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Scottish Synod: Amid high emotions, both sides agree tone of debate was ‘impressive’

16 June 2017


THERE were tears of joy and sadness after the vote in the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), last Thursday, but the respect between its members was evident from their first reactions to the debate.

Canon David Richards, who leads the large evangelical Church of St Paul’s and St George’s, where the Synod was being held, said afterwards that he had been “pleasantly surprised” by the tone. “It was generous, kind, compassionate and respectful,” he said — a far cry from the “vitriolic and intimidating” debates of the past 12 years. “Now there is a greater appreciation that it is personal for all of us.

“Even though there are genuine disagreements, we disagreed well. The people who think very differently on this subject have become friends and colleagues; we are expressing sympathy and kindness. People asked me how I was after the vote, which I very much appreciated.

“I was surprised by the depth of my reaction; I did feel as if the wind has been knocked out of me. Someone had the bright idea for me to lead intercessions at evening prayer straight afterwards, so doing that was a bit of a challenge, trying to articulate what was in the room and how people, including myself, were feeling. On one level that was good to do; the challenge is to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep, recognising that there were people moved to tears by both happiness and sadness.

“I still think it was a wrong development and therefore today [Friday] has been a bit flat; although the election results helped. But I think it is just working out over the next few months what the implications are, particularly for churches and clergy for whom this will be a very different decision, trying to work out what consequences are.

”Even within this church, which has the largest congregation in the Scottish Episcopal Church, evangelical charismatic, there will be those from a wide variety of opinions. It is how you hold those things together: how do we walk together, loving each other, and affirming what we can in and of each other?

“My favourite television series is The West Wing, and to quote from that, decisions are made by people who show up. There was a bit of frustration and sadness that, had different people showed up, the vote would have gone very differently. But it was what it was.”

For the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, who is a proactive LGBT campaigner, relief was the emotion of the day. The end of the debate marked the end of a long and exhausting process. “We have been doing this for so long, I don’t think I learnt anything new; but it was a debate we had to have,” he said.

“I thought at the end that we are a Church which has just decided to stay together over gay marriage. And all around this issue has been this idea that people are going to divide over it; but we worked it through.

“My overwhelming feeling was exhaustion and relief. People have given everything to this, and it was worth it. There is a huge sense of change, because of this, and that three bishops out of seven will be changing in the next few months. It is impossible not to recognise that the Scottish Episcopal Church is changing right now, and it is interesting to be a part of, and there is hope in that change.”

None the less, he said, there are still those in the Church who hold an unsavoury view of same-sex relationships. “Someone said in the debate that if we allowed gay marriage, it would lead to women being physically attacked, and children being abused. It still shocks me that people chairing debates like that don’t step in; you can say the most appalling things about gay people in church debates, and I struggle with that. There were hurtful things and you never get used to that, but it has diminished year by year as the votes have gone up.”

Same-sex couples wishing to marry in his parish are ready and waiting for the nod, he said. “The simplicity of just being able to say yes is quite emotional.”

GAFCON did not enter his thoughts. “You have a sense here that to just about everybody it is completely and utterly irrelevant.”

There is a question, however, of whether Scottish Episcopal churches could be planted outside of Scotland. “I have actually had people contact me during the Synod saying that they would like to be part of the SEC but that they live in London or Manchester or even mid-Tennessee, which is bizarre, but real: people are saying that this is the kind of Church they need to belong to.”

As for people leaving the Church, there been losses over the years “because the attitude to gay people was so awful”, and he does not think that the rate will increase.

“Although the excitement level in the hall has been a bit subdued because people have been upset about it, I am expecting the excitement on Sunday morning, when I meet the congregation — who are completely geared up to this — to be incredible.”

The Church of England representative at the Synod was Canon Jane Charman, who is the director of learning for discipleship and ministry in the diocese of Salisbury. She was struck by the resilience of the Synod to stay together after the debate, she said on Saturday.

“You could have seen an emptying of the tables; that didn’t happen, so there was a good sense of the Church holding together through the pressures of the debate.”

The C of E had a lesson to learn from the SEC. “We are trying to address this in a different way, and I am not sure we are doing so in the very wisest way. The SEC was trying to seek unity in diversity, whereas, I sense that what the C of E are trying to do, while it is early days, is to find a place of unanimity. I am sure we are going to succeed with that.”

When the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, presented the House of Bishops report on sexuality, he suggested that the Church had “found a place — albeit small and conservative — in which we could all stand”, and even that was not true, Canon Charman said.

She wondered who the architects of the proposed teaching document would be, and how likely it would be for the Church to unite around it. “I want to commend to the C of E the process I have seen here, and that actually unity and diversity might be a more fruitful approach than seeking unanimity.”

The C of E was disadvantaged by its size, she said, whereas the Scottish Episcopal Church was “like a family”. It was a “shame” that the debate had not been broadcast as inspiration for the C of E’s General Synod, which meets next month.

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