Through a mixture of rain and shine, cool breezes and muggy stillness, General Synod spent three days engaged in ‘Shared Conversations’ about the Church and sexuality, the final event in a two-year process of conversations involving representatives from dioceses meeting to do the same around the country. Feedback from previous events had been somewhat mixed, and for me (and I think a good number of others) this also proved to be like the proverbial curate’s egg.
There were very good moments, and some genuinely helpful results of the process of listening to different views. The final plenary session on Tuesday morning brought together interesting insights from the different small groups, and gave a sense that progress had been made. In our groups of 20 or so, we had spent time in threes talking about our journeys of faith and how they related to the question of sexuality, and then looked at some scriptures together, and for me this was the high point. I was with one person who has similar views to me, and another who took a very different position, but both were fascinating people with some profound insights whom I found very stimulating to be with. Here was a glimpse of what a genuinely good process could look like, and we all felt frustrated that we could not spend more time together in discussion.
The plenary sessions on Monday afternoon were a more mixed affair, one basic problem being that there was just too much input in one go which made it very difficult to process and was very tiring. The first of these three involved listening to the experience of four same-sex attracted young people and their experiences, and it was deeply moving and challenging. I felt we should have simply sat for a while or had a break without saying anything; the pain and the trauma which was shared deserved more space and time for us to live with. The young people came from two organisations which I have been informed I am not supposed to name as part of the St Michael’s protocols. One of the organisations says clearly that it believes it is important to work within the church’s current teaching; the other seeks to prioritise the creation of safe space. Although representation from these organisations was not the main issue, it is not completely irrelevant that the two groups were not equally represented. Two of the four had painful stories about church leaders and members responding to them in insensitive, crass and damaging ways; the other two had found Christians responding to them positively and helpfully, without a hint of condemnation or judgementalism, which itself highlights one of the paradoxes around this issue.
The middle session, exploring issues of changing culture, was the best for me. There was a proper representation of different views, and the juxtaposition of contrasting approaches set out clearly what is at stake and what our options are. There is always here a temptation to listening for confirmation of one’s own view in such a range of speakers, and I am always wanting to find out how those who disagree with me viewed the speaker who agrees with me; it is all very well having my views confirmed, but is the position at all engaging and persuasive for others? I think it was significant that the clearest believer in the Church’s current teaching was viewed positively by many who disagreed with him—and this was helped by that person’s acknowledgement of the presence of virtue in the lives and relationships of people living in same-sex sexual partnerships, even though this person did not believe this was a holy way of life in line with God’s intention.
The last of these three sessions was far less helpful and far more problematic. A leader from Africa explained that, if the Church changed its teaching, many churches in Africa would need to severe the links with their ‘older brother’—but he did not give a compelling explanation of this conviction other than that this was the teaching Westerners themselves had brought in the 1930s. There must be many more compelling advocates of the theological position of these churches, and it was unhelpful that we were not offered a better explanation. A leader from the US said that the clash was between leaders, and at the grassroots people were actually working together well, which was a rather unconvincing account of the position in TEC where the church has been taking congregations to court about the ownership of property. The two other speakers also advocated that we could learn to live together, so there was a strong sense of the process leaning into a ‘live and let live’ approach, without exploring the possibility that this question might not be one of the adiaphora. The breezy bonhomie of the chair of this group didn’t really fit.
The worst plenary session of all was the first one, and it was very telling that what many view as the most important theological question—what does Scripture say and how should we make sense of it—was the one most badly misjudged. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to describe it as an absolute travesty of process. There were three speakers, one of whom supports the current teaching position of the Church, the other two arguing for change. The first person stayed within the brief, and spoke for seven to eight minutes; the second appeared to ignore the brief and spoke for 17 minutes, without intervention from the chair; the third spoke for 12 minutes. So we were offered 8 minutes on the Church’s current and historic teaching, and 29 minutes on why this was wrong. And the dynamic of putting the ‘orthodox’ position first meant that, as in all such debates, the advantage is handed to the others. Added to that, the first speaker, whilst eminently qualified in other ways, was not a biblical scholar, whilst the next one advocating change was. There was no voice from a Catholic perspective, engaging with the reception of Scripture within the tradition, and the ‘orthodox’ view was repeatedly labelled not as the Church’s teaching, but as ‘conservative’.
Even worse than that was the content of the second and third presentations, and the way the format prevented proper interrogation of the claims made. It was claimed that the givenness of sexual orientation is the settled view of Western culture, when it is contested both within and outside the church, is not supported by social-scientific research, and has been abandoned as a basis of argument in secular LGBT+ debate. It was claimed that all the texts in the NT referring to same-sex activity are in the context of porneia, ‘bad sex’, which was either commercial or abusive—which is a basic factual error. It was claimed that St Paul ‘could not have known of stable same-sex relations’ which is not supported by the historical facts. And it was claimed that same-sex relationships were the ‘eschatological fulfilment of Christian marriage’ since they involved loving commitment without procreation. It was not even acknowledged that many in the chamber would find that a deeply offensive assertion, quite apart from its implausibility. But the format of the presentation precluded proper exploration of these authoritative claims. It felt to me like a serious power play, and I felt I had been subject to an abuse of expert power.
All this was made worse when one of the key organisers, having picked up some negative feedback on this, stood up near the end of the day to tell us (in essence) that if you thought this first session was unbalanced, then you were wrong. It confirmed a basic lack of understanding of the concerns raised by those responsible for the process—concerns not of some extreme group at one end of the spectrum, but concerns of those who simply believe in the Church’s current teaching position. Yet again, throughout the whole day, it appeared to be impossible to find someone who would simply speak to affirm the current position, and who was presented not as being at one end of the spectrum, but as being a regular, orthodox Anglican. It is hardly a coincidence that (in the forthcoming Church Times article) all those pressing for a change in the Church’s teaching thought that it was very fair, and that we had heard the biblical arguments. It wasn’t, and we didn’t. After two years of planning, the ‘orthodox’ speakers were only finalised in the previous week. This confirms some of the suspicions of the ‘conservatives’ who stayed away, but I think it was a mistake not to be there, as their presence could have helped us in this.
This was exacerbated for me by the facilitation in groups. Several times we were reprimanded for actually trying to discuss the issues involved, and understand what each other believed and why, and what the differences were. We were not supposed to be discussing this, but only talking about how we might talk about it. When questions were raised about the process itself, this was clearly out of bounds, and our facilitator responded by using emotional language—’I am disappointed…I am sad.’ The fundamental problem here was the underlying approach—that there are no right answers, and no given positions, and so what is needed is a juxtaposition of different views so that mutual respect can emerge. This might be just right for a position of political conflict, where there is no ‘objective’ position which can act as a reference point. But how can this be right in a context where the Church itself already has a committed position, one that has the weight of history behind it, and a position which, in theory, all the clergy and the bishops have themselves signed up to believing, supporting and teaching. Any group which included clergy in same-sex marriages would need to face the asymmetry that they have in their midst people who are disregarding the teaching position of the Church, and that cannot be an insignificant factor in shaping the debate. That is not a reason to avoid listening to the whole range of views. But it is a reason for thinking that we are not working with a tabula rasa, where we are simply doing theology de novo as if there is not a deep and broad theological legacy to wrestle with.
It is not immediately clear where we go from here. There was a sense of frustration in our group that this could have been an opportunity to serious engage with the issues; many of us had been engaged in discussion on this and others issues with people with whom we disagreed, and we did not need to be infantilised by being told to ‘hold things’. (If I hear anyone comment ‘What I hear your saying…’ in the next few days, I won’t be held responsible for my actions…!) It was clear that small group discussion is essential to any future engagement; an old-style Synod debate will take us back to a binary win/lose position. I have a question about whether Synod is genuinely competent to debate and decide on this issue; we were not all elected on the basis of our theological competence; a group of 500 is the worst place to discuss such things; and it seems to me to be usurping the role of episcopal leadership. So we will need to look to the House of Bishops to propose a way forward of which Synod will need to have good understanding and to which Synod will need to give its assent.
If there is a change either in the doctrine of marriage or of the significant pastoral accommodation beyond what we already have (in terms of the differing standards for laity in Issues and the concession on civil partnerships for clergy), then I think this will lead to a serious division and possibly a split in the Church. There was a strong consensus that that was what we all wanted to avoid. But whatever happens, if those managing the process do not demonstrate a much better understanding of and engagement with those who actually believe in what the bishops currently teach then there will be trouble ahead.
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