On Wednesday 11 February the General Synod of the Church of England debated “Some Issues in Human Sexuality“, a report issued in November 2003 by the House of Bishop’s Working Party on Human Sexuality.
The press has reported the debate as showing a move by the Church towards a more positive approach to homosexuality that may ultimately open the way to formal adoption of blessings for same sex couples.
Bishop Richard Harries of Oxford, who chaired the Working Party, indicated a softer attitude in his speech introducing the debate. As delivered to General Synod, the speech omitted a section referring to the introduction of services of blessing for gay and lesbian couples, but the section was included in a copy of the speech handed to the media. The passage omitted from speech suggested four possibilities: that the church could decide to take a stricter approach; or a more inclusive one which would lead to the introduction of services for a blessing for gay and lesbian couples; or we might decide that while homosexual relationships fall short of God’s ideal, committed homosexual relationships might nevertheless be the best choice for some gay and lesbian people.
Of the 15 speakers in the debate, 10 were positively supportive of greater tolerance towards gay people by the Church, and they spoke with much greater warmth, energy and conviction.
Brian McHenry, also from Southwark and Vice-chair of the House of Laity, was called first. He told the synod: “There is increasing evidence that we are not in tune with public opinion. It is uncomfortable to be a member of a church which is perceived to be homophobic, hypocritical and discriminatory.”
Sister Rosemary CHN, from their Nottingham house, said that most people could not be expected to remain celibate outside marriage and that it was damaging for gays to remain abstinent. “Forced celibacy is as abhorrent as forced marriage,” she said.
The Revd Paul Collier, a college chaplain in South London, asked the church to talk with lesbian and gay people, not about them. “The reality is out there – the majority of our members want an inclusive church. I continue to trust God utterly to lead the church into truth.” Paul’s speech was received with the longest and loudest ovation of the afternoon.
The Rev Ronald Hesketh, chaplain-in-chief to the RAF, told the synod that the armed services had coped with an end to the ban on homosexuality with dignity and pragmatism. “My adult son tells me to get a life. This is a non-issue to many in his generation.”
The Rev David Banting, vicar of Harold Wood, in Essex, and chair of Reform, insisted that the church should not change its policy: “The strongest plea to be listened to comes from those who want to change the church’s teaching. They do not want to take part in a serious Biblical debate.” Jonathan Redden, of Sheffield diocese, argued that greater attention should be paid to the health risks of homosexual practice. He added: “The male homosexual lifestyle is unhealthy … the Department of Health, gay advocates and supporters must show that there is little risk to health.”
There has been a remarkably different atmosphere around Synod this week. There is a greater sense of confidence that the Church of England still wants to be an open, generous and inclusive community, prepared to change attitudes and policy in response to changes in society and in churches around the country.