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Critics of Bishops’ sexuality report plan a Synod protest vote

10 February 2017


Progress: A street in Valletta, Malta. Two months ago, Malta became the first European nation to ban gay conversion therapy, establishing fines of up to €10,000 and jail terms of up to one year for offenders

Progress: A street in Valletta, Malta. Two months ago, Malta became the first European nation to ban gay conversion therapy, establishing fines of up ...

THE House of Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships (News, 3 February) is a “morally reprehensible document that needs to be rejected by the Synod”, the Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler, said on Wednesday.

Describing it as a “betrayal of trust” that left “weapons on the table”, he expected a “very close vote” after the take-note debate scheduled to take place on Wednesday evening.

“If it is defeated, that is a clear signal to the House of Bishops that Synod is unwilling to progress in the direction they are taking,” he said. “If it is a narrow vote, the Bishops would be very unwise to continue down this course, because the whole of the Church’s wider agenda will be subsumed into a conflict that will last for the next period of the life of the Church. That would be a disaster.”

The Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of York, the Ven. Cherry Vann, said on Wednesday that she was “very aware of deep unhappiness about this report from across a wide spectrum of the Church”. Conversations with clergy and laity in the diocese of Manchester, and emails from people beyond, indicated a “strong call” for the Synod not to take note.

This week, LGBT groups began mobilising their supporters. Canon Butler said that he had “never encountered such unity” among them. LGCM, Changing Attitude, and Inclusive Church, all part of the LGBTI Mission coalition, have also urged supporters to write to representatives of the Synod urging them to vote against taking note.

“We are looking for a substantial vote against this dangerous and inadequate report”, the letter says.

LGCM is advising members to vote against taking note because the report fails to reflect “the mind or expectations of the Church of England’s synod, that at least minimal change take place”.

“Our understanding is that the majority of members of synod were looking to the College and House of Bishops, when they took the initiative to respond to the Shared Conversations process, to lay a path for a process of change,” a memorandum says. The report was a “betrayal of the trust vested in the House of Bishops during the Shared Conversations process”. It “opens the way to a single, very conservative interpretation of these matters being introduced”.

Canon Butler agreed: “The document we have is so different from the process up till now, and does not recognise that we were talking about the possibility of good disagreement up till now. The Bishops do not reflect that.”

LGBT groups were not expecting a new sexual ethic or change in the canons, he said, but “that our place in the Church would be honoured”. The report meant that “the threat of discipline is still on the table, and I do not negotiate with weapons on the table; so they need to go back and do their work again, so that we can have an adult conversation that represents the breadth of the C of E, and not the fears of the Bishops. I do not want maximum generosity. I want my baptismal and ordination vows honoured like everyone else’s.”

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has argued that there is “no point trying to change the law if we don’t think that we can achieve it. . . We would not get the two-thirds majority needed in each of the three Houses of the General Synod in order to make a legal change. Offering a legal change we couldn’t deliver — that would be a betrayal.”

This argument is backed by the Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, in the Church Times this week.

“How pastoral would it be to initiate a long process with all the continued pain it would cause with no serious likelihood (in the present state of the church) of success?” he writes.

Canon Butler described this argument as “bait and switch” and a “smokescreen”.

“The issue is not the changing of the Canons, or a two-thirds majority, but the Bishops’ having the courage to acknowledge the difference that exists in the House of Bishops that mirrors that in the C of E, allowing people to get on with their lives and ministry without the fear of being hounded by Bishops, just for being who they are and for loving their partners.”

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, has described the debate as a “neutral motion” that “allows Synod to discuss the content and recommendations contained in the report; but a vote in favour of the motion does not commit the Synod to the acceptance of any matter in the report”.

The debate, though, is being seen by both sides as an opportunity to send a message to the House of Bishops. The Revd Sam Allberry, an Evangelical Synod member, said on Wednesday: “I am planning to vote positively at the take-note debate on the recent Bishops’ report. The report is not perfect (we need to be more explicit in seeking the wellbeing of members of the LGBTQ community in our churches), but I am thankful that it continues to recognise that marriage is male-female, as reflected in scripture and tradition.

“The report is not the final answer, but it is a very helpful starting-point as we continue to move forward in proclaiming Christ to an ever-changing world. I am grateful to the bishops for their work.”

The Evangelical group Fulcrum, whose leadership includes members of the Synod, welcomed the report, this week. Disagreements should be addressed "within this clearly defined framework", a statement said. The Bishops had "clearly sought and struggled to hold us together". After quoting from the report — there "needs to be a fundamental trust in the clergy to know and be faithful to the teaching of the Church, in their own lives and in their ministry to others" — the statement said that Fulcrum was "deeply concerned that some of the responses to the Bishops' report have made it even more difficult for those of us who wholeheartedly affirm that teaching as good news to have such trust in some clergy".

Before the debate on Wednesday, group work will take place, focusing on case-studies introduced by Bishop Broadbent, and described as an opportunity for members to “consider the lived experience of people within our Church”.

LGCM is advising members not to take part, arguing that it is “pointless and insulting”. Canon Butler is currently planning not to participate.

“Why go back to talking about the abstract? I am not a subject of people’s discussion; I’m a person. . . Perhaps it says something about the inability of Bishops to talk to each other about their lives.”

Archdeacon Vann believes that, if the groups go ahead, a “significant number will choose not to attend”.

LGCM is advising members to use the debate to ask the Bishops to “respond to the priorities of the LGBTI Mission” (News, 5 February 2016).

“In particular, we ask for a guarantee that acceptance and approval of theological diversity amongst members of the Church of England in these matters will be formally recognised. To enable this small move forwards we ask not for further reports, but that the House of Bishops devise a commended liturgy which recognises and affirms LGBT partnerships as a blessing and gift of God.”

It was announced this week that LGCM will change its name to OneBodyOneFaith.

“We are increasingly aware that the new generation who want to get involved in making change happen — people on the edges of church, people who share our vision but don’t call themselves Christian, people who identify as bi or trans or non-gender conforming — don’t feel they have a place in our movement,” the chief executive, Tracey Byrne, said. “Now, more than ever, we need to send out a clear message that we need every single person of good will as part of our work — part of OneBody.”

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