Demonstrators and lobbyists greeted us this morning. The anticipation of this afternoon’s debate on the legendary report GS2055 was such that the other routine business of the morning passed by without huge enthusiasm or controversy. Eyes, ears and prayers were on the big event. I previewed the report earlier this week, if you need to catch up.
So I report only in sketchy form that the Synod agreed with the diocese of Leicester’s request that a new Bishopric of Loughborough should be created. Bishop Martyn Snow made much of the fact that an extra episcopal pair of hands would mean the diocese could focus much better on the multicultural and multi-religious opportunities presented in the city and the diocese. More details of the biggest thing to hit Leicester since Richard III (and football) are here.
Next was a debate about the evils of Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. There was unanimous support for a London diocesan motion which condemned the way these machines are operated and regulated, with some terrifying tales of gambling addiction and the effects it has on some lives. You could tell the betting companies are worried about this (there is talk of government action) because they wrote to all of us giving their side of the story. Unpersuaded, Synod voted unanimously in favour. You can see the paper here and the background briefing here.
And then the last thing before we got down to human sexuality was the unfinished debate about clergy robes. To my great delight, the Canon was accepted through to the final stages with speeches from both ‘low’ and high’ church people speaking in favour of this ‘permissive’ measure. With it went to formal changes to permit authorised funeral services to be used for someone who has taken their own life – a humane and pastoral change that was long overdue.
Then it was time to begin. The work came in three parts
- Introductory speeches from the two lead Bishops
- Group work on some pastoral case studies
- A formal ‘take note’ debate
1. The introduction: Norwich and Willesden
It sounds like a building society, but it was these two prominent Bishops, one evangelical and urban, the other liberal catholic and rural, who fronted up the first steps at tackling GS2055. Graham James, Bishop of Norwich charted the Church of England’s journey on same-sex matters. Surprisingly to many, it is a long story. Bear with me…
- The government’s 1957 Wolfenden report (chaired by a prominent Anglican layman) led to decriminalisation, but took 10 years to get to the Sexual Offences Act. In 1979, the church’s Gloucester Report addressed homosexual Relationships, as did the Lambeth Conferences (recent ones are often quoted– but he said previous work had been forgotten).
- Through the 80s and 90s, the Bishops tried to keep to a ‘contribution to discussion line’ while the Thatcher government was hostile to any promotion of homosexuality. Who remembers Clause 28 of the Local Government Act, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools, and referred to ‘pretended family relationships’?
- So the Church’s Osborne Report was written but not published; and Tony Higton’s Private Members Motion of that era condemned homosexual relationships – the first time a Synod had done so. (They voted 403 to 8 for it). In 1991 the House of Bishops responded with Issues in human sexuality, which became policy and nothing has changed since, despite it being ‘not the last word’. It became a touchstone and is now seen as ‘the rules’ to be obeyed.
But then society changed fast. In 2005 Civil Partnerships came in, and same-sex marriage very recently. And the Church has not responded coherently
Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden’s task was to set us up for the rest of the day’s discussions. He confessed that like many he did not enjoy group work, but he was there to explain and commend the group work and the debate that followed. He apologised for the hurt that had been caused to many by GS2055. He said:
- The Bishops themselves had done group work with case studies like ours.
- There is a spectrum of views – from those who want to tighten things up to those who want to have liturgies provided, and those who want full acceptance of same-sex marriage.
- ‘taking note’ did not commit the Synod to saying it agreed with anything in the report. He noted that some members had little badges saying they would not ‘take note’. He responded: ‘You may not like it, but that’s where we are’.
He appealed to people with reservations to come to the groups and participate. His speech described the fault-line underneath this debate: that there is no meeting of minds between those with different understandings of scripture. Unlike women bishops, where we coalesced around an end-point – everyone accepted there would be women Bishops – and it was a question of how. On this matter, we have no potential shared end-point. So we need to do a lot more talking. You can see the two Bishops’ morning speeches in vision on YouTube, or you can access their texts here.
2. Off to the groups
There was a huge buzz of conversation as we broke at 11.45 for an early lunch. I’m sure I heard someone say I agree with Pete – shades of 2012. And I certainly heard someone else clearly changing their mind about boycotting the groups. The Lunch room was heaving with people eating and talking. Then we went off to group work, conducted under the St Michael’s House Protocol that we used during the Facilitated Conversation at York last year. I can say:
- my group was well-chaired, and was sufficiently small for a real exchange of views and confidences.
- we looked at some (very) real-life scenarios about how same-sex issues are now arising in parishes.
- we were also asked to submit some comments about the bullet points that are towards the end of GS2055 – what do we think might happen next?
The GS2055 follow-up questions (para 70) for discussion of the specific areas proposed for new work might include:
- How can a more consistently welcoming and affirming culture toward lesbian and gay people and those who experience same sex attraction be enabled to develop within the Church? What might be ways in which this can be facilitated and encouraged?
- What might help a new teaching document on marriage and relationships from the House of Bishops to be widely useful across the Church of England? Are there specific points it needs to cover? What level of theological understanding should it assume in the reader?
- What issues might need particular attention in preparing guidance for clergy in their ministry to those in same sex relationships? How much should be addressed in national guidance and how much determined by local pastoral practice?
- How important is it that all clergy are seen to be living in accordance with the Church of England’s teaching in this area, and how is the bishops’ responsibility for oversight best exercised?
3. The debate: take note – or not
Back in the main hall, Graham James returned to introduce the formal debate. He said the changes in recent years means we cannot separate out what we say about marriage from what we now need to say about same-sex relationships. Thus there is a need for a new teaching document: we have nothing up to date. And what are saying at present is seen by many as discriminatory. The gospel does not get a hearing if we are seen as lacking in love.
Finally he said that history shows it takes many years to come to agreement on doctrine. And it also shows that in every era there are issues which of themselves may not be so significant, but can become touchstones and cover for other disputes.
More than 100 people had asked to speak. It was a two-hour succession of quick-fire comments (the speech limit was three minutes per speaker) Some key speakers made an impact on me:
- Archdeacon Nikki Groarke regretting staying silent for so long, as her own views have changed. Open evangelicals like her have remained the ’silent middle’ instead of speaking out from the middle of the opinion spectrum.
- (Oops, missed the name): Much of the pain has been caused by the way the Bishops have communicated, rather than necessarily by the content. Much more effort must go into future documents: how will they be received. Don’t dig a bigger hole!
- Jayne Ozanne: we need to be honest. We disagree. We disagree about whether God blesses same-sex relationships or not. We can’t possibly answer the questions about ordinands, liturgies, etc until we acknowledge we disagree. And the Bishops have not given a lead by saying what they actually want. Do we really love each other, or are we staying together for the sake of the children?
- Susie Leafe of Reform: she had been compared to a dwarf from CS Lewis’ Narnia stories – a dwarf who could not hear the truth or see the beauty. She wanted clarity, and didn’t feel she was getting it.
- Simon Butler got long and loud applause as he reflected on his long, but fractured friendship with an old friend, who believes he is living dishonestly as an openly gay priest. They are forced to work together: it is ‘workable disagreement’, rather than ‘good disagreement’. He believes the Bishops have not reached even ‘workable disagreement’. He could not, however, just give up on people he disagreed with (including Susie Leafe and the Bishops), citing Genesis 32.26 I will not let you go until you bless me.
- Andrew Foreshew-Cain: this document is not good enough for the church, the country or for LGBTI people. We are not beggars, scrabbling for bread: we are flesh and blood brothers and sisters in Christ.
- Andrea Minichiello-Williams made the very conservative case: the two positions cannot be reconciled. Jesus died for all: we are all beggars. But repentance is required for that which is sinful (quoting Genesis 2 and Matthew).
- Sam Alberry: I am being bullied at Synod for being same-sex attracted and affirming the traditional doctrine of marriage.
- Giles Goddard: as a gay partnered Vicar do not want to take note. Bishops have misread the mood. GS2055 can’t be the basis of an official teaching document.
- Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool: passionate about ensuring maximum freedom under the law for LGBTI people within the church. Will work with fellow-Bishops, clerical colleagues, etc to give maximum freedom. This report is not the end of the road. And we should take note.
- Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester – a rallying call to take note and then begin the real work to widen our horizons. She stressed the Bishops approach had been not unanimous, but was common ground.
- Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark: sharp critique of the Bishops. Being nice to LGBTI is not enough; if this report is the first sign of the new tone I don’t like it. Can we not celebrate what our LGBTI people bring to the church?
After a procedural delay (for a suggested adjournment), the tension went up as Archbishop Justin rose to speak. He seemed to be working from hand-written notes, and called for some radical new thinking about the whole of human sexuality to be part of what comes next. His soundbite was ‘there are no problems, only people’. Procedurally, he said, whether we take note or not, we will move on to find a radical new inclusion based in love based in our Christian understanding, not careless in our theology, but aware of the human race around us. We will seek to do better – we could hardly do worse. You can see a version of his remarks on his website here.
To the vote
Summing up, Graham James indicated the depth of our disagreement: we even disagree what we disagree about, and he said many speeches illustrated that.
A nice Synod nerd point arose here as he also addressed the fallacy that ‘not taking note’ equals rejection. If Synod members don’t understand their own Standing Orders, no wonder the world outside thinks today’s debate is simply in favour (or not) of same-sex marriage. Then we had some nice wrangling about what sort of vote we should have – of the whole Synod electronically (so names would be recorded), or by houses (so the strength of support in each House would be apparent and the whole thing might fail). By houses was decided, and the result was:
Laity 106 For 83 Against; Bishops 43 For 1 Against; Clergy 93 For 100 against
So the Take Note Motion failed. Although had it been a count of the whole Synod, it would have been won, 242 – 184!
So what have we learned? These are my purely personal observations:
- Any hope that debate can be confined to the church itself is out of the window. Social Media went haywire when GS2055 came out, and mis-information and vituperative comment are easily available (though not on this blog). And this issue is too complex for Fleet Street: they can’t make up their mind what it really means. The Telegraph thinks acceptance of same-sex marriage is a bit closer now: the Guardian speaks of ‘turmoil’ and a blow to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Once again, the Guardian wins the bathwellschap prize for sensible reporting (Harriet Sherwood strikes again – here). But the Telegraph has much better pictures in its report (here), plus a tremendous Mac cartoon. Overall, any future thinking, debate and publication must take on board at the earliest stage that people are interested in this and will have their say (accurately or otherwise). And people may leak things, too…
- The Bishops have got a bloody nose out of this. But behind that, the feeling is that they can have another look and this time, as well as restating what is not possible with the law as it stands, they will have to be clearer about what is possible. And in doing that they will have to show their workings, particularly their engagement with LGBTI people – talking to them, not about them.
- This report came to Synod too soon. Its compilation was rushed to get it out for February. It would have been a better document, and would have been received better, if the Bishops had spent longer talking to each other (and to others) so that it was more apparently the fruit of the Facilitated Conversations. And Synod itself would have avoided all the tension, arguments and lack of faith in each other if we had just had a holding statement this week, and the devoted proper consultative time together with a better document in July.
- There are some brave people on Synod who have been very frank and open about their own lives, and about the way they have had to re-think their faith. They deserve the support and affirmation from the rest of us (even if we find it hard to ‘hear’ them), not criticism and personal attacks. The circle that has to be squared is that a significant number of members (and therefore ordinary church people) believe homosexual acts are a sin: a different but also significant number of members (and ordinary church people) have come to believe that they are gifts from God and should be celebrated and blessed.
- Synod works. It does what it’s there for: hears and weighs the views of bishops, clergy and laity together, and then decides. Long-term, the vote by houses makes it clear that we are nowhere near seeing a 2/3 majority in the clergy or laity for anything very much. So serious structural change is not an option.
What happens next?
Well, in theory there is no follow-up to the motion, since it was thrown out. In practice, the Bishops will very quickly get their reflections group together, I suspect, and chart out a way to respond to the very clear messages from Synod. To do that they’ll have access to all the speeches made, and to the (anonymous) suggestions about the GS2055 bullet points. Whether that results in something new at York in July, or some more deep group work in July, who knows?
Eagle eyes will have noticed that the vote in the House of Bishops was 43-1. So who was the odd single vote against? Given that GS2055 was a unanimous document, and the Bishops showed immense solidarity all the way through, a hunt for the traitor was launched straight after the vote. My sources tell me that the vote against was the result of what is technically known as EFT Syndrome – ‘episcopal finger trouble’: a Bishop simply pressed the wrong key on his/her voting machine.
There are names being mentioned, but as I only have this second-hand, I don’t think I can name the guilty man. Or woman, as the case may be.
* Where do you go to, my lovely? Peter Sarstedt’s sad song of a little society girl who lost her way, 1969. He was the guy with the moustache. Sad to report, he died last month.