THE General Synod debated the House of Bishops’ report Marriage and Same-sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations on Wednesday afternoon, but did not take note of it. In a vote by Houses, the take-note motion was narrowly lost in the House of Clergy. Voting was also close in the House of Laity. One bishop, the Bishop of Coventry, using his electronic voting device, voted against by accident, and later apologised.
Introducing the debate, Aiden Hargreaves-Smith (London), in the chair, said that 160 members had submitted a request to speak. He said that a three-minute speech limit would apply after the opening speech by the Bishop of Norwich. He also rejected suggestions made on social media that the conduct of the debate, including the selection and order of speakers, had been pre-determined. “Those who don’t know me should ask those who do know me what chance anybody has of telling me what to do,” he said. “I recall the old maxim: ‘You can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t tell him much.’” He then led the Synod in prayer.
Moving the motion, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, said that the report had not been produced by the Bishops’ Reflection Group, which he chaired, but “comes from the whole House of Bishops in its entirety and is commended by all”. He continued: “This does not mean there are not significant differences of opinion within the House about same-sex relationships.”
But he said that the House of Bishops “believes that the Church of England’s teaching on marriage, which it holds in common with the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, and the majority of Churches of the Reformation, should continue to be expressed in the terms found in Canon B30, namely that ‘the Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is a union permanent and lifelong, of one man with one woman. . .’ There was very little appetite in the House for any alteration of our doctrine of marriage.”
Previous statements from the House of Bishops “simply took Canon B30 and what it says for granted”, he said. “We cannot now separate what we say about marriage, as understood in Christian teaching, from what we say about same-sex relationships more generally in a society such as ours.”
The report recognised that “for Christians, our identity in Christ is primary and of greater significance that gender, sexuality, age, nationality, or other characteristics.” But there was a challenge in that the “failure to amend our doctrine of same-sex partners can be heard as discriminatory and perceived as undermining our attempt to proclaims the core message of Jesus that we should love our neighbours as ourselves.”
Referring to the “very long time to come to a mind on the nature of our Trinitarian God” and the Councils of the Early Church, he said that “doctrine in the Church does not change quickly. . . Each age in the Christian Church seems to have its touchstone issue into which a good many other potential divisions and disagreements are channelled and focused.”
Commenting on the controversy aroused by the Bishops’ report, he said that, while “it is explicit that there will be no change to ecclesiastical law or doctrine,” the House and College of Bishops “realised that a wide range of appropriate pastoral practice, for example in relation to prayers and ministry with same-sex couples, was possible without any revision of Canon Law or doctrine. Hence the reference to maximum freedom, the extent of which needs yet to be tested, as does our Church’s capacity for generous pastoral practice in this area of her life.”
He said that any authorised liturgy for the blessing of same-sex partnerships would require “substantial agreement” across the three Houses of the Synod. “While some members of the House would support such a development, few doubt it would be so contested as to fail, and deepen division.”
He said that recent conversations with gay and lesbian clergy and lay people included “one person who described himself as same-sex-attracted [and who was] emphatic about the need to uphold the scriptural teaching of the Church on marriage and sexual relations as firmly as possible”; “a couple who had entered a same-sex marriage [and who were] deeply disappointed that they were not offered any form of public prayer”; and “another couple in a civil partnership [who were] uncertain about same-sex marriage [and who] said that sharing the eucharist with their brothers and sisters following the registration of their partnership was the greatest blessing they could receive”.
He said: “It reminded me of the range of opinions which exist. I want God’s Church to honour them all. I pray that the work which may flow from this report will be a means of doing so.”
The Archdeacon of Dudley, the Ven. Nikki Groarke (Worcester), said that she was grateful for the report and would vote to take note of it. “Though flawed, it captures the complexity of the journey we are still on,” she said.
She was surprised that it did not support pastoral services to bless couples in gay relationships, and was disappointed in herself for not speaking out in favour of this option. She had changed her views on sexuality seeing how God had used gay Christians, lay and ordained. “The Shared Conversations crystallised that I cannot support gay marriage, but I would support a pastoral service,” she explained.
“Life is simpler when you remain vague on controversial issues. I remained in the silent middle. I lacked the courage of my convictions, which was wrong, and I apologise.” Her fellow open Evangelicals who were with her in the “silent middle” and had changed their understanding of scripture also needed to also speak up.
Canon Martin Taylor (Lincoln) told the Synod how the Anglican Church in a community in north-east Uganda had introduced the doctrine of Christian marriage to a culture that practised polygamy. “This is a profound gift which is transforming the culture one family at a time. The social benefits are starting to be seen,” he said.
“I’m grateful for the House of Bishops for stating so clearly their support for the traditional teaching in the Church. It will be a massive encouragement to Archdeacon Sam [in Uganda] and many others in the Communion. I fully support the Bishops’ report.”
Lucy Gorman (York) said that most people outside the walls of the Synod heard the Church as “lacking in love”. As a young Anglican, she was “one of a dying breed”, as fewer young people were attending church or wanted to hear about the gospel, because of the Church’s perceived homophobia.
Ms Gorman told the Synod about her LGBT friend Helen, who had taken her own life last year. Helen had said: “I love my local church and my faith, but I’m conflicted about the Church of England.” Ms Gorman said that she was not asking for same-sex marriage in church, but was asking the Synod not to take note of the report, because “we need to do better.”
Professor Joyce Hill (Leeds) said that the problem with the report was not necessarily what was in it, but how it was communicated. “I remind us all that effective communication is not defined by what the originator of that communication thinks they have said, but by what those who receive the communication perceive has been said.”
There were positives in the report, which need to be built on, Professor Hill said, even if the tone was perceived as “grudging and condescending or patronising”. “Don’t dig a bigger hole,” she said.
The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, said that as a member of the Reflection Group, he had heard repeated criticisms that bishops had not listened to the LGBT community, and that the Shared Conversations were a “waste of time”. In response, he said that the Shared Conversations had not been a waste, and, rather, and that they had played a “vital part” in the listening process, taking in the views of others in a respectful way.
“We need to understand what listening means,” he said. “It does not mean
agreement: the word ‘listen’ can be reformed to spell ‘silent’.” The Bishops had
listened to LGBT Christians, to other cultures and faiths, and to the Church’s scripture and tradition. “We have heard a cry for the Bishops to lead,” he said. “Its purpose was not to please, but to steer.”
Canon Jenny Tomlinson (Chelmsford) said that she intended to take note of the report, because it contained some “useful work”, in paragraph 23 in particular. She hoped that the teaching document would begin with an understanding of Christian anthropology, recognising human beings as sexual beings. The relationships of Jesus had been distinctive in his day, she said. “We need meaningful conversations, not glib. All relationships are gift.”
In its diversity, the Church had a heritage of carrying the Bible for individual reading. “Our understanding must be corporate, if not uniform,” she said. “Are there understandings which we could all share?” Surely, she said, in an era in which sexual relationships were separated from commitment, could they not agree that sexuality and commitment should go together?
Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) said that on Monday she had spoken of a “lack of trust”, and that at its heart was the “core Christian value of honesty” about the situation that the Church found itself in regarding sexuality. Problems had been “swept under the carpet” in this report, she said. There was disagreement within the Church about
the interpretation of scripture, liturgy, blessings, and what sex was.
“Until we are able to talk honestly, we can not agree on anything,” she said. “The
question of marriage cannot be answered until we have sorted out the
fundamentals about what we can agree and disagree: the report uses clever
language that can be agreed or disagreed with on both sides. Otherwise, it
The Bishops had chosen to blame the Synod, and not to lead, “but to see what you wished to see”. Ms Ozanne concluded: “Until we acknowledge we are divided, we cannot move forward. Do we really love each other, or are we staying together for the sake of the children? It is often the children who get hurt — that is, young LGBTI people.”
The Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett (Southwark) said that the Church was “between a rock and a hard place on this issue”, as it had been on women bishops, “and we found a way through.”
She continued: “As a black woman in the Church, I have felt excluded and ‘othered’,” on the basis of race and gender. “My LGBTI brothers and sisters, and all who call for a more inclusive Church, are feeling a similar pain.” She suggested that “many people in wider society may feel that closed minds equate with closed doors.”
Susie Leafe (Truro) compared herself to the dwarf in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle: “a dwarf lied to so often that she has become so suspicious that she can’t see the truth, can’t see the beauty of her surroundings, or see the truth in the report.
“I don’t want to be a dwarf. I am asking for the truth, so I know whether I can take note of this or not. I am told that this report is beautiful because the doctrine of marriage is safe and secure, but I am not seeing that. . . We need clarity if we are going to be able to take note of a report of this kind.”
Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) spoke about a difficult relationship with another Synod member who had been “the first person I ever told I was gay, 27 years ago”. This person had sent him a text on the eve of the Synod meeting which he found to be an act of harassment. Their paths had separated, but “Synod has brought us back together, and we find ourselves serving the Church in close proximity.
“I have told him something of my life, and it is not hard to see how difficult that is for him. He finds me to be living dishonestly in relation to the doctrine of the Church. A red line has been crossed for him. That is wounding for me, too, to be working alongside somebody who believes that about me.”
He said that the Bishops’ report had taken him across a red line. “What that means for our future together is difficult to see. It is too early to tell. 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.”
He said that, at worship the previous evening, a verse from Genesis 32.6 had come to him: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” He said: “I say to those faithful, godly people like Suzie Leafe, and I say to my brothers and sisters in the House of Bishops, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me,’ and I look forward to the day when you can say the same of me.”
Prolonged applause followed.
The Archdeacon of Newark, the Ven. David Picken (Southwell & Nottingham), said he had taken part in many listening processes and Shared Conversations in recent years, and saw “an openness to listening to one another be vulnerable about who we are and what makes us who we seek to be before God”.
This report could not be the end of the matter, he said, and he was keen to know more about how the welcoming culture envisaged by the Bishops would be created. “Let’s not pretend this is not the home for all. ‘Welcome’ suggests we are receiving people into our space; but it is their space, too.”
The Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain (London) urged the Synod to vote against the motion because the Synod, the LGBT people in the Church, and the country deserved better. “The report fails to allow for the possibility of what we could achieve as a Church working together.” A new commission drawn up from the whole Church, including “openly, confident LGBTI people”, should be set up to consider this issue.
“Your LGBTI brothers and sisters are not beggars looking for entrance on the borders of the Church. We are your family in Christ. We are baptised, faithful, prayerful. I am not a case study. We are flesh and blood.”
The report reflected too much fear and not enough love, he said. “Synod please, I beg you: do not give in to fear. Do not be afraid. Do not take note.”
Robert Hammond (Chelmsford) said that the report was about him, as a gay man with an ordained partner. “It presents a distinction between clergy and laity that isn’t there. It isn’t just a laity-clergy split. The same standards that apply to clergy apply to me by definition,” he argued. The report “fails to set all God’s people free”. “I can’t take note, and I urge you not to, either.”
Catherine Farmbrough (Deaf Anglicans Together) said that minorities like her, whether disabled, LGBT, or BAME, live with stress 24/7. “People find it hard to understand me. I find it hard to understand them. I think people often wish I would go away because I’m a problem,” she said. “If you choose to take note, please let there be real practical guidelines about what a ‘welcome’ means.”
Andrea Minichiello-Williams (Chichester) said that from all that the Synod had heard it seemed that the two positions were “irreconcilable”. “The report seeks to straddle these positions, but can’t, and we cry out to the Bishops to make their position clear,” she said. “We are all sinful and in need of a Saviour, but that requires repentance.”
The Bible “clearly states”, she continued, that all sexual relationships outside marriage were sinful. “The Church and his Bride are the ideal of marriage, and if we rob society of that picture we destroy the truth of what marriage is. Clergy should model chastity and purity.”
If sexuality were a secondary issue, it would not be linked with salvation in the Bible, she suggested. “Heaven and hell depends on sin, and that is why we must hold true to it. We have to make a choice about discipline.”
Caroline Herbert (Norwich) thanked the Reflection Group for its work on the report, and intended to take note, though she did not agree with all of it. She approved of the reaffirmation of the doctrine on marriage, but was “unsure” of the meaning of maximum freedom. “I welcomed the opportunity to explore case studies, and, though people felt uncomfortable, for me they were challenging and thought-provoking.” She hoped and trusted that the teaching document would “help set up boundaries of maximum freedom” and be clear.
The Revd Samuel Allberry (Oxford) said that he was same-sex-attracted. “Sexuality is not a matter of identity for me, which has become Good News,” he said. “My worth is not contingent on being romantically and sexually fulfilled. Jesus was never married, never in a romantic relationship, and had never had sex; if these are fundamental to human development, we are calling Jesus sub-human. My Church — by which I mean this Synod — has not been a safe place for me. I was bullied at school for being gay. I now feel bullied in Synod — for being same-sex- attracted, and for agreeing with the doctrine on marriage.”
He asked: “Do the Bishops really believe in this report? Is it good news? I have found it life-giving.”
The Revd Dr Jane Steen (Southwark) said that “fidelity to the doctrines we have received is not incompatible with a new Christian response.” She cited the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937. “Clergy could not be compelled to marry them [divorcees] nor to make their churches available,” she said. “This remains the case. Conscience is heard. Some clergy marry divorced persons; some make use of the service of prayer and blessing of a civil marriage; some do neither. The decision is made at parish level. The doctrine of marriage remains.”
She said that the C of E allowed space for legitimate diversity, and that, “within such a space, the Church can and does accommodate those who welcome and those who doubt the Church’s new insights.”
Canon Giles Goddard (Southwark) said that he stood as “a member of the middle ground”. His church, St John’s, Waterloo, was a successful church with growing attendance and young people considering ordination. But, despite this, it was “seen as a dangerous parish, one to be treated with kid gloves . . . because its Vicar is gay and has a partner”.
He warned that, if the Synod agreed to take note of it, the report would gain a status that it did not deserve, as had happened with Issues in Human Sexuality, which, he said, was now treated as policy, despite assurances at the time that it was not. The Bishops’ report had already been sent to members of the Anglican Consultative Council “as a declaration of the Church of England’s position”.
Ed Shaw (Bristol) asked: “How did the Lord Jesus manage to be both a liberal and a conservative? How did he manage to be inclusive of all — including a gay man like myself – and ask difficult questions of all — including a same-sex-attracted man such as myself?” He said that the Church should seek to do the same as it sought to be more like Jesus, “the great liberal conservative”.
The Revd Kate Wharton (Liverpool) said that the Church should not change its current teaching on marriage; but she also believed in the need for a “fresh tone and culture. . . I recognise that some of you are simply unable to hear or believe” the second part of what she had said, because of the first part of her statement. “I understand why that is, but I regret it.”
She continued: “My understanding of what scripture says about sex and marriage, and the fact that I do not have a husband, lead me to believe that I must have a celibate life. . . This was not what I, for much of my life, would have hoped for or desired. However, it has come to be a great blessing and freedom for me.”
Ben Franks (Birmingham) said that it was because he was a Bible-believing Christian that he believed that the Church urgently needed to embrace inclusivity. He urged the Synod to reject the report, which he described as “an injustice to the Church”.
“Why has the House of Bishops decided to impose uniformity?” he asked. “What is wrong with a Church that holds diverse views?” He described the report as “another appeasement” and asked “what happened to taking risks for the Gospel?”
The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, said that he honoured the “anger and the fury” of LGBT people who “see in this report hard stones where they wanted bread”. When he returned home to the diocese of Liverpool, he would work for “maximum freedom” under the law for LGBT people. “I do not need the permission of this report or of this Synod,” he said.
“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.” He highlighted that the settled mind of the House of Bishops was for maximum freedom, and the Synod should not allow that fact to be “blown away in the storm”. “This report cannot, should not, and will not mark the end of the road.”
Michelle Tackie (Chelmsford) said that she could not take note of the report, because of the damage done by the Church to sexual minorities. “If those who belong to the Church feel unable to participate, how can we attract those who are currently outside our Church?” she asked.
Stephen Boyall (Blackburn) said that he was pleased that the report affirmed the Bible and the historic teaching of the Church. “It’s great that I and the majority of Christians around the world are not out of step with this Church’s teaching on marriage,” he said.
He questioned what “maximum freedom really meant”, likening it to his questions as a 16-year-old about “How far can I go?” “I should have asked back then ‘How can I be faithful to Jesus?’ Let’s take note of this report. It’s not perfect, but at least we can affirm what marriage is, and reject homophobia.”
The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, said that written statements would always lack human encounter and tone. “The Bishops have names and lives and roles, and this is deeply personal and painful,” she said, “because I believe in relationship.” The Bishops all agreed on “identifying ground” on which everyone could stand, but the report was not given as a “unanimous view”; nor was it the end of the process
“Unless we define and articulate where we are now, we will be at an impasse,” she warned. “I am taking note. I want a different tone, though we have a long way to go. I want to explore what maximum freedom might actually look like.”
The report was not collusion or “group think”, she said; rather, it was bringing common ground into sharp focus, as was apparent in the debate. She concluded: “My hope is that all of us will be taking note of what we are hearing, and then there is so much more work to be done.”
The Archdeacon of Oxford, the Ven. Martin Gorick (Oxford), said that he lived in on a university campus of 600 students, only two of whom were members of the Christian Union. “A lack of welcome is the biggest challenge,” he said. “People get Jesus and the Church against poverty and for refugees, but they do not get its current opposition of gay people.”
In paragraph 5.6 of Issues of Human Sexuality, he said, the Church stood alongside those who were in loving and sexual partnerships, and this had been written 20 years before civil partnerships. The language of Issues might be dated, he said, but it set out a “mixed-economy vision of a Church with freedoms alongside doctrine”.
A prohibition had been placed on clergy after the civil-partnerships law. The Archdeacon welcomed descriptions of maximum freedom and the teaching document. “We meet here for a Church that is confident, compassionate, creative,” he concluded. “That is the Church our world needs, and the Church we must lead.”
Jay Greene (Winchester) said that, as Lesbian church members, she and her partner had not been treated as a problem. She had discussed the Bishops’ report, and what it meant, with other members of the congregation, most of whom were over 60, she said. “Sex may be a rare treat or distant memory for most, but they all wanted it to be a possibility in a committed loving relationship, and were amazed that gay and lesbian Christians were expected to be celibate, but not the Vicar and his wife. Is this institutionalised homophobia?”
Ms Greene said that the congregation had expressed concerns for the LGBT community, and wanted them to be able to celebrate partnerships in church. The report was full of the tone of fear. “I have heard the passion of Bishop Bayes and Bishop Treweek, and it is tempting to say we will be all right,” she said. “But I want to vote against it [the motion] in order to give them the confidence that these communities, my congregation, want the Church to go further, faster, forward.”
The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn (Southern Deans), was wearing a badge that said that he would not be taking note of the report. It was “nice”, he said, that the Bishops were taking note in the chamber, but a “shame” that they had not seemed to take note in the Shared Conversations.
He had been on three of these, he said, and they had been “a good experience, even when a priest turned to me, and said: ‘You cannot be saved’”. He continued: “I thanked him and said that I would rest upon the mercy of God.” The Bishops talked of a new tone, but if the report was the first sign of this tone, he said, “I do not like it. You can do better. If the tone is being nice, then you have already been nice. God is not nice; God is justice and integrity, wholeness and life. . . That is not the tone of the Church.”
Dean Nunn said that, on a recent visit to Toronto, he had seen a rainbow banner on one church, which stated: “Every day is Gay Pride day.” He asked: “Can we not have a bit of pride in our LGBT members? This nation demands more love and joy to the many blessings our gay people bring.”
The Chair of the House of Laity, Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham), said that he was “conflicted in the debate” because he heard arguments that he agreed with on all sides. He had been struck by the moves to enable women to be consecrated as bishops; but on that occasion, he said, the Synod had known what it was trying to achieve and where it was going.
It was, he said, a question of process. If the Synod voted to take note, there would be two following motions to be debated, and the result would provide a roadmap and direction. “If we don’t take note, that roadmap is removed,” he said.
Debrah McIsaac (Salisbury) moved a procedural motion to adjourn the debate, until November. “If the debate continues, we will find ourselves in a position where we are less honest, less co-operative, less measured, and return to the tone of the debates about five years ago” on women bishops, she said. “We have learned much from the process of the Shared Conversations, and it is important that we continue learning.”
Bishop James, resisting the adjournment, said: “If we do adjourn until November, we will be returning with the paper as we have it now. It will not move us on. We have heard powerful speeches, and my sense is, painful as it may be, we should move to a vote so that, whatever happens, the Bishops can move to the next stage of the work.”
The procedural motion was lost.
The Revd Dr Jason Roach (London) said that his view, which was the traditional teaching of the Church, “was not beyond critique”. He described the Bishops’ approach as “a brave decision in light of the social context in which we live”. He spoke of the woman taken in adultery. “He [Jesus] loved her, but he challenged her to sin no more.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury emphasised that “no one is a problem. There are no problems in this room who are people. What we are talking about this afternoon and this evening is not ethics, principally, but for many — possibly for all — people here, a question of identity: who we each are, and who we are together as people: people made in the image of God, all, without exception, loved and called in Christ. There are no problems: there are simply people.
“How we deal with the real and profound disagreement, put so passionately, put so clearly, and put so eloquently by numerous people today — 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 inclusion: 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.
“The current paper, the current report, is not the end of the story. We know that. Bishop Graham said that clearly. We will, as the Bishops, think again, and go on thinking. We will do that anyway; and we will do that, whether we take note or not. And we will seek to do better. We could hardly fail to do so in light of what has been said this afternoon.
“One of the things that strikes me most, though, in this, is that it was right — whoever said it — that this needs to be about love, joy, and celebration of our humanity, of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ — all of us, without exception, without exclusion.”
The Archbishop continued: “I believe passionately that the report, worked on — struggled on, not carelessly, not thoughtlessly — gives a basis for moving on: a good basis, a roadmap, as the Chair of Laity just said.
“We will, I hope, take note of that report; and, whether we do or not (obviously, we accept that voice from the Synod), we are going to move on and find a radical new inclusion based in love, based in our Christian understanding, neither careless of our theology nor ignorant of the world around us.
“That is the challenge we face as human beings. Not problems, not issues, but human beings made in the image and likeness of God, called to salvation in the way of Christ.”
Responding to the debate, Bishop James said that, “whatever the merits” of the Bishops’ report, “it had generated an articulate response.” He guaranteed that the House of Bishops would carefully consider all that had been said in the debate and would “read the transcript very carefully”.
Prudence Dailey (Oxford) moved a procedural motion for a vote of the whole Synod; but the decision from the chair favoured a separate procedural motion from another Synod member for a vote by Houses.
The motion was lost in the House of Clergy, and therefore lost overall. The voting was: Bishops 43 for, one against; Clergy 93 for, 100 against, with two recorded abstentions; and Laity 106 for, 83 against, with four recorded abstentions.