SEX in the long grass is not as pleasurable as it sounds. As the Bishops learnt at the Synod, a commitment to a teaching document and a pastoral-practices subgroup does not buy you a great deal of sympathy. Several Synod members voiced dissatisfaction with the proposed timetable, with several references to the state of the outfield, as well as a lack of confidence in the end result. But the Archbishop of Canterbury was right when he said that three years was “a remarkably short period”. Revisiting the extensive literature on the subject, consulting the most knowledgeable people, listening to all the special-interest groups, liaison with other Anglican Provinces and other denominations, and then composing and agreeing an authoritative text, is not the work of a moment. It is comparable to producing a Ph.D. thesis, knowing that, when you get to your viva, the examiners will be in deep disagreement with each other. After the reception of the Marriage and Same-sex Relationships report in February, which was sniped at by conservatives, dismissed by liberals, the Bishop of Coventry, the man in charge of the project, knows that the reputation of the Bishops is on the line.
Only in the Church, however. It is as well to know that there is no credit to be gained in the secular world by this process. There continues to be bewilderment that the Bishops have committed themselves to making further attempts to reconcile those who are split over what to many is the least controversial or blameworthy moment in the life of a same-sex couple: when they choose to make a lifelong commitment to each other in the context of a religious service. From the outside, this has the look of a wounded animal chewing at its bleeding foot. Those who were impressed at the Synod’s behaviour at the weekend — expressing a (majority) view that conversion therapy should be banned, and that transgendered people should be affirmed — ought to note that the world has moved on, regarding the Church’s agonised deliberations with indifference or distaste. To employ Dr Cocksworth’s geographical analogy, the Church is at best a peninsula, at worst a small atoll hidden over the horizon from the mainland.
The frustration here is that, without much encouragement, the secular world would be willing to acknowledge a need for intelligent and compassionate guidance on sex and relationships. There is concern about the continued sexualisation of children, the growing disconnect between sex and commitment, family breakdown, the normalisation of promiscuity and the pressure that this puts on young people, the sustaining of marriage as people live longer, the prevalence and content of pornography, the high level of sexually transmitted infections, the treatment of women in the workplace, sexist attitudes that prevail within some communities. . . The list is long. No one is waiting for a pronouncement from on high, but some might welcome a contribution to the general debate from people who profess a particular concern for human wellbeing. First, though, the Church has to show that it remains connected to the mainland.