THE days before the General Synod debate on same-sex relationships and marriage were increasingly acrimonious, as momentum grew behind the call to vote against the “take-note” motion on the Bishops’ report (News, 10 February).
The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, warned that protests and campaigns at the General Synod meant that “hackles will rise” and the media “circle like wolves”.
At the weekend, 19 retired bishops signed an open letter to the serving bishops criticising the report Marriage and Same-sex Relationships After the Shared Conversations. Their letter argues that the report fails to reflect the voice of LGBT people.
”Our perception is that, while the pain of LGBT people is spoken about in your report, we do not hear its authentic voice,” they write, in a letter published on Saturday. Had this voice been heard, the signatories argue, there would have been less focus in the report on legislative change. “Going down the road of seeking a change in the law or doctrinal formulation would indeed not have been realistic — but you might not have had to spend as much time explaining why if those other voices had been allowed to come through more clearly.”
In addition, they argue: “You have really not allowed the theological voice of some of us to be heard properly.”
The letter invokes the experience of the signatories, and suggests that the serving bishops may have spent “too much time and too much effort” on the report, resulting in a sense that they are “managing — rather than perhaps enabling or leading — the conflicts that are bound to occur. . . We remember how exhausting that is, and how it seems to blunt the edge of bishops’ own passionate convictions, which might divide them but also invigorate the conversation.”
The letter speaks of “some reticence” about entering the debate, and acknowledges the “perhaps luxurious perspective of retirement”;
but it justifies the intervention by invoking the “bond” that they feel for their successors, and their concern that the Church “should be faithful in its commendation of the gospel to the society at large”.
On Monday evening, members of the Evangelical Group on General Synod (EGGS) were presented with a request to reject the “Affirmations” of the Evangelical Alliance. These are ten points on “biblical and pastoral responses to homosexuality” which include opposing moves to “accept or endorse sexually active same-sex partnerships as a legitimate form of Christian relationship and to permit the ordination to ministry of those in such sexual relationships”.
A letter was circulated to all members of EGGS by five members of the group who oppose the endorsement, including a lay Evangelical from the diocese of Oxford, Jayne Ozanne. The group wrote of a concern that the present stance of Evangelicals was creating “severe problems for our mission and ministry in today’s world”.
The letter refers to “high levels of homophobia”, and urges Evangelicals to consider a response to “mounting scientific evidence that sexuality is neither chosen nor changeable, and that gender is non-binary”. It is understood that no vote on the Affirmations was taken at the meeting.
On Tuesday, OneBodyOneFaith (the group formerly called LGCM) published a series of proposals offering an alternative way forward to that proposed in the Bishops’ report. The recommendations include the publication of a teaching document “to make clear that clerical civil marriage is not of itself . . . a matter for discipline”.
Other proposals include a new sexuality-and-relationships working group of the Archbishops’ Council, “responsible for holding the theological diversity of the Church of England”, a national lead for LGBTI matters at Church House, and the publication and recommendation of an approved liturgy for prayer and thanksgiving with same-sex couples after a civil partnership or marriage.
In a blog published by the Church of England’s communications department, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, said that he was aware of plans for protests and alternatives to the take-note debate. “I understand the motives behind this, but wonder what will be achieved,” he wrote. “Will it lead to change and a greater acceptance of LGBTI people in churches? I’m really not sure. The media will circle like wolves and everyone’s hackles will rise.”
On the first day of Synod gay members raised concerns about the group work. The Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler, questioned how safe it would be to participate, and said that he had already received a text from another member which was “borderline homophobic”. The text was condemned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the chamber as “inexcusable self-indulgence”.
Also published on the Church House site was a blog by the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner. The Anglo-Catholic tradition had “often been caricatured and derided as harbouring a gay subculture”, he wrote. “Irrespective of the actual sexual orientation of Anglo-Catholic laity and clergy, past or present, we have borne the opprobrium, and offered safe space to recipients of homophobia. . .
”Still we love the faith and the sacraments received by the Church of England as something rich and life-giving, an articulation of Christian truth shared with the ancient Churches of East and West. I have no formal mandate for saying so, but that is the reason why many Anglo-Catholics, and others, sincerely and gladly accept the retention of the doctrine of marriage as we have received it.”
And on Wednesday morning, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, defended the Bishops’ stance by arguing that a two-thirds majority could not be achieved in the General Synod to effect change to the Church’s marriage legislation.
”To embark on a programme that would require that degree of consensus, and then not to achieve it, would be to offer a hope that isn’t there,” he said on the Today programme on Radio 4.
Despite the strictures in the Bishops’ report, Dr Walker spoke of exploring what “maximum freedom” might mean with groups beyond the House of Bishops.