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Bishops stumble down the Synod slope

24 February 2017

ON THE Wednesday afternoon of the General Synod’s meeting last week, I was in the Dolomites, but, none the less, spent a long minute imitating the House of Bishops: sliding helpless and headfirst down a steep drop towards catastrophe, I then managed to swing round, so that my skis were down-slope from me, and juddered, embarrassed, to a halt.

So, how to get down from here? You can­not get back up the slope you just came down, and the only way out is just as steep, requiring a little more balance than you had before, and a lot more nerve than you have right now.

It seems to me that the Bishops were trying to pull off a “Francis turn”: a particularly tricky swing of the hips which leaves your skis pointing in a different direction while the robes outside don’t move at all.

By saying loudly that the teaching of the Church on marriage was unchanged, and then adding quietly that individual parishes might wish to reach an accommodation with their own reality and ignore the traditional line, they were betting on three things.

The first is that no one would think about the claim that the Church of England believes that marriage is monogamous and for life, even when it is between a man and a woman. Three words — “Charles and Camilla” — show up the absurdity of that.

The second is that gay-friendly clergy would trust the implied and sotto voce promise that they would not be persecuted if they acted on their convictions. This is not probable in the current climate.

The third is that the conservative Evan­gelicals would be happy to see the rules restated without any effort made to enforce them. That is not going to happen, either.

The day after the vote, Andrea Minichiello Williams, the chief executive of Christian Concern and a member of the House of Laity, wrote on the Telegraph website: “The House of Bishops declared there to be no appetite among them for changing the Church’s official view. Now all we need is for them to follow through by upholding the teaching and, ultimately, disciplining those that brazenly seek to defy it.”

The Times had a leader in the opposite direction: “As the established church, the Church of England enjoys unique institutional and financial privileges. In return it has an obligation, albeit an informal one, to strive to understand and cater to changing social mores, rather than set itself apart from them. It is not irrelevant that a national poll last year showed 45 per cent of churchgoers in favour of gay marriage and 37 per cent against.

”‘Our role is to hold the church together,’ one of the report’s authors has said. Yet the role of bishops is also to provide moral leadership. Taking his cue from his clergy, this is a role that the Archbishop of Canterbury must now embrace, having equivocated for too long.”


THE ECONOMIST’s Erasmus blog had a characteristically sharp and well-informed take on the story: “Archbishop Welby’s . . . tireless efforts to avoid a formal split reflect a belief that if that were to happen, the two or more resulting entities (apart from quarrelling over a vast historical inheritance) would eventually shrivel up into diminishing, dys­functional micro-communities.”

But the pseudonymous writer misses one important point when he concludes that, “For traditionalists, an appropriate response to society’s free-wheeling state might be to retreat to society’s outer edge, albeit in small numbers, and preach the old-time religion with undiminished integrity to anyone who will listen.”

It is an essential part of the traditionalists’ self-delusion that people want to hear their message, and would flock to it if they were not confused by the horrible liberals. If you believe that Bible-believing churches must flourish, of course, I have a second home to sell you in every hamlet in England, formerly in use as a Baptist chapel.


THE news reports of the vote tended to use the phrase “The Church of England was in turmoil last night”, which is an extreme example of the peril of confusing the General Synod with the Church.

None the less, I think that this defeat marks the end of any purely political solution. Offering both sides the phrases that they want to hear works only (as it did in Northern Ireland) when neither any longer believes it can gain by fighting for longer. That is not the case in the Church. The Synod can only really produce political answers to any question; this one is going to have to be reframed as something that is only coincidentally political. The Shared Conversations on sexuality were, in part, an attempt to do that, and I don’t think that they were a complete failure.

But what is needed now is a collective reimagining of what it is that these arguments are about. Neither side will find it easy to admit that there is more than one way to be an honest, non-straight Christian — but both are going to have to.

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