Synod votes signal a shift in power, campaigners say

13 July 2017

TWO motions seeking changes in the pastoral care of LGBT people passed comfortably at the General Synod last weekend. The move is being taken as a sign that the next three years — set by the Bishops for the production of a new teaching document on same-sex relations — will not function as a moratorium on change.

Asked to endorse a statement signed by professional bodies con­demn­ing conversion therapy, mem­bers proved willing to go further, carrying an amended motion that called on the Government to ban the practice. A motion asking the House of Bishops to consider pro­­ducing a special liturgy to mark gender transi­tion was carried in all three Houses.

Although votes on amendments were closer, the final motions each passed by 127 to 48 in the House of Laity, where much of the opposition had been focused.

OneBodyOneFaith (formerly the Lesbian and Gay Christian Move­ment) said that the votes “seem to signal a fresh sensibility within Synod: the ‘radical Christian inclusion’ of which the Presidents spoke back in February” (News, 10 Feb­ruary). “Change is coming; Aslan is on the move.”

The Revd Rob Munro, a member of Reform, wrote in a blog for the Church Society that the Synod “felt like it reached the watershed”. The passing of the motions and rejection of “reasonable” amendments indic­ated that “the Evangelical concerns about biblicial sexuality are no longer held by the ‘middle ground’ of Synod any more.”

In both debates, pastoral con­cerns were prominent. Suppliers of the motions testified to the suffering endured by LGBT people. Intro­ducing her private mem­ber’s motion on conversion therapy, Jayne Ozanne described it as a safeguarding matter. It was “abuse from which vulnerable adults need protecting”.

Moving the Blackburn diocesan-synod motion “to recognise the need for transgender people to be wel­comed and affirmed in their parish church” and to ask the Bishops to consider producing “some nationally com­mended litur­gical materials”, the Revd Chris­topher Newlands spoke of the violence perpetrated against trans people, and the high rate of suicide attempts.

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“We need to be aware of the immense impact which our actions, be they welcome or rejection, have upon members of the trans com­munity.” Adopting the motion would “stand as a prophetic sign to all people that the Church accepts the reality of gender dys­phoria and the situation of trans people.”

He told the story of a family whose baby boy “Nathan” grew up to show “every sign that he was actually their daughter”. Following medical advice, the child had returned to school as “Natalie” and was beginning to attend a specialist gender-identity clinic. He noted that the number of children referred to such clinics had grown from 97 to 1400 since 2010.

Pastoral concerns were also raised by those moving amend­ments.

Dr Nicholas Land, a psychiatrist from York, said that there was a need for “serious theological think­ing”, before any liturgy could be put together. He noted the “rapidly increasing number of adolescents presenting to mental-health services with identity worries. . . We need to be much clearer in our thinking about what it means to be made in God’s image, so that we can give appropriate pastoral care and emotional security to all of our young people at a time when confusion about who they are threatens to overwhelm them.”

Though it agreed to “welcome unconditionally” those who “experi­ence gender dysphoria”, his amend­­ment — which was rejected — had the Synod “acknowledge different understandings around gender dys­phoria and the field of gender identity more widely”, and the House of Bishops “consider the theological, pastoral and other issues that gender transition raises” before reporting back.

Resisting the amendment, Mr Newlands said that the view that gender dysphoria was “a fiction . . . causes severe harm to individuals” and “has to be resisted at all costs”.

The Revd Dr Rowan Williams, Chaplain of York University, warned that, if the Synod waited till the end of the quinquennium, the trans­gender student on whose behalf she was speaking might not be here.

Peter had been confirmed last month and had felt welcomed, but had an underlying paranoia that, if the Church knew who he was, he might not still be welcomed.

In the conversion-therapy debate, an amendment was moved by the Revd Dr Sean Doherty, a tutor at St Mellitus Theological College and a trustee of Living Out. It affirmed that pastoral care, prayer ministry, and professional counselling were “legitimate means of supporting individuals who choose them freely, provided that they respect the pro­per dignity of human beings, and do not involve coercion or mani­pula­tion or make unwarranted pro­mises about the removal of unwanted feelings”. It asked the House of Bishops to draw up guide­lines “to discourage inappropriate pastoral practices, and to encourage good ones”. This, too, was voted down.

The Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Can­ter­bury, Canon Simon Butler, said: “I don’t want there to be any com­fort for the perpetrators of abuse over this matter, who think a few depressed or suicidal gays is a price worth paying for their own pastoral approach.”

In both debates, bishops spoke in favour of the motions. In the first, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sen­tamu, said: “The sooner the practice of this so-called therapy is banned, I can sleep at night.” On a liturgy for welcoming trans people, he asserted that the theology could be started “very quickly” after the motion was carried, and it should and could be passed quickly.

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, said that, “to his shame”, a few months ago he would have said that the Blackburn motion was “political correctness gone mad”; but he had since met someone who had felt like a boy in a woman’s body. The Church needed to be open and loving.

In the conversion-therapy debate, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, asserted: “The world needs to hear us say that LGBTI-plus orientation and identity is not a crime. . . If the Church suggests that it is a sickness, then all its state­ments of welcome and inclusion of the LGBT community are null and void.”

In his blog, Mr Munro suggested that the Bishops had been  “really quiet” during the debates, “with the exception of the more vocal liberal bishops, and the interventions of the Archbishop of York”. Some in the Episcopate wrote reflections after the gathering. The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, expressed concern in his blog about a  “fish-eye lens level of distortion” in the press. He had felt  “uncomfortable” debating conversion therapy, he wrote. The ethics of offering it were “something which challenges even those who are experts in their field. Only a very few members of synod have this kind of expertise.” But the Synod had discussed it with “openness and compassion”. He suggested that both amendments “significantly improved the original motion”.

“I hope that gay, lesbian and transgender people feel reassured and encouraged by these votes,” he said. “Neither vote changes the church’s doctrine – and those fearful that orthodox teaching is slipping should be reassured that the membership of the current House of Bishops makes the prospect of doctrinal change remote. But they do signify steps towards the ‘radical new Christian inclusion, founded in scripture, tradition, reason and theology’ that the Archbishops have promised.”

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Writing for Via Media, the blog edited by Ms Ozanne, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, praised the  “passion, courtesy and good humour” of the debates and the  “desire to hear the voices of LGBT+ people”.

“Most important of all, we heard from a Synod that wanted decisive change and action now. Members listened to, but clearly rejected, demands that these matters required further study, be it theological or scientific, ahead of any decision. My guess is that the painstaking work of the Shared Conversations is bearing fruit. . . 

“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. Rather they are informed by the relationships we have nurtured with Christians whose journeys have been very different from our own. We do our work relationally, building bridges across difference, because that is precisely how God himself chooses to deal with us.”

The tone of two debates — passionate but calm — was in contrast to the atmos­phere during an early debate in which the Synod’s code of conduct was discussed. After Ms Ozanne had complained of “very upsetting personal and public attacks”, an intervention by Andrea Mini­chiello Williams of Christian Con­cern prompted booing and calls for her to resign.

Lorna Ashworth praised the “fore­­sight” of GAFCON in appoint­ing Canon Andy Lines as a mission­ary bishop to Europe, and suggested he be invited to the General Synod.

Bishops voted overwhelmingly in favour of the two motions. But a presentation on the House of Bishops’ plans for a teaching docu­ment and pastoral guidance on sex­uality (News, 30 June) indicated that there was still much work to be done.

Members posed searching ques­tions, including several concerning the status of the teaching document. Canon Rosie Harper of Oxford asked whether it would become “doc­trine through the back door”, a query echoed by the Revd John Dunnett of Chelmsford, who chairs the Evangelical Group on General Synod.

The Bishop of Coventry, who is chairing the co-ordinating group, said that, “to an extent”, the answer depended on how the House of Bishops and College of Bishops wanted to work with what the work­ing groups produced. He hoped that the Bishops would be able to articulate “some really powerful com­mon ground”, and also identify areas of “real disagreement, and either further thinking needs to be done, or some clear decisions need to be made about certain under­standings”.

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