Archbishops propose new way forward on sexuality after Synod reject Bishops’ report

15 February 2017

geoff crawford

“Not the end of a process”: the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, introducing the House of Bishops’ report on sexuality at the General Synod last week

“Not the end of a process”: the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, introducing the House of Bishops’ report on sexuality at the General Syno...

THE Archbishops have sketched out how they hope to move forward following the vote against the House of Bishops' report on sexuality at the General Synod.

In a letter to members of the General Synod, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York said that a Pastoral Oversight group, chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, would be established and would advise dioceses on how to fashion a pastoral response to those in same-sex relationships.

"The group will be inclusive, and will seek to discern the development of pastoral practices, within current arrangements," the Archbishops wrote. 

The teaching document on sexuality originally promised in the House of Bishops' report will still go ahead, the letter also said. While it must ultimately come from the episcipate, the document would be prepared in conjunction with a wide range of people, lay and ordained. 

Finally, a more general debate on marriage and sexuality will be proposed to the Business Committee of the Synod. "We wish to give the General Synod an opportunity to consider together those things we do affirm," the Archbishops wrote. 

On Wednesday evening, immediately after the contentious vote bishops pledged that the discussion about sexuality would be continued.

The long and heated debate in Church House, Westminster, culminated in a narrow vote not to take note of the Bishops’ report, which offered “maximum freedom” but no change to marriage doctrine or clergy discipline to accommodate same-sex unions.

Despite the insistence of bishops who spoke that taking note did not imply agreement, and promises that this was the beginning and not the end of the debate, the motion was lost in a vote by Houses, in which the House of Clergy voted 100 to 93 (with two recorded abstentions) against.

In the House of Bishops, the vote was 43 in favour with one against. In the House of Laity, 106 to 83 voted to take note, with four recorded abstentions.

There were impassioned contributions from all sides of the argument. Lucy Gorman (York diocese) argued that the Church’s current stance was devastating its mission to the nation, especially among young people, who saw it as homophobic.

The Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain, who married his male partner in 2014 (News, 27 June 2014), begged the Synod not to take note of the report. “Your LGBTI brothers and sisters are not beggars looking for entrance on the borders of the Church,” he said. “We are your family in Christ. We are baptised, faithful, prayerful. I am not a case study. We are flesh and blood.”

Others, including a “same-sex-attracted” Evangelical, the Revd Sam Allberry, said that, while the report was not perfect, they were glad that it had held the line on the traditional marriage teaching. “I was bullied at school for being gay,” he told the Synod. “I now feel bullied in Synod — for being same-sex-attracted, and for agreeing with the doctrine on marriage.”

A recurrent theme throughout the debate was the accusation that the Bishops had not listened to the voices of LGBT people in the Shared Conversations.

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, reiterated his intention to push for “maximum freedom” without breaking any laws in his own diocese for LGBT people.

His voice trembling with emotion, he said that he honoured the “anger and the fury” of LGBT people who “see in this report hard stones where they wanted bread”. “We will not wilfully break the law or flout properly agreed guidance, but our exploration of maximum freedom may carry us to places where we have not previously gone.”

The Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler (Southwark), explained that for him, a gay priest with a partner, the Bishops’ report had “crossed a red line”. “But, despite these red lines’ being crossed, the Church of England forces us to work together. It may not be good disagreement, but it is just about workable disagreement.”

Speaking directly to those in the chamber who opposed any accommodation of same-sex relationships, he quoted Genesis 32.6: “‘I will not let go until you bless me,’ and I look forward to the day when you can say the same of me.”

The last speaker was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who emphasised that “no one is a problem. . . The reality of disagreement is the challenge we face as people who belong to Christ. To deal with that disagreement, to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church, with a basis founded in scripture, in tradition, in reason, in theology, in good, healthy, flourishing relationships, in a proper 21st-century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

“That will require a remarkable document put together with the Bishops, but put together by the whole Church — every single part, not excluding anyone.”

Archbishop Welby said that he still believed that the report was a good basis to move on from, a “roadmap”.

The way forward for the House of Bishops after the vote is unclear. No legislative proposals were on the table for the Synod to reject, but because the report has not been noted, two following motions fall automatically: one asking the Synod to endorse the sexuality resolution 1.10 from the 1998 Lambeth Conference; and the other to “affirm the positive contribution” made by LGBTI Christians.

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, who co-chaired the Bishops’ Reflection Group on sexuality with the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, responded to the vote: “The Synod has declined to take note, and so the report in its present form cannot come back to Synod for discussion, though we will still have to find a way forward for the wider discussion. The Bishops’ report acknowledges a place of starting. More conversation is needed.”

Bishop James, who had introduced the debate, said: “I can guarantee that the House of Bishops will consider carefully and prayerfully all the contributions made in the debate today. Our report did not bring proposals: it brought a framework and a request for Synod to tell us what they thought. We have listened to those who have spoken.”

In a statement issued immediately after the debate, the Archbishop said that the challenge now was how to deal with “real and profound disagreement” expressed at the Synod.

“To deal with that disagreement, to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church,” he said. “This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.”

He concluded: “The vote today is not the end of the story, nor was it intended to be. As bishops we will think again and go on thinking, and we will seek to do better. We could hardly fail to do so in the light of what was said this afternoon.”

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