One or two of the Bishops may be humming that old Elvis song to themselves. You know, the one that goes:
I gave a letter to the postman; he put it in his sack.
Bright and early next morning he brought my letter back!
Yes, the House of Bishop’s much-apologised-for pastoral message about Civil Partnerships will be raising the temperature as General Synod meets from Monday (10 February) to Thursday. It’ll be the subject of much unofficial conversation, anger – and even some prayer – alongside the official agenda
Having now perused my pile of papers (4.5 cm high this time, a whole centimetre higher than last February), I’ll preview the official agenda further down this post. But first I’ll attempt to explain the unofficial stuff, which is largely about the ongoing sore point of human sexuality. So, let’s get that out of the way.
Messed up – and ‘fessed up
In the last two weeks, a huge row has broken out, to the point where the House of Bishops, having issued a statement, have now broken ranks in an unprecedented way: a large number have issued apologies, either for the statement itself, or at least for the way it was presented and the timing. I won’t re-hash the gory details here: there’s an excellent summary from the Church Times team here, or you can get some of the blow-by-blow tale via Thinking Anglicans here.
However, for new readers or those in a hurry, what happened was this (in 7 stages):
- The Government changed the law about Civil Partnerships (CP), so that opposite-sex couples could enter into a CP instead of getting married.
- The House of Bishops issued a statement spelling out what this meant for the C of E. They were effectively saying nothing new – just that the church’s teaching was that sexual activity is reserved for opposite-sex married couples. (Remember, under the same-sex marriage law, the C of E is unable to conduct same-sex marriages, and also the teaching means people in civil partnerships should remain celibate).
- However, the statement caused outrage amongst people campaigning for a loosening of church practice, and in the wider LGBT population. They were angry partly because of the content, and partly because of the timing: the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) work, taking a long hard look at all issues relating to human sexuality, is due to be published this Spring/Summer, before the Lambeth Conference of world Anglican Bishops.
- The Press had a field day with it, leading to Private Eye’s headline No sex please, we’re Bishops in the current edition. If you missed it all, there’s a reasonably sober account in this Guardian report.
- Hence Return to Sender. Many individual bishops pulled back and apologised for the statement. That’s unheard-of. Astonishing. But I understand that pretty well every Bishop’s office was receiving angry phone calls, letters and emails. So even those not at the forefront of recognising a wind of change realised they had caused a huge upset and felt they had to pull back.
- But that then caused further outrage – this time from traditionalists, who resented the Bishops’ apologies, when all they had done was restate traditional church teaching. The ‘traditionalists’ are largely (but not exclusively) from the evangelical end of the C of E. Ian Paul’s Psephizo blog has a thorough analysis from this perpective – read him here.
- A further statement was then issued from the two Archbishops, apologising. It’s short, to the point, and you can see it here.
How will this play out at Synod?
So, there has been upset about the content of the statement. But the timing is definitely part of the problem, as we will doubtless hear this week. Campaigners for change have been holding their breath for a while, and pinning their hopes on the publication of the LLF materials. So a bald statement of the status quo – just before Synod, and in advance of the Lambeth Conference – was not what they needed.
Synod gives campaigners an opportunity to fire on all cylinders in Question Time on Monday evening. The Questions paper has no less than twenty questions about different aspects of this mess…
You can see the Questions, and the written Answers here. There’ll be other heat-generating moments on the Fringe – and when we have a presentation about the LLF materials on Tuesday morning.
All this raises a question about the process by which the Bishops’ statement was issued. You could argue that no statement was necessary: there was nothing new in it. But the backtracking by many bishops has shown a real weakness in the House of Bishops’ way of working. Because the statement was dealt with by the ‘Delegation Committee’ (a sub-group of the House that deals with detail and matters for which it is deemed the full House either doesn’t have time, or doesn’t need to look at too closely.
The full House, it seems, passed it on the nod. And behind that little problem is the whole business of who wrote it (presumably a staff member, not one of the bishops themselves) and who authorised its publication in its final form and at such an inopportune time. I anticipate some keen supplementary questioning on both those aspects…
Yes, but what about the rest?
Yes, there is an ordinary normal Synod agenda.
On Monday, as well as Questions:
- Archbishop Justin will give a Presidential Address. I would have expected this to be partly about looking forward to Lambeth, but in the light of the above, there may be some archiepiscopal humble pie being eaten, too.
- Then we go into the seemingly bizarre and arcane matter of which diocese the Channel Islands should belong to in future. As they are not part of England, but Crown dependencies with their own governments, they always need special provision in making Measures and Canons. But in the light of a seemingly unsolvable breach of trust between them and the Diocese of Winchester (with which they have been linked for centuries), it’s being suggested that they transfer to Salisbury. The legislation is very complex, but will probably go through at speed (the aim is to get all three stages through this week), though I understand some (non-Island) members have reservations about the speed. As one with family in, and long connections with, Guernsey, I’ll follow this with interest. And I’ve bunged in a few pics: Island aficionados can work out where they were taken….
All churches great and small
On Tuesday morning we begin with a huge Communion service. It’s Bath & Wells’ reps turn to assist with distributing Communion – always a moving experience.
- For the rest of the morning we look at the proposals for altering the governance of our Cathedrals, and try to decide how many years someone can represent their parish on their Deanery Synod.
- After lunch we hear about the LLF process – with questions. (After the House of Bishops mess, there may be more heat than light in the questions – see above).
- After a quick trip to the Channel islands (for the ‘second reading’) comes a Private Members motion. These are fairly rare, because you have to get the support of a hundred members before your pet motion stands a chance of being debated. But Andrew Moughtin-Mumby from Southwark has achieved that with a motion about the ‘Windrush generation‘ and our commitment to it, and our resolve to combat racism in the Church and nation.
IICSA: how to respond?
Wednesday offers some more difficult debate, as we consider a motion that looks at the Church of England’s response to IICSA – the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
IICSA made five specific recommendations about things it thinks the Church of England needs to change. All have been accepted, and the outgoing Lead Bishop for Safeguarding, the Bishop of Bath & Wells, Peter Hancock (disclaimer: he used to be my boss) will explain how each of them is being followed through.
As regular readers know, there is always an element of dissatisfaction and anger about how safeguarding has been handled in the past. There are 16 Questions in for Monday night, covering specific cases as well as the treatment of victims and survivors. Some members who wanted to propose amendments to Wednesday’s main motion, highlighting some issues, have been told they cannot do so, as their amendments are technically out of order. So again, there will be some sharp debate. (The Church Times has details on the failed amendments here.)
We finish Wednesday morning with a motion calling on all parts of the Church to respond to the climate emergency, and set themselves carbon reduction targets.
The Press have had some fun with this: (“Cathedrals to turn off the heating…”), but I expect the debate to be both measured and focussed on what’s achievable. Targets and dates will be set. (Christians involved in Extinction Rebellion have invited Synod members to a vigil outside Church House on Wednesday morning at 8.30.)
By now, you’ll have spotted we have a very varied agenda. Wednesday afternoon includes:
- discussion of the way in which we can bring the scandal of ‘paupers funerals’ to an end
- a look at ministry among children and young people: there are some pretty horrifying statistics in the paperwork.
- In a fast-changing educational environment, revise the status of Diocesan Boards of Education to make them more able to deal with the complexities of academisation, governance, Free Schools and all the rest.
- We end the day with a glance forward to the elections of a new Synod this autumn. The numbers of reps from each diocese will be tabled and agreed. Yes, this is the opportunity for lay people and clergy to offer themselves for election to Synod. I sincerely hope some readers of bathwellschap will consider doing so.
The final stretch
We finish on Thursday morning. The plan is
- to sign off the Channel Islands business, and then take a motion from Leeds diocesan Synod about the C of E’s weakness in ministering to and among disadvantaged communities.
- In a similar mood to what Catholics note as ‘God’s preferential option for the poor’, we’ll then have another Private Members motion: Carl Fender from Lincoln, a barrister, will ask us to address the scandal of the cutbacks in legal aid which make it so much harder for vulnerable and disadvantaged people to get professional representation in courts and tribunals.
So it’s not all navel-gazing: there are some serious ecclesiastical and national issues before us.
- As usual, I’ll be reporting on each day’s debates as I see them, with some added ‘behind the scenes’ stuff.
- You can get an email advising you of each day’s update by clicking the ‘Follow’ button at the bottom of the right-hand column on this page, and I’ll advertise the new posts on twitter @bathwellschap.
- We begin at 2.30 on Monday – you can follow a video stream from here
- The official Twitter feed is @synod. Unoffical tweets are prolific and a lot more fun than the offical record. You get the feeling of being in the chamber. Try #synod or @GenSyn
- If you’re so minded, you might like to offer a prayer for us all: it’s going to be hard graft.
My computer tells me this is the one-hundredth post on bathwellschap As long as it’s either useful, or fun – and I remain on Synod – I’ll do a few more yet.
* Return to Sender: Big hit for Elvis in 1962, on the back of his film Girls! Girls! Girls! If you don’t know it, it’s a song about a heartbroken man whose ex-girlfriend won’t read his letter. And the letters keep getting returned, unwanted. Might be a lesson here…
You can see Elvis in a full hip-swivelling performance here