I’m travelling home from York with time to reflect on the General Synod meeting. I have enjoyed many very good conversations with bishops, clergy and lay Synod members, other exhibitors and Synod staff members. I know Synod isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Synod always restores my Anglican family connections, if not my sense of connection with God. That’s not because God isn’t present – of course she is – but Synod is so busy and complex that there I find little time or space for my contemplative, interior self.
What have I discovered about the Church of England this weekend and the prospects for the kind of change in attitudes towards LGB&T people that CA is seeking?
The many conversations I have enjoyed, added to the individual conversations CA is having with bishops, give me real encouragement. There is warm, open understanding and care for LGB&T people among many in the church. The majority of bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury following the House of Lords debate, know that the church’s image in the wider community is in crisis, and attitudes towards women and LGB&T people are the reason.
There are two causes of concern. One is the House of Laity in General Synod. Voting patterns yesterday on the women in the episcopate proposals show there is now a solid majority among the bishops and clergy for the full inclusion of women in the church, and I think this will translate in solid support in any future vote on a debate affecting LGB&T people.
In contrast, the House of Laity has clearly not changed as a result of Saturday’s facilitated conversations. There is a solid block in the House of Laity who are going to hold a conservative line towards women and LGB&T people. They think they are defending Biblical teaching and the truth and purity of the church. They are doing no such thing, of course. They are creating a nasty, divided, prejudiced church which looks totally un-Christian to those on the outside (and to many of us within the church).
The Church of England knows it has a crisis on its hands. It thinks the crisis might be solved by gently persuading enough conservatives to overcome their convictions and vote yes for women bishops. I am convinced the problem is far deeper than that. I think we hold dramatically different understandings about the nature of God and they are irreconcilable. I believe in a God of love. They believe in a nasty, rule-bound, vindictive God who despite everything they say, hates gays. Until they overcome their prejudice, they will continue to drive the church towards a precipice. Until people, especially in Synod, have the courage and awareness to proclaim that God looks totally different from the conservative’s version of God, the majority of people in this country will treat us with disdain and many church members will continue to abandon the church.
The second cause for concern is the process by which Church of England teaching about the place of LGB&T people in the church might be changed. A huge weight of expectation rests on Sir Joe Pilling’s working party and the report he is due to present to the House of Bishops’ meeting in December. The report needs to be confidently if modestly radical. It needs to provide bishops with confidence underpinning to open the doors to the blessing of same-sex relationships. I hope and pray it will.
It also needs to provide bishop with a road map for changing teaching and practice so that partnered lesbian and gay ordinands, clergy and lay ministers are unequivocally welcomed and valued by the church. Prejudice and discrimination based on gender and sexuality have to end.
I had many conversations with people at York who are energised and inspired by their encounter with God who loves, energises, blesses and includes infinitely and indiscriminately. I didn’t have conversations with those who think otherwise. But I did have conversations with some bishops for whom church attendance is more important than allowing people to find a path to faith that really does open hearts and minds and lives to God’s presence in the core of our being and in the unfolding energies of an evolving universe.
So long as the majority of members at Synod fail to open themselves in confidence to God’s infinite, loving, creative energy – and talk about their experience of God with passion – debates will fail to ignite and Church of England policy will continue to be small, narrow, unconvincing and impoverished.
Having said that, I am so blessed to have been at Synod and enjoyed conversations every day which have been energised and deeply affirming. I am deeply grateful for my many Anglican friends, lay and ordained, clergy and bishops. Your friendship is a blessing and sustains my faith.