect of our Church and same-sex relationships. The way in which clergy are treated is different to the way other church members are treated. Clergy may enter into chaste civil partnerships; and not into same-sex marriages. Lay people are not so restricted. The position of licensed lay ministers (such as Readers) is ambiguous. This will only get worse. The Bishops may need to indicate whether they are prepared to make some kind of ‘pastoral accommodation’ in some of these cases. This will not go down well with some, and will make others rejoice.
- Despite recent statements making all the right noises about welcoming LGBTI people into the life of our parishes, their experience very often is not one of being welcomed. There is a scale moving from ‘rejection’ though to ‘toleration’, then to ‘welcome’ and finally to ‘inclusion’. Our groups heard something of that from people whose church experiences were in different points on that scale.There is a mismatch between what is pronounced and what actually happens. The Bishops need to remind us all of that. This will not go down well with some, and will make others rejoice.
How right I was…
The Commentariat are hard at work
You really need to read the report before making up your mind about it, but there are some very interesting comments around that will give the flavour of how people see it.
- Andrew Goddard, from Fulcrum: renewing the evangelical centre gives a forensic examination of the text here. His Section B How did the Bishops end up with this Report? is particularly helpful – he does a Sherlock in trying to see behind the actual text to the thinking and compromises it represents.
- Characteristically pertinent and thoughtful response to the Bishops from Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, asking a lot of good questions, and avoiding simplistic answers – read her here.
- Mark Hart, a Chester priest, lists what he sees as nine misconceptions in the Report – read him here
- Cathedral Deans have a degree of independence, and David Monteith, the Dean of Leicester gives a very thoughtful personal reaction on his blog – read it here
- As usual nowadays, the mainstream media struggle to report church matters well. The Guardian’s web headline uses the classic cliché language of ‘Church faces new split’, though Harriet Sherwood’s article talks more sensibly about ‘rebellion’ and ‘crisis’.
- At least two Bishops have broken cover and commented publicly. The Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, talks bluntly about the anger and pain being felt by many, end tries to explain why the Bishops are where they are. Well worth a read – if only for the ‘bastard Bishops’ bit – here. David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester issued a Pastoral Letter (read it here) in which he encourages people to actually read the thing, rather than talk about it at second- or third-hand. Not a bad plan.
- As ever, Thinking Anglicans lists pretty well everything that is online about this. Lots to scroll through here.
The episcopal epistollers
However, the biggy that grabbed the media over the weekend was the open letter from fourteen retired Bishops to the present House of Bishops. If you scroll down from the rather cheesy selection of mugshots, you can read their letter here.
They don’t address the theological or Biblical issues, but they do express their view that what is happening is that the Bishops, in GS2055, are managing rather the leading the Church. And, more particularly, they say the text of GS 2055 presents the classic/traditional/conservative view but the voice of inclusivists/gay people themselves is missing, which, after two or three years of shared conversations goes against the document’s claim to want to alter the culture and tone within the Church.
Boycotting groups and ‘taking note’
On the day, we are to have time in (very) small groups – three or four people, rather than the twenty or so last July. We’ll be looking at some real-life scenarios of how parishes handle gay relationships. Already some have indicated they will not attend the group time. I think that’s a pity. I realise that for some, it’s too painful or risky to go into close discussion about this, and I can see why they might be very nervous about group work. But others (who are declining to use the word ‘boycott’) say they will stay away ‘in solidarity’. I just can’t see how that helps anyone, and it leaves the field open for zealots to take over the group work.
The motion to be voted on simply ‘takes note’ of the Report. It doesn’t commit anyone to anything and is a standard Synod procedure for just airing a subject. In fact the Standing Orders are clear that passing a ‘take note motion “is not to be taken as committing the Synod to the acceptance of any matter in the report”. So it’s almost unheard of for the Synod to refuse to ‘take note’.
Nonetheless a coalition of groups and individuals is actively trying to persuade us to vote against. Indeed, there is almost an unholy alliance of some conservative evangelicals and liberal ‘inclusivists’ saying they will do so. And I suspect there’ll be some Synod wrangling about voting by houses, and all that, to try and see where the opposition lies.
I shall not vote against. For the reasons stated above, there was not much else the Bishops could say in GS 2055: it’s what they do next that matters. They are perfectly capable of hearing the shouts of dissent in a ‘take note’ debate. It would be a huge slap in the face to them to vote it down. They will go away bruised even if they win the vote.
In my view, for most Synod members, avoiding the group work (with the exception noted above) and then voting against goes right against the search for ‘good disagreement’.
There is more to synod than this…
Amongst the very large bundle of papers that we all receive, there are some pretty key issues that ought not to be overlooked. When we are not obsessing about GS 2055, we’ve got plenty more to go on.
The one that matters most is probably a report to be taken on Thursday called Setting God’s People Free. It’s a serious look at the age-old conundrum: how does a church with an inbuilt bias to the clergy free the laity (98% of the Church) to be empowered, liberated disciples – not to ‘help the Vicar’ but to be the Church in the real world? It’s part of the Renewal and Reform (aka R’n’R) work that’s going on and comes from a Lay Leadership Task Group. It even has a High Level Implementation Plan. So look out! And read it here. Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark, comments positively on it (read him here).
- The House of Clergy have a special session on Monday afternoon looking at Clergy Well-being. If your Vicar is overstressed (or you are overstressing her/him), you might like to read the document they’re discussing.
- There’s a wealth of legislative stuff to get through, including my own favourites about clergy robing regulations.
- Stephen Trott has succeeded in getting a Private Members’ Motion on the agenda: it’s about the complexities of paperwork that now have to be done before church weddings. That’s on Tuesday – Stephen’s paper is here and the official (slightly unenthusiastic) Background Note is here.
And if you are the praying kind, you might like to remember us all. Especially on Wednesday.
* There must be some kind of way out of this place The opening line of All along the Watchtower, Bob Dylan’s 1967 song of dissatisfaction, wonderfully re-interpreted by Jimi Hendrix in 1968.