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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The General Synod and Same Sex Relationships

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.


  1. Well, you're right, of course. But I'm afraid that Synod is mostly about politics, and played mainly by politicians. It was still possible to suborn the general opinion by cramming General Synod with laity of a particular persuasion to have the motion on female bishops thrown out. I am sorry for those who have been persecuted for being gay, and very sorry about this report. But I know a fair few gay clergy. Their sexuality has not hindered their progress through the ranks at all. What's to be sorry about there? I wish the church would focus on issues about prejudice against women, the number of all male choirs for example, and issues of bullying. These things affect far more people. (There are more women than gays) And I know gay clergy who are prejudiced against women! I've been bullied by the church. No-one is sorry for me. Why should I feel sorry for a gay Bishop or Dean? They've done alright.
    Sorry to be a bit jaundiced, but I get really fed up of this. Gay prelates want me to be sorry for them, when they couldn't care less about me. Sauce for the goose, don't you know.

  2. It's a shame that the HoB chose to use the language, which has been so offensive to many people in the report. The use of terms such as 'same sex attraction' are widely discredited generally and was an unfortunate choice - it sounds as if they are supporting the so called 'Conversion Therapy', again, widely discredited.

    A dissenting voice would be welcome, because that would be a sign of transparency, but perhaps their membership of the HoB or College of Bishops would be in danger if they break ranks?

  3. I read with interest your blog and am a member who has written to Synod reps to urge them not to take note. I think they need to go back and work through theological perspectives because although they allude to a tone and culture which is more inclusive of LGBTQI people they have proposed no actual changes to a change in tone and culture.

  4. Farewell CofE...maybe one day something a bit more real will emerge into the secular landscape that the established Church has helped create. Something a bit more...Godly? Spiritual? Unconscious? Tolerant? Full of integrity? Actually aligned to the kerygma of Christ, able to proclaim and communicate the radical approach he had towards love and living, rather than the tawdry middle-class Sunday entertainment that is your local parish church, infused with the bile of a few radical evangelicals who hold the rest of the institution to ransom because it’s too feckless to really do anything...?