My favourite film last year was the magnificent Arrival, in which giant alien pods arrive in 12 random places around the world, and the challenge is to interpret their unusual language. (You can’t really go wrong when a film is about hermeneutics). At a critical point half-way through the film, the interpreter Dr Louise Banks is arguing that the aliens are friendly, against CIA agent Halpern, who believes that their intentions are hostile.
Halpern: We have to consider the idea that our visitors are prodding us to fight against ourselves until only one faction prevails.
Banks: There is no evidence of that.
Halpern: Sure there is. Just grab a history book. The British with India, the Germans with Rwanda. They even got a name for it in Hungary.
a series of many small actions, often performed by clandestine means, that as an accumulated whole produces a much larger action or result that would be difficult or unlawful to perform all at once.
If it was illegal to have a beard, and you wanted to undermine that law (which is actually a sensible regulation in, for example, food production), then the way to do it would not be to grow a full beard and protest, but to stop shaving for one day, and ask ‘Is this a beard?’ then stop shaving for two days and ask ‘Is this a beard?’ and so on. You would force the regulator to define a beard as something that had been growing for (e.g.) five days but not for four, or even five days and three hours but not five days and two hours, and by doing so you would make a reasonable regulation look ridiculous, and undermine the legislator’s position.
Last week’s motion passed by Hereford diocesan synod was a classic example of salami tactics. The motion read as follows:
That this Synod request the House of Bishops to commend an Order of Prayer and Dedication after the registration of a civil partnership or a same sex marriage for use by ministers in exercise of their discretion under Canon B4, being a form of service neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter, together with guidance that no parish should be obliged to host, nor minister conduct, such a service.
Richard Frith, the bishop of Hereford speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday, claimed that all they were asking for was ‘clarification’ about what is permissible. But it is difficult not to see this as disingenuous, given that he must be very well aware of the extremely clear and detailed statement on what is permissible that was issued in February 2014, in (belated) response to the 2013 Equal Marriage act:
The 2005 pastoral statement said that it would not be right to produce an authorized public liturgy in connection with the registering of civil partnerships and that clergy should not provide services of blessing for those who registered civil partnerships. The House did not wish, however, to interfere with the clergy’s pastoral discretion about when more informal kind of prayer, at the request of the couple, might be appropriate in the light of the circumstances. The College made clear on 27 January that, just as the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage remains the same, so its pastoral and liturgical practice also remains unchanged.
So the House of Bishops (of which Richard Frith is a member) has made clear what is and what is not permissible, and in the statement also explicitly links the issue of pastoral practice to the Church of England’s doctrine of marriage. The statement goes further than this, and lists all the places where this doctrine is set out, and its importance, as rooted in Scripture, a gift in nature, set out in the canons, the Book of Common Prayer, and contemporary liturgy—and then emphasising the duty of clergy (including bishops!) to uphold the teaching of the Church. The Hereford motion is therefore either flatly contradicting the previous statement of the House of Bishops, or asking them to square a circle (change the Church’s doctrine without changing its doctrine)—or perhaps is just engaging in salami slicing. Not ‘When is a beard a beard?’ but ‘When is a service of blessing a service of blessing?’. On Radio 4, Richard Frith in fact uses the B-word, saying that the motion has come from those who would like to use a service of blessing—which was something of a giveaway.
The briefing paper that was circulated prior to the motion makes no mention of this. There is a link to a general page on sexuality, though oddly that does not contain a link to the 2014 statement. What is more striking is the omission of any reference to any substantive issues relating to the biblical texts or the theological debate, as if these are now secondary. There is no mention that the vast majority of scholars agree that Scripture prohibits same-sex sexual relations, nor that the most common arguments (‘The writers of the NT knew nothing of faithful same-sex relationships’) hold no water. (Exactly the same lack of theological reflection marked the last Synod debates.) Instead, what is presented is the fact that there are different views, and we all wish to continue together and hold the Church together despite the differences of opinion. There is no exploration of the relative value of those different opinions; whichever way the motion goes then someone will be upset and disappointed:
A decision either for or against the motion will be resisted by, and cause pain to, faithful members of our diocese on one side or the other.
The assumption made at every point is that this issue belongs to the adiaphora, one of those things ‘indifferent’ on which we can agree to disagree—when of course that is the heart of the debate in the Church. The fact that one of those groups of ‘faithful members’ is wishing to stay with current and historic Anglican teaching, and the consistent witness of Scripture, doesn’t appear to tip the scales in any way. Inevitably, the parallels are drawn with the debate about the ordination of women, without any recognition that these two issues are of quite a different nature. But what is omitted from the briefing paper is less disturbing than what is present in it. There is clear awareness that this kind of approach is not the right way to tackle the issue:
There is a debate of principle as to whether a motion of this sort is the right way to engage with the sexuality question. Although as noted above the present position of the Church of England is complex, at present the Canons recognise only marriage between a man and a woman (and this position was protected in the Same-Sex Marriage Act) and some would argue that any formal recognition of same-sex relationships, including same-sex marriage, as requested by the motion, would contradict that position (and so it would in fact be impossible to draw up a service that fits the request).
So the diocese are actually admitting they are asking for the impossible, or perhaps testing the teaching of the bishops to the point of destruction. And there is acknowledgement that this will damage relationships within the Anglican Communion (though there is not much note made of ecumenical relations):
If we choose to support the motion, it will be noted across the Church of England, the Anglican Communion, and wider Christian community and society at large. We should be mindful of the direct effects on our relationship with our partner dioceses in Tanzania, who are likely to be dismayed at such a resolution.
The recent decision of the Scottish Episcopal Church is mentioned, but not that this has led to ‘consequences’ or that it is straining the desire of the Communion to ‘walk together’ by adding more ‘distance’. So the motion is doing damage to the unity of the Church, is challenging episcopal leadership and the Church’s doctrine, and is setting aside the widespread view of Christians elsewhere. It is hard to think of a further way in which this could undermine the Church as ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’—but the motion was passed by 41 votes to 18, with 4 abstentions.
How have we ended up in such a position? In his Radio interview, Richard Frith confirmed some of these elements in the briefing paper; in response to Susie Leafe highlighting the teaching of Jesus about the nature of marriage (which the interviewer, Justin Webb, seemed impressed by), he response ‘Susie is entitled to her view’, as if the teaching of the Church was just a matter of conflicting opinions. But what was most striking was what appeared to be a loss of any confidence in episcopal leadership. Frith repeatedly went back to the point ‘that this motion has come up from the parishes’. If a question arises from parishes and from ordinary churchgoers, and the answer has been offered by the House of Bishops repeatedly and in detail, what is a bishop to do?
I was very struck by the comments of Andrew Lightbown (who takes a different view from me on this issue) in conversation on Twitter (yes, conversation can happen there!). In a series of comments, Andrew reflected on the impact of the Archbishops’ quick response letter, which included the problematic phrase ‘radical Christian inclusion’, on the authority of themselves and the House of Bishops as a whole:
Isn’t there a sense that the Bishop of Hereford has only done what the Archbishops encouraged at the last General Synod, indeed instructed in their open letter to diocesans? I also think, rightly or wrongly, that the bishops have been dis-empowered through the Archbishops’ letter post the last General Synod; intention or consequence – not sure. I think that the vote not to take note and the immediate ‘strategic’ response has and will lead to unpredictable responses. I am trying saying this without a value judgement. Thinking of my former career I would have urged the Archbishops to avoid responding immediately. What they didn’t do was buy themselves any time – which results in giving away control – which is what has happened.
I think Andrew is quite right here; in the radio interview Richard Frith mentions ‘radical Christian inclusion’ explicitly, even though this idea is quite incoherent and has no foundation in Scripture in the terms it has been expressed. What matters is ‘responding to local need’; you might have thought that a bishop would say that what matters is obedience to Christian truth as revealed in Jesus. But what was more worrying was the naive expression (again in response to questioning from Justin Webb) that ‘it will go no further’. Richard appears to imagine that the formal introduction of some sort of recognised prayer of welcome will be the end of the matter, and the debate will subside. Anthony Archer, who is now pressing for change in the Church’s teaching, commented on Facebook:
This is a significant development in synodical terms, and more importantly for LGBT Christians. The Business Committee of the General Synod will come under pressure not to schedule the Hereford motion for debate until the House of Bishops have produced their teaching document in 2020. There is now a real opportunity for other dioceses to debate the same motion, and if their diocesan synod standing committees will not schedule such, then there must be plenty of deanery synods willing to do so to force their hand and take it through the process. Kicking things into the long grass normally only ferments greater discussion and action.
There is only one effective response to salami tactics, and that is agreement and coordination in response—though that rarely happens, which is why salami tactics are so often effective. In Arrival, the solution only comes by means of a sudden and unexpected act of collaboration between the nations. I think the same will be true for the House of Bishops; unless they start acting in a coordinated way, holding one another to account and rejecting salami tactics, they will see what authority they currently enjoy in teaching and leadership leach away. Some might see that as a good thing tactically as a way of bringing about the change that they would like to see—but it will do irreparable damage in the long term. A salami-sliced Church is impossible to lead, and cannot be effective in either ministry or mission.
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