ON FRIDAY 8 July, assorted journalists, lobbyists, and tradespeople will arrive in York, as usual, for the next sessions of the General Synod.
On Sunday morning, however, they must all leave. It has been confirmed that, after the morning eucharist in York Minster, the General Synod site at the University of York will be closed to all but members to allow the shared conversations on sexuality to take place unobserved.
The Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler, said on Tuesday that it was “very important” that the protocol remained in place.
“We need to take counsel together, without it being paraded around by pressure groups and other commentators. . . It gives confidence to all parties, both conservatives and progressives, that their contributions are not going to be spun or overinterpreted. It’s about providing as much safety for people to be as open as they can be.”
The party groups, such as the Catholic Group and Evangelical Group, were also being asked to “hold off from taking their own counsel”, he said. Rooms would not be made available to them after the Sunday service. “The hope is that people will talk together over meals and in the bar, which is why the shared conversations worked so well regionally, as we had the time to engage with one another as people rather than as representatives of a particular party line.”
The Church could support the process by “praying for us and by holding back in its natural curiosity to wonder what is going on”. He said that there would be “no outcome” to the conversations: “Do not expect a press release saying that we have solved the problem.”
The Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of York, the Archdeacon of Rochdale, the Ven. Cherry Vann, said that holding the conversations behind closed doors would “help to generate the sense of trust and confidentiality necessary for everyone to be as open and honest as possible. Even then, there will be those who feel too vulnerable to share as openly as they might wish to.”
While “hopeful” about the facilitation of the conversations, she warned that “it does feel more difficult than the conversations around women in the episcopate, because of the very nature of the topic — sexuality — is fundamental to our identity, whereas ordination confirms on us a role which we then go on to inhabit.”
She described how, in Manchester, those involved in the regional conversations had committed themselves to ongoing meetings, and sharing with General Synod representatives. She had no idea when there might be a full, open debate in the General Synod, or how that debate might be framed.
A year of regional shared conversations, involving more than 700 people, concluded in March (News, 11 March). Synod members received a detailed presentation on what to expect in York at the February meeting in London, from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s director for reconciliation, David Porter (News, 26 February). The question on the table was, Mr Porter, said: “Given the significant changes to our culture regarding human sexuality, how should the Churches respond?”
Members were told that there would be a “different shape and structure” to the regional conversations, because of the size of the Synod, and because “You are the decision-making body of the Church of England; and, although you are not making a decision in July, that is why you are convened together.”
Listening to panels will form part of the process. Members will hear from “young voices, inclusive voices, and traditional voices”, and from “voices from around the world and ecumenical voices”. On the final morning, the Synod will talk about how to “walk forward together”.
The St Michael’s House protocols, praised during the regional conversations, will be used. Social-media use will not be banned, but people will be asked to restrict its use.
This week, Canon Butler expressed a hope that the House of Bishops would devote its meeting in September to the issue of sexuality, and agree on something to bring to the Synod next February. It was preferable that it come from the Bishops rather than other members because “otherwise it will be one side or the other and it will be tied up with synodical process.”
“This is a time when episcopally led and synodically governed actually means something,” he said.