The day after the Bishops' report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships came out, I wrote a blog about it. Many others have done the same, and there is now a useful collection of resources on the Thinking Anglicans website. I hope members of the General Synod will study them as they prepare for the "take note" debate on Wednesday.
Yesterday, I listened to Bishops Stephen Cottrell and Peter Selby on Radio 4 talking about the report "This is not the report I would have written" said Stephen Cottrell. "We want to hear what is really going on in the House of Bishops" said Peter Selby (I'm quoting both from memory but you can check by going to the Sunday Programme on the BBC Radio iPlayer). This followed the letter from fourteen retired bishops, of whom Peter Selby is one, expressing serious concerns about the report and what the Synod is being asked to do with it.
A Take Note debate is supposed to be a neutral discussion that paves the way for the matter in hand to be worked up more rigorously for formal debate and decision later on. So what the Synod is being asked to do is to pursue the exploration of marriage and same sex relationships along the general lines indicated in the Bishops' report. Often, Take Note debates don't need to be voted on since the Synod is not committing itself to any particular action, simply to go on talking. The report says that "it is worth recalling that voting to ‘take note’ of a report such as this does not ... commit Synod members to the acceptance of any matter contained within it."
But the Bishops express a clear aspiration for this week's consideration of their report. "The House nevertheless hopes that through the group discussions and the Take Note debate, the General Synod as a whole may be able to: (1) understand the approach being advocated by the House of Bishops and some of the reasoning behind it; (2) comment on that approach, while recognising that it is for the bishops to formulate teaching on the doctrines of the Church; and (3) contribute to consideration of key elements of it.
If I were a member of the General Synod, what would I do? (Thankfully, my Synod days are over, but I'm trying to feel for those who are still bearing the burden and the heat of their day in governance.)
My instinct would be to listen as carefully as possible to the debate. I would find that hard, because as I've already blogged, I have such grave misgivings about the report that I wonder how my mind could be changed. But that's the whole point of a debate. The purpose of rhetoric (which preachers practise every week in the pulpit, though they may not think of it in this way) is to persuade your listeners to your way of thinking, to open minds and hearts to new perspectives. It's a fundamental principle of democracy that we believe in this way of doing business. I should expect minds to be changed, including my own. It's perfectly possible to go into a debate with a burning conviction about the truth and justice of your cause, but still be attentive to those who see things differently. So when the Bishops ask us to "understand" their approach, we must do them the justice of listening carefully. It's a matter of Christian courtesy.
But what if the Synod decided after all not to "take note"? Would it be a disaster? I don't think so. Here's why.
First, it would require the House of Bishops to revisit their thinking about gay relationships in the church in a more searching way than the report does. This would certainly be hard and challenging. But I believe that far from damaging the credibility of the Church of England's leadership, it could actually affirm it by enabling the Bishops to say, in effect, "look, we didn't get this quite right. We acted out of good motives and had the best interests of the church at heart, but we now see that our approach hasn't commanded assent. So we are glad to be sent back to the drawing board and look at it again." Leaders are respected when they are big enough and wise enough to think it possible that they were mistaken.
Secondly, it would allow Bishops like Stephen Cottrell who say that this is not the report they would have written to elaborate their dissent more openly and tell us what they really think about how the church welcomes and affirms LGBT people, both laity and clergy. Indeed, I hope that this may happen in the Synod debate anyway. As I said in my blog, it was heartening that the report did not claim that the Bishops spoke with a single voice. I asked whether there might be a minority report from Bishops who took a different view because we need to overhear the debate that is going on among the church's senior leadership, and contribute to it as Peter Selby said. These are highly complex theological and ethical, not to say emotive, matters. To open up the episcopal debate would, I think, offer perspectives that would help those of us who are disquieted to put the report into context.
Thirdly, it would affirm the role of the General Synod in the Church of England. There's a phrase in the Bishops' report, quoted above, that concerns me. They invite the Synod to comment on their approach while recognising that it is for the bishops to formulate teaching on the doctrines of the Church. Up to a point. But only up to a point. For you can't separate doctrine from praxis. And this report is very much about the praxis of church discipline: do we or don't we permit non-celibate gay people to be ordained? Do we or don't we celebrate same-sex marriage or bless such marriages and civil partnerships in church? The answers we give these questions express a theology. Lex orandi, lex credendi. And it is precisely Synod's job as the CofE's governing body and legislature to determine these legal questions that embody its doctrine of marriage and sexuality. So if the Synod pushed back and did not take note of the report, it would remind the Church of England where its governance belongs.
And isn't it good when the Synod does theology-through-governance and respects the sensus fidelium that belongs not just to Bishops but to all the baptised whom the Synod represents? But this kind of theological discernment always comes down to good listening, not just to speeches but to the voice of conscience. Especially to that still small voice. To do this well is to undertake serious spiritual work. So (without a trace of envy), I wish the members of Synod good listening this week. And the promise of my prayers.