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When I was a vicar of two parishes it was said by some PPC members that they did not find the deliberations of the General Synod especially helpful, and were, in the main, irrelevant to daily life in the parish. I tended to agreed with them, and nor had I any inclination to stand for General Synod myself, for various reasons. I have listened to Synod debates on live stream, and of course, watched the historic debate on the ordination of women to the priesthood on television in 1992, but in nearly 40 years of ministry in the Church of England I have never before sat in the public gallery at Church House when Synod was sitting, until that is last Wednesday, when GS 2055, the House of Bishops Report ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations’, was under discussion.
In the morning I caught the end of Bishop Graham James’s presentation and then returned in the afternoon for the extended debate and the vote itself, the outcome of which was that the Synod did not ‘Take Note’ of the Bishops’ Report, the proposal to do so being defeated by just 7 votes in the House of Clergy. (It was passed in the House of Bishops and the House of Laity but needed to be agreed by all three Houses for the Synod to Take Note).
I had experienced a mounting tension as the day wore on. The outcry against the Bishops’ Report had been unprecedented and several retired bishops had weighed in with a letter that criticised their successors, not least for speaking about the pain of lesbian and gay people without including their actual voices. For those organisations and individuals for whom this is a justice and equality issue, both the content of the Report and the manner in which it was expressed were deeply flawed. Page after page outlined how no change could be made to the Church’s teaching, and that even the blessings of same-sex couples was envisaged as problematic, but that a change of tone was needed, and what was vaguely described as ‘maximum freedom’ within those constraints. Conservatives, on the other hand, were equally unhappy, in their case with what they saw as the dangerous loophole presented by the prospect of maximum freedom, and some of them would also vote not to Take Note for that reason.
In the days leading up to the debate the two, or more accurately, the various sides rehearsed their arguments on the radio and television and in the press. For the Bishops – who remained united (there was a single miscast vote and one abstention) – as well as for conservatives and for those in favour of full inclusion this was becoming a line in the sand moment and the anxiety and stress were palpable. Finally, the public gallery filled, members entered the Chamber, and the debate began, and what a debate, one of the finest I have heard in Synod. Many people had been and were praying, of course, including members of the youthful Community of St Anselm, who were around throughout the day and holding the whole Synod in prayer, and that must have helped. I am also assuming that the quality of debate, especially its frankness and relational character, owed much to the ethos of the Shared Conversations, flawed though some people found them to be.
It would not be appropriate to single out particular speeches for comment as they were, almost without exception, excellent and are available online.
What I took away was that the issue of variant sexuality affects lay people as well as clergy, including the partners of clergy; that negativity towards people who are LGBTI+ can drive them to suicide; that some same sex couples are parents; that people who are black or disabled encounter similar problems in congregations and church culture to those experienced by LGBTI+ people; that some congregations (including older rural congregations) want the Church to model Jesus’ compassion in its interactions with LGBTI+ people, who include family members, colleagues and friends; and that there is a divide, a huge divide, between those who see LGBTI+ Christians as a problem, an issue, or sinful, rather than as brothers and sisters and members of the same Christian family. None of this stuff is easy to say or comfortable to hear but the atmosphere was one of respectful listening, and one hoped that Synod and the wider Church would be able to walk together, even though the limits of Christian love are being tested at the moment in several different directions
It must have taken courage to vote not to Take Note, whatever the reason, as no one wants to go against their bishop, the House of Bishops, or our Archbishops. For LGBTI+ Christians and their allies, however, this debate and the Report that led to it was a step too far, after several years of waiting for the Pilling Working Party to do its work, followed by the cumbersome process of the Shared Conversations. Having long suspected that they were being subjected to delaying tactics, they were also unhappy with the case studies chosen for the group work, which once again appeared to objectify gay and lesbian people (there was nothing about bisexual, transgender and intersex people in the Report) as a problem for the Church, rather than a gift, and some Synod representatives absented themselves from that session.
The Synod protocol is that the outcome of votes is announced in silence and without applause, but there was great relief in the public gallery where I was sitting when it was declared that General Synod had decided not to Take Note of a Report that had once again been written ‘about’ rather than with the people directly affected. The swift response of the Archbishops, which stresses that no one is an issue or a problem, but rather made in God’s image, called and loved by Christ, is much to be welcomed, as is their promise of a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. Their words seem a direct response to the pleas I heard in General Synod last week and I hope and pray that they will be turned into action in the days ahead.