General Synod meets in a couple of weeks. This post isn’t my usual preview (you’ll have to wait for that…): it’s a look behind the scenes. And it’s a bit more personal than my usual pseudo-journalistic approach.
You’ve got to be a bit of a Synod obsessive to be noticing what goes on in the various fringe groups and meetings that are an essential part of Synod life, though they are often below the surface.
- There’s the Catholic Group, and Open Synod Group and EGGS (Evangelical Group on General Synod, geddit?) for a start.
- You wouldn’t call them ‘parties’ in a Parliamentary sense. In the old days they were groups for Anglo-Catholics, unaligned ‘middle of the roaders’ and evangelicals respectively to get together for fellowship, discussion of Synod business, and – sometimes – thinking about what line people might agree on a specific amendments or motions.
- And there are also special interest groupings who have fringe meetings – Inclusive Church, and then people with expertise on cathedrals or prison ministry or world development or – you name it, there’ll be a fringe meeting about it.
My fifteen years…
I’ve been a member of EGGS since I first came onto Synod in 2005.
Although I was brought up in an Anglo-Catholic parish, it was through Anglican evangelicalism that my own calling and faith development came about. And they were developed and matured through my ministerial training at an evangelical college (St John’s Nottingham, now sadly out of that business).
I’ve particularly valued the fellowship in prayer and the informed input on Synod business over supper together on the first night of a session.
EGGS was never a ‘holy huddle’ of particularly conservative or even campaigning evangelical synod members: it was (to use the jargon) an ‘open evangelical’ forum, where a wide range of people were welcome. People who would not describe themselves as ‘evangelical’ attended (but they could not not vote, – though voting was rare). In that spirit we managed to hold ourselves together during the long tooth-drawing agony of the Women Bishops process, and enjoyed some fun looking at the arcane wonders of legislation about parish and legal matters.
Anyway, in July last year (2019) there came a point where a number of us decided we could no longer remain in EGGS. The point at issue was – believe it or not – a rewriting of the constitution of EGGS. The Committee were recommending a revision of the ‘Basis of Faith’ that went so far as to include some very specific phraseology about marriage and sexuality. The paragraph that seemed to us to close off debate was this:
“We acknowledge God’s creation of humankind as male and female and the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family. We repent of our failures to maintain this standard and call for a renewed commitment to lifelong fidelity in marriage and abstinence for those who are not married.”
And this at a time when officially, the Synod and the wider church is , through the Living in Love and Faith exercise, trying to work out with how we, as a Christian church, can wrestle with the huge changes in society and in scientific awareness about sexuality. (By coincidence, it’s very similar to the re-statement of traditional church teaching in the House of Bishops statement that has caused such upset in the last week or so. But that’s another matter for another day.)
A number of us tried to persuade the July meeting that this was a mis-step. It would effectively mean that EGGS was in danger of becoming a single-issue group: thus – it seemed to us –
- precluding much discussion on how to handle the vast changes all around us
- and excluding people who could, with honesty, claim to be evangelicals while taking a different view to the classic one.
We felt the timing of the change was unhelpful and divisive, and we were concerned about the rejection and hurt being felt – and loudly expressed – by LGBTI+ people. As we all know, they feel unwelcomed by the church in so many places. I know of a number who have felt unwelcome at EGGS, too.
Well, the Committee didn’t want to deal in such subtleties: the vote was put, and we lost.
The difference between the EGGS Committee and those of us who felt we could not continue seems to me largely about our desire to apply scriptural thinking to the question of same-sex relationships in a way that doesn’t permanently close down debate. We’d like some open debate with integrity. That does not seem possible under some of the new clauses added to the EGGS ‘basis of faith’.
Indeed, for most of my 15 years membership, the sexuality issue has been one about which open discussion has just not happened within EGGS. I’ve always felt the group as a whole has never been at ease with the emphasis brought in by Archbishop Justin on Shared Conversations, Good Disagreement, and the whole Living in Love and Faith package, including the resources produced by the Pastoral Advisory Group.
Scriptural and pastoral?
This is not the place to rehearse the biblical and theological arguments about same-sex relationships. I’d just say that in the light of the very real pastoral situations that arise in every parish now, and with an ear to scientific understanding about sexuality, there are respectable evangelical approaches that take a deeper look at the scriptures than just looking at the ‘usual suspect’ passages about homosexuality in the ancient world.
- For example, Bishop David Gillett makes a clear case here
- And David Ison, the Dean of St Paul’s, takes a careful look at some Christians’ unwillingness to explore ‘good disagreement’ here.
Like a lot of fairly traditionally-brought up people, I’ve found all it hard to keep up with the rapid changes in society’s approach to gay relationships. For most of my life, we used the word ‘homosexuality’, but in one generation, British approaches to same-sex relationships have changed completely.
- 1988 – a Conservative Government forced through the infamous ‘section 28’ (which banned even discussion of homosexuality in schools
- 2004 – a Labour government instituted civil partnerships for same-sex couples
- 2014 – a Conservative government introduced same-sex marriages (which the Church of England is legally prevented from conducting, even if we wished to do so).
It’s not the Church’s role to ‘keep up with the programme’ (as David Cameron once said about our hesitancy on women Bishops). But as a national church claiming to engage with every community, we have to think hard about how our mission and ministry are affected.
Just saying ‘we don’t like this’ won’t do. And you don’t have to sign up to some “woolly liberal” theology to feel we could offer people more than that. What has bothered me for a long time is the seeming inability of many evangelicals to face up to the pastoral implications of the new world in which we find ourselves.
- What happens when a church member finds themselves falling into a same-sex relationship? The official line is “stop it! You mustn’t…”
- More typical for many clergy, perhaps is the scenario where a parishioner’s (or their own) son daughter or grandchild, is in a committed same sex relationship.
- What do you say to them in your usual family relationships, let alone if they start to think about a civil marriage, or prayers for the couple?
- More niche is the matter of clergy in same-sex relationships. Here we find bishops repeating the official line, but at the same time not ‘enforcing’ it, and in their hearts encouraging the ministry of priests who are, formally, breaking the rules. It’s a blind eye, but not exactly a Nelsonian one.
In such cases, it seems to me we are closing our eyes to the reality of our own family or colleague’s situation. We either look the other way, or we retreat to safe Bible verses and mantra that do not meet the real, changed world of today.
- Four years ago I wrote about an ‘Accepting Evangelicals’ fringe meeting, and how cross I was very few members of the Synod evangelical establishment turned up. (Scroll down to Life on the fringe in this post from July 2015 )
- Around that time I went up to London to study day on same-sex relationships organised by EGGS, and was profoundly depressed by it. There was some quality input on the Bible, psychology and other matters, but it was, shall we say, one-sided. Fair enough. But there was nothing said about the pastoral implications of effectively turning people away if they did not conform.
You can characterise this debate as:
- Literalistic interpretation of the Bible versus thoughtful engagement
- A ‘pure’ church versus one that grapples with real life situations and lives with compromise
- The value and mores of the Victorian era or the 1950s versus different approaches to love and marriage found today.
- Paul versus Jesus
At the end of the day, if we pretend to offer ministry to the whole nation as part of our mission, then we have to decide how we engage with people who don’t fit the old patterns of living. We have managed it with divorce, and with women taking the lead in ministry. On modern sexuality, we’re in a pickle.
Talking about this to someone only this week, she quoted a Bishop we both knew, who, when confronted with simplistic verse-quoting, would say: Jesus said nothing about this: Paul said a little. Follow Paul if you wish to: I will follow Jesus.
Missing you already…
Anyway, the outcome of all this is that for the first time in 15 years, I won’t be at the EGGS meeting that opens Synod.
It’s not about flouncing out. A number of us (ordinary clergy, Archdeacons and laypeople) wrote to the EGGS Committee after July’s meeting assuring them of our desire to continue in fellowship, given we have so much in common. Regrettably, the Committee decided not to share our letter with the rest of the membership, so that many EGGS members will not be aware of our resignation or the thought behind it.
However, a new thing has appeared on the horizon, the “Evangelical Forum” fringe meeting (Synod members: Tuesday lunchtime, Westminster Room – the info is in your Flyers document), described as ‘a safe place for conversation, reflection and fellowship.’
It’s not a rival to, or a substitute for EGGS. My hope is that EGGS members (and others) will attend, and we can plot a path to some brave exploration of how all this can be handled by a mission-focussed evangelicalism that deals with the realities of life today in the light of a broader and deeper understanding of the scriptures than has often been used before.
- For regular readers of bathwellschap: this is not the usual ‘preview’ piece looking ahead to Synod business. (You might have worked that out already…) It will follow – in a week or so.
- In order to keep this post focussed, I’ve ignored the current excitement over the Bishops’ statement and the row it has caused. But, of course, it’s part of the larger picture.
* Scrambled Eggs was the working title given by Paul McCartney to a tune that came to him one night. It took a while to find the words… it became “Yesterday”, released in 1965.