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On Synod, sexuality and not "Taking note"

On Synod, sexuality and not "Taking note"

By Ian Paul
February 16, 2017

Yesterday the General Synod of the Church of England debated the report offered by the House of Bishops outlining where we had got to in the debate about sexuality. The form of the debate was unusual; rather than proposing anything, the motion was simply to 'Take note' of the report, which essentially means acknowledging that it exists. In most contexts, this functions as an opportunity for general discussion, after which a substantive motion is offered which proposes action in the light of the report. Because of this, 'Take note' votes are usually uncontroversial; a Synod 'old hand' commented that, in 28 years of experience, the person had only known of 2 or 3 occasions where a 'Take note' motion had not been passed.

But because there was no substantive motion offered, many of those who were unhappy with the report saw the 'Take note' motion as the only opportunity to express their view about the contents, even though such a motion technically does not mean that. Jayne Ozanne, a lay member from Oxford, seems to have spent the last weeks and months working full time on a PR campaign against the report, and this bore fruit in the voting. Overall, Synod 'took note' by 242 to 184, with 6 abstentions (and about 20 members of Synod not present or not voting). But, as is common when there is controversy or a close vote, there was a call for a vote 'by houses' i.e. the votes of bishops, clergy and laity are counted separately, and a motion is only passed if it passed by all three groups. The votes were:

43 to 1 amongst the bishops (but it turns out the 1 against was an error, and one abstention was not registered);
93 to 100 with 2 abstentions amongst the clergy; and
106 to 83 with 4 abstentions amongst the laity.
Because of the clergy vote, the motion to 'Take note' was not passed.

The question is: what does this mean? The answers varied, from 'a rebuke to the bishops' (Martin Bashir of the BBC, Harry Farley on Christian Today) to 'Anglicans come a step closer to gay marriages in church' in the Telegraph. To understand this, we need to consider both the reasons behind the vote, and the consequences of it.

The report itself was seen by many 'traditionalists' as positive, in that it made clear that there was no consensus for change in the Church's doctrine of marriage. That infuriated those pressing for change, and explains the energy behind the campaign not to 'Take note'; it was explained as frustration with the tone of the report, but most comments argued that the only change of tone that would have mattered was a change in direction and recommendations. Others who were sympathetic to the position stated did still find the detached feel of the report unsatisfactory, but for many there was also a sense of lack of connection with the Shared Conversations process, which was costly in more ways than one. Andrew Goddard analysed what he thought the bishops were aiming to cover in the report, but then asks the pertinent question: how did they end up with the conclusion they offered? Given that the group and the House must have considered a range of possible options, in the light of the Shared Conversations, why weren't we informed what those options were, and why they were discounted?

It would, perhaps, have been helpful to the wider church if the bishops in their report had shown us more of their workings here. This could have addressed such questions as:

How many other options were considered?
What were these other options and why were they framed as they were?
What evidence -- biblical, theological, pastoral, legal, missional, ecclesiological -- was presented in their favour?
What were the primary objections which meant they lacked sufficient "weight of opinion"? (These were presumably a mix of the more pragmatic for some -- though desirable they would not achieve the necessary majorities in Synod to become a reality or in doing so risked causing division -- and more theologically principled and biblically based for others)
Can the bishops -- drawing on the Shared Conversations -- help the church as a whole to understand the "very wide spectrum" there is even among the bishops, why different positions are held on that spectrum, why we are so divided, and where the heart of our disagreements lie?
What sort of process (a formal vote for and against each one or simply a sense of the meeting? the use of the Single Transferable Vote to choose between options?) was used to determine that one had "a clear (although not unanimous) weight of opinion"?
I suspect the practical answer is that this would have given too many hostages to fortune--but without this kind of explanation, many felt the bishops were simply saying: 'This is where we are--trust us' and that trust was lacking for a whole range of reasons.

But the vote cannot be understood without taking into account one other group: Conservative evangelicals. Alongside the commitment to leave marriage unchanged, there were several contrary indicators, included either as a genuine reflection of the range of views amongst the bishops or (if you are more cynical) as an exercise in balancing. A key phrase here is allowing 'maximum freedom within the law' for pastoral provision, and Conservatives saw that as an alarming compromise within the report. In the Synod debate, I had the impression that two moments were key for them. The first was the speech of Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, who wanted to honour the 'anger, the fury' of campaigners (I am still trying to work out where in Scripture 'fury' towards your fellow believers is a commended virtue), and who was determined to make the most of 'maximum freedom' in his diocese.

The second came in Archbishop Justin Welby's speech, the last to be taken, in which he emphasised the need for 'Christian inclusion'. I am not clear whether he intended the emphasis to be on 'Christian' or 'inclusion', but it was clearly a trigger phrase for Conservatives, who put it alongside Justin's other positive comments about gay relationships as a signal that he cannot be trusted on this issue. Though I don't agree with their approach, I can understand this viewpoint. He concluded his short speech with:

The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ -- all of us, without exception, without exclusion.

If this means anything, I am not sure what it does mean. Including clergy defying the Church's teaching, and ignoring their bishop and their ordination vows? Including 'non-realists' who don't believe in the existence of God? Including all? Moving boundaries is one thing, but abolishing them is quite another. (And where is mention of kingdom, redemption, newness of life?) Once Justin had said this, the die was cast, and I suspect just enough Conservatives joined with liberals in voting not to take note for the motion to fall. James Oakley was spot on when he commented:

Each group found the bits they disliked. The progressives really disliked the idea that marriage was not to be redefined. The traditionalists distrusted the idea that developments on the ground could now unfold without necessarily having future input from Synod...The report fell not because it was too conservative. It fell because it pleased no-one. It tried to hold together what cannot be held together. It was a pantomime horse.

One of the speeches which attracted most applause was from Simon Butler, Prolocutor (chair) of the House of Clergy. He began with a story in which I (unnamed) had a starring role:

I want to reflect on my relationship with a member of this Synod. He was the first person I ever told I was gay, 27 years ago. I will always be grateful to him: he listened without judgement and promised to accompany me on my journey. He gave me a card of a shadowy road lit by sunlight. It remained on my study wall for years.

Our paths separated. His ministry has taken a particular path. He got married and had kids. I met my partner fifteen years ago. Synod has brought us back together and we find ourselves serving the church in close proximity. I've told him something of my life and it has not been hard to see how difficult that is for him. He believes me to be living dishonestly in relation to the doctrine of the church. A red line has been crossed for him.

And of course it's wounding for me too, working alongside someone who believes that about me. GS2055 took me over a red line too. What that means for future working remains to be seen. It's too early to tell. But, despite those red lines being crossed the Church of England forces us to work together. It may not be Good Disagreement. But it is, I believe, just about Workable Disagreement.

Whenever I hear this story I am moved, not least because I never knew how Simon felt about it all until he posted it in a comment on this blog last year. (In passing, it also demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to be welcoming without being 'affirming'.) But yesterday it felt bittersweet, because it seemed as though Simon was trying to compensate for having lied about me, to Synod, from the platform, in his story about 'the message' he received on Monday. And believing his lie, the Archbishop paraded me as 'the perfect example of how not to act' and the antitype to Jesus' restraint and discipline in the temptations, in his Presidential Address. (Note to self: if I am going to damn someone in public, first check whom I am damning and whether it is for good reason.) I don't think I have featured so prominently in Synod before without uttering a single word.

More significantly, Simon draws a parallel between what has been for each of us a 'red line' that has been crossed--but there is a difference. My 'red line' relates to what the Church actually teaches, articulating its understanding of the teaching of Jesus and Scripture, to which we as clergy have made a public commitment. Simon's 'red line' relates to his anger with the report, and the disappointment that it brought. If we are equating aspiration, however laudable, and disappointment, however well founded, with the compromise of actual commitment to the teaching and doctrine of the Church, then I think we are in a very difficult place. In the light of the enormous lobbying and PR that went on, I wonder whether yesterday's debate was the beginning of a new era: doing theology by social media. If so, it does not augur well.

Simon welcomed the debate as marking 'a new era of honesty and openness.' But for many in the chamber it was experienced as just the opposite. Questions on Monday were dominated by a few angry voices, and it seemed that everything in the Church was somehow linked to the question of sexuality. Many who support the Church's current teaching, particularly those who are celibate as single and/or same-sex attracted, were fearful of speaking because of the atmosphere of intimidation, manipulation and even bullying. The response of one campaigner to this? 'Now you know how we have been feeling.' (Thankfully in terms of media coverage, the debate on Wednesday had a better feel--though the balance of speakers was skewed.) How have we got to this, where people are afraid to speak up in agreement with the teaching of the Church and of their bishops--in front of those self-same bishops and in the Synod of the Church?

Simon's concluding comment drew on the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel at the Jabbock.

I thought that would be my last word but, as we worshipped last evening, a text of scripture came to be as a bolt from the blue. Genesis 32:26: "I will not let you go until you bless me." Despite the enormous difficulty it presents, I say to that person who sent me that text and who finds my presence in this place so difficult, "I will not let you go until you bless me."

The statement has been picked up as a slogan, and as a sign of generous engagement on Simon's behalf. But is that how it is functioning? Simon seems to me to be saying: 'I am not going to leave until I get what I want from you.' And used in this way, it is completely disconnected from its meaning in the Genesis narrative.

Jacob is, literally, a 'heel'. He has been wheeling and dealing, plotting and scheming, since the day he was born. He appears to think that he will not get anything--from other people or from God--without using guile and cunning. It all comes to a head in the moment of crisis at the Jabbock, where he spends all night wrestling with (the angel of) God. The wrestling seems to symbolise Jacob's struggle that God will actually give him anything good without his getting it for himself: 'God helps those who help themselves' it seems to him. As the climax of this struggle, perhaps as his final act of grasping for himself what God actually longs to give him, he demands a blessing. And he gets one. But he gets two others 'gifts' as well. The first is a wound, a limp, which disables him and reminds him for the rest of his life that it is not his strength or his cunning which in the end are the most important things. And he gets a new attitude--an attitude of humility, obedience and gratitude. He has finally learned to accept what God has given him, and to follow God's calling, even if he thinks that he could do better by his own cunning--but he cannot. To remind him of the moment, his name is changed to Israel, and the people who then bore his name had to be constantly reminded of the same lesson--that flourishing lay in receiving from God his grace and his call to obedience, rather than in wrestling using their own cunning.

But Simon's use of the phrase turns it into exactly the opposite. He has isolated it, stripped it of its narrative clothing, and put it to work as a weapon in service of an ideology. And as this happens, God is silenced. This process of atomisation, isolation and decontextualisation is writ large all over the argument for change in the Church's teaching, and it is why the debate is about so much more than just sex and marriage. It is about whether we will allow God to speak to us by his Spirit through the pages of Scripture, and in so speaking will form us in the likeness of Christ.

Simon demands a blessing from me, but in doing so he is asking me to bless that which Scripture says God does not bless. Paul talks of the 'love of Christ which constrains us' (2 Cor 5.14) and if we are to be a loving Church, we must love with the love of Christ. Instead, my continuing affection for and commitment to Simon makes me pray that he (and I equally) will learn the lesson of Jacob/Israel, to accept God's grace and calling to obedience as sufficient. It is not loving to bless what God does not bless--neither is it loving to demand such blessing from others.

That is the heart of our dilemma as a Church, and no amount of language of 'inclusion' will resolve this.

What practical difference will the vote make? It will not lead to a new report, since we cannot consider one on the same issue in the life of this Synod. It is difficult to see how the position of the bishops will change; if some break ranks, many will respond 'Why didn't you speak up earlier?' It might lead to a fracture in the House of Bishops, as some clearly hope--which will mean dioceses diverging in their teaching and policies. If so, evangelicals will start to withdraw both cooperation and funding--so keep an eye out for the next diocese to run out of money. It has perhaps raised hopes for change again--which are likely to be dashed once more, at least in terms of formal change in the Church. In introducing the report, Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, emphasised yet again that changing this teaching, shared in much of the Anglican Communion and ecumenically, wasn't in the gift of the Church.

What it has done is highlighted the deep divisions in the Church--but done nothing to heal them. Not only do we disagree, we even disagree about what it is we disagree on. And it has set clergy against their bishops. Some will ask what the bishops have been doing all these years, in terms of teaching and training and holding clergy to appropriate account, to lead to such a deep level of mistrust. But others might ask clergy what they think they are doing in rejecting the teaching of those to whom they have pledged canonical obedience. Either which way, it is incoherent, and no way to run a railway. And in the end it has demonstrated the power of this issue to break the Church. Those seeking change have demonstrated their determination to continue pushing, regardless of the consequences.

As Zachary Giuliano concludes: there are no winners.

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