The General Synod of the Church of England (of which I am a member) met last week in York, and there were many good things about it. We spend most of Saturday afternoon exploring some exciting developments from the ‘centre’ offering resources to dioceses and churches in the task of evangelism and the making of disciples. There was a motion allowing the flexible use of vestments, bringing canon law into line with the reality of variety of practice on the ground. A private member’s motion (PMM) (by Tiffer Robinson) proposed making a sensible change to the allocation of school places, so that clergy moving into tied accommodation are not unfairly penalised. I co-presented the report of the Archbishops’ Council (AC), and it was notable that both suspicion of the Council and reluctance to engage with Renewal and Reform had mostly dissipated.
But there were two other items of business that consumed disproportionate amounts of emotional energy and which have sparked debate ever since, and they tested the competence of Synod. I am not sure that the test was passed.
The first was another PMM, this time from Jayne Ozanne, asking for Synod to agree with psychiatric medical opinion on the harm done by ‘conversion therapy‘ and requesting the AC to take further action. Many viewed this as a ‘Trojan horse’, since the particular resolution we were being asked to endorse also made references to transgender issues, and Synod cannot actually ask AC to do anything, since AC does not report to Synod. The second motion was from Blackburn Diocese proposed by Chris Newlands asking that the Church affirm their welcome of transgender people, and that the House of Bishops ‘consider whether it might prepare liturgy’ for such a welcome.
There are several reasons why these two motions should never have been debated. The first and most obvious is that both issues will certainly be addressed in the teaching document that the Archbishops have commissioned, so the motions are trying to short-circuit a wider discussion. The second is that both take the form of false binaries; essentially they say ‘Do you agree with me—or do you hate gay and transgender people?’ No matter how faulty the wording, failing to pass either motion would not have looked like good PR, and there would have been howls of protest from various quarters. In the voting, it was evident that the bishops were acutely aware of this, and taking both motions by a vote of houses (so that they had to pass separately in each of the bishops, clergy and laity) which would normally make it harder for a motion to pass, in fact made it easier, since the bishops could not afford to be seen to be the ones who were blocking.
The third reason was the poor wording of both motions. The PMM talked of ‘conversion therapy’ but used this as an ill-defined catch-all which made proper debate very difficult. Every single speaker, including those who proposed and supported significant amendments, agreed that any form of forced or coercive treatment of people who are same-sex attracted (whether they are happy with that or not) is abusive and must be rejected. But another part of Jayne Ozanne’s agenda is to have significant movements in the Church, including New Wine, Soul Survivor, HTB and Spring Harvest labelled as ‘spiritual abusive’ and therefore illegal. This is why the motion was seen as a Trojan horse. Her motion was also asking Synod to ‘endorse’ a medical opinion, and a controverted one at that, which is simply not within Synod’s competence to do so. But suggesting that Synod ‘does not have the competence’ to express a view is like holding up a red rag to a bull (or any colour rag—bulls are colour blind). In the end we passed an amended motion that ‘endorsed’ a different medical view—but few had read the details, still less understood the issues within it, and such endorsement is meaningless except as tokenism.
The transgender motion asked for the bishops to ‘consider whether’ they should formulate some new liturgy, and in one sense that is an empty statement; they might well ‘consider’ it for five minutes and decide not. But to even raised the question of liturgy, before we have any consensus of understanding on the issue, is putting the cart so far before the horse that the horse has lost sight of it. And for both motions, the briefing papers we had ahead of the meeting were wholly inadequate, lacking proper detached assessment (Ozanne ended up bombarding us with a series of papers in response to counter-evidence) and without any real theological input at all. The worst things is that, after all the heat and energy that have gone into the debate, and though the votes might ‘signal’ something, neither motion makes any formal difference at all. The Church’s position has not changed one iota on either issue—not least since the motions were carefully worded so as to formally change nothing.
But three issues were highlighted by means of the debate, and they are ones that seriously undermine the standing of Synod.
The first is the almost complete absence of any theological thinking, and the lack of purchase of whatever decent theology was there. David Baker eloquently lamented:
So why, then, do I feel rather bleak? The answer is simple: the apparent absence at synod of real theology – in other words, the ability to reflect on complex issues with calmness, depth and clarity from an explicitly Christian perspective.
The absence of theological reflection is disturbing. The Rev Mark Lucas – a usually mild-mannered and irenic evangelical Synod member – was moved to thunder on his blog: ‘The debating chamber has been, almost solely, a pink fluffy, theology-free, Bible-mocking, sin-affirming, solipsism of multitudinous, anthropocentric anecdote!’
Stephen Lynas from Bath and Wells made a similar observation:
A number of discussions I’ve been in (in the bar and in committees) bewailed the fact that much of the debate (on both motions) was personalised and story-driven. There was little theological reflection (apart from a few nods to Scripture, Tradition and Reason). While we were intensely pastoral, then, we were not as analytical as befits a major Synod with carefully-designed processes of scrutiny and decision-making.
There were two low points for me which both occurred in the transgender debate. The first was a retelling of the Genesis creation narrative:
Genesis tells us that humanity was made male and female, in a clear binary. But we are also told that there are similar binaries of day and night, and of land and sea. Of course, we know in reality that there is such a thing as twilight, and that there are liminal places between land and sea, such as wetlands and marshes—and God is in them all.
I find it astonishing that anyone could imagine this offers us any insight whatever into a biblical theology of sex difference or sex identity. It is treating the Bible as an adult colouring book, in which we can use the lines to paint whatever picture we want. The serious theological issue here is that, in treating it like this, we are simply silencing God, and remaking the text of Scripture in our own image.
The second low point was Tim Hind’s comment, when he described any pause for theological reflection as ‘dotting i’s and crossing t’s, and we spend far too much time doing that. We just need to act.’ What have we come to when there is so little tolerance for actually thinking? Synod appears to have been completely sucked into the trivialisation of the social media age, the ‘shallows’ of the age of the internet.
The second issue was the widespread use of personal attacks and ad hominem arguments within the debate. Adrian Hilton has also catalogued some of the abusive language surrounding the debate, including that of Andrew Foreshew-Cain who tweeted in the chamber as I was sharing my experience of transgender people in my own family, amongst friends and in church:
Ian Paul now. If you can watch. ‘See how he loves himself’ to paraphrase a famous saying.
This is certainly a breach of draft guidelines on conduct within Synod, if nothing else.
But even more serious was the emphasising of false binaries to dismiss, rather than engage in, debate. Chris Newlands dismissed any debate about his motion with the phrase:
There are two views on gender dysphoria, those who believe it is real and those who believe it is a fiction.
So no-one is allowed to question his own approach? I wonder how that would look in the close parallel of how we deal with those with anorexia—for both conditions are a kind of body dysphoria, where the person’s perception and their bodily biological reality are at odds. Do we welcome anorexics into our churches? If you don’t believe an anorexic’s account of their physical state, does that mean you don’t welcome them? Or that you don’t believe anorexia is a serious and challenging pastoral issue? How should you respond if an anorexic asked for your support for surgical intervention to make their body conform to their anxiety about it? Is refusing to do this a rejection of them or a trivialising of their condition? This just illustrates how damaging the false binary of debate is.
In Jayne Ozanne’s response to Sean Doherty’s (in my view very good amendment), she objected to the idea that we should ‘note’ (rather than endorse) the professional evaluation, and believed that the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Advisory group were already dealing with the question of guidelines for prayer. But she also included these two comments:
The strength of opposition and the views expressed in communications you received in the run up to synod show the mindset of those who want this practice to continue, (and we have heard it also in speeches), and why therefore my PMM is so urgently needed…
Sadly, this is a very sincere, well-meant wrecking motion from those who still don’t seem to understand the deep trauma that Conversion Therapy causes is behind this and I do urge you to resist it please.
Describing Sean’s proposal as a ‘wrecking motion’ is, I think, an unfair impugning of Sean’s motives. And she appears to claim that Sean is a puppet for those who wish ‘conversion therapy’ to continue, when Sean made clear in his speech that he opposes this practice, and has stated his opposition publicly on the Living Out website. This represents a very unfortunate ad hominem criticism, and it felt like a failure of chairing that this, and other comments, were not picked up.
[In the original post, I had made a shorter summary comment about Jayne’s rejection of Sean’s amendment. Jayne wrote to me to complain, believing it was a misrepresentation, and I am very happy to replace my summary with a quotation from her own notes which she supplied.]
This leads to the third issue: the role of the House of Bishops and the Presidents of Synod (the two archbishops) in the framing and content of the debate. On both motions, the Archbishop of York used his privilege to speak last and advocate acceptance, which many thought was a misuse of his position. And generally the bishops did not contribute much to the debate—except those advocating change. So Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, stood to declare that ‘we believe that LGBTI identity is God-given’, contradicting all agreed Church of England statements on the question. Stephen Lynas comments on this:
Where were the Bishops? There are more than 50 of them on Synod, but we heard very little from them on either of these motions. Some will still be nursing bruises from February, but the suspicion is that they are keeping their heads down. Apart from Archbishop Sentamu and the Bishop of Liverpool, they largely remained quiet.
In fact, several bishops did stand to speak but were not called—inexplicably in the case of James Newcombe, Bishop of Carlisle, who is the Church of England spokesman in the area of the debate. David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, made an extraordinary statement following Synod:
What the [House of Bishops’ February] document failed to deliver, the Synod itself immediately began to put in place. Many of the speeches in the debate that rejected the paper exemplified what a new and distinctly more welcoming tone would sound like…
We follow a God whose ultimate revelation of himself was not in words on a page, or in commandments inscribed on stone tablets, but in a fully human person…Our answers to crucial questions of belief and practice, both then and now, must be grounded in scripture and consistent with its overarching messages. But they cannot ultimately be determined purely by the choices we make of how to interpret a small number of specific texts.
What happened to the connection between the person of Jesus and the gospels which testify to him? Are the gospels mere ‘words on a page’? What does Walker then make of the consistent Anglican commitment to the authority of Scripture? And did he not notice that lack of theological engagement, so that this ‘tone’ of emotionalism is what is needed? And does he really think that those who disagree with him are merely following a ‘small number of texts’? Has he not read Hays, Loader, Brooten, Gagnon, Wes Hill, or any of the others who have set out the over-arching message of Scripture? How can such a view do anything to be a centre of unity, let alone sound teaching, when other views are so casually dismissed? And he really thinks that the Shared Conversations process succeeded in enabling us to listen to one another, even whilst it failed to engage properly in the Church’s current teaching position?
For me, all these factors show very clearly why this issue is worth contending. The change that is wanted, and which is welcomed by David Walker, is a change that can only come if the Church of England decisively detaches itself from its historic roots, and from its commitment to Scripture as a reformed part of the church catholic. More than that, it is a change that will only come by means of the oppressive illiberalism of revisionist thinking which silences and dismisses alternative views without any real listening or engagement.
If Synod is not going to be dysfunctional and divisive, we are going to need a better way forward. Action is needed by the Business Committee, by the House of Bishops, and by the Presidents of Synod. The superficial binaries might work fine in the zero-sum debates of Synod. But they won’t wash in the careful process of reflection towards the teaching document. We need to avoid jumping the gun on the teaching document; we need motions that are clear and not enmeshed in false binaries; we need some theology; we need the basics of respect in debate. And, I venture to suggest, we need better episcopal leadership here. I don’t say that as a criticism of the House of Bishops—it is easy for anyone to criticise, and it is easy for them to feel got at. But I say it as a plea: those undermining the teaching of the Church are not shy to speak up. We need to hear some other voices, and we need to hear them very soon.
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