General Synod: sexuality presentation

Sexuality teaching document ‘more than a mapping exercise’

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BEFORE the Synod went into seminars, which were not open to the media, on Saturday afternoon, the Revd Dr Eeva John, the enabling officer for the Bishops’ teaching document Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about human, identity, sexuality and marriage, delivered a presentation on four aspects: visioning, learning, involving, and planning.

This project was “complex and ambitious”, she said. For all those involved, a vision was “vital”. The group developing it had begun by exploring the question “What would success beyond our wildest dreams look like?” Highlights included:

“A landmark piece of work”

“It will gain respect in and beyond the Church because it will deep dig into Scripture acknowledging its authority in the community, tradition and pastoral practice of the Church”

“It will neither dodge the diversity of the views in our Church today nor the ever-growing number of questions with which our society is faced in relation to human identity, sexuality and relating”

“It will address the culture which we inhabit and within which we are called to be salt and light and in that sense have a missional focus that brings good news”

“It will comprise a variety of teaching and learning resources that are accessible and attractive and therefore widely used by the whole people of God”

“The impact of producing the resources and the way that people are invited to engage with them will be a unifying one   it will enable us to live together fruitfully with ecclesial and personal integrity”;

“It will embody vulnerability with humility and a mutual desire to discern God’s voice among us.” 

The purpose was to provide resources for the bishops to exercise their teaching office, and materials that could be widely disseminated. 

The members of the groups represented “diverse views” and had “learned to be honest with one another”, with work under way to integrate scholarship with experience and practice. A willingness and desire to learn required “attentiveness, openness, compassion towards those with whom we differ, vulnerability, courage, and spirit of adventure to be open to new insights”

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The work had often been described as a mapping exercise, but “our emerging vision suggests it is more than that: we hope to discover brand new territories and new insights to challenge each of us.”

Involving meant engaging with church communities and individuals. The group wanted to hear about good practice in ministry and mission “embodying different theological conviction”. Although there were examples of bad practice, others were documenting this and continued to do so, and the group had decided to conduct “appreciative inquiry, searching out the good from which we can all learn”. It was also seeking out individual voices — including “those who are certain they agree or disagree with the current teaching of the Church” and “those who are confused and unsure”.

There was a need to ensure that scholarly work made connections with experience and vice versa. It was “not a theologically passive listening to experience or a piece of sociological research. . . . But we look to create a robust conversation between experience and theology as a means of listening to the Holy Spirit.” It also wanted to listen to “sister churches” in the Anglican Communion. The group was committed to offering Synod members regular opportunities to hear about and comment on its work.

The plan was to bring the work together in 2019, and to begin road-testing material, so that by 2020 the group was in a position to agree and publish a core document and resources, “just in time” for the Lambeth Conference.

She introduced the image of tangled knot of multiple threads of different colours: “We can choose to try pull on the threads, maybe each one of us pulling on a thread of our favourite colour, making the knot tighter and eventually causing the thread to break, or we can pause and patiently unravel them one by one until the knot has dis-entangled and the liberated threads can be woven together into something new and beautiful.” This was how she envisaged the project.

The second image was of “a gathering around a table at which we feast on a rich fare of scholarship exploring many different questions, while listening deeply to stories of lived experience”. Christ himself, “the Scriptural Christ who was shaped by Scripture and shapes us through Scripture” was “not only among us but is our host in this work: it is he who has invited us to listen out to what the Spirit is saying to the Church today. What new teaching and learning is he calling all of us to? What transformational work is he doing among us?”

The Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, provided an update as chair of the pastoral advisory group. It was a “fascinating concept and task”. She explained: “We are quite clear that we work within the current boundaries of our current teaching and doctrine as the Church of England has received it. . . To some, of course, this means that they view our work with deep frustration, because there is a real desire for many to see change in our doctrine and our practice.”

She went on: “We believe that we can do better in the way we relate in the incredibly important issue of our deepest vulnerability: our sexuality. Others of course will be fearful that in doing this, this is the thin edge of the wedge, and we are going to undermine the doctrine and teaching. . . I am very relaxed about the fact that we will not please anybody. If we don’t, we are probably doing really well.”

She added: “The notion of pastoral care is a difficult one . . . The one thing we really have to avoid is the sense that we in the Church of England are developing a system of pastoral care for us to show to them: nothing could be further from our task . . . Each and every one of us is vulnerable at a very deep level in our sexuality. This is about the way that each and every one of us as brothers and sisters in Christ relate to one another with the greatest tenderness, compassion and respect in all our vulnerabilities.” She quoted from the ordination service: “Remember always that the treasure with which you are entrusted is Christ’s own flock.” The group was asking: “How can we do so much better at living in a way where we are so open with one another, so compassionate with one another, and respectful with one another, that we offer a deep level of pastoral care to one another in our practices in the Church?”

It was “the most extraordinary group I have ever been involved in . . . We are working in a way which is showing we entrust ourselves to one another”. They were “working out of our deepest feelings”. At a recent residential meeting, they had looked at the current teaching and guidance on prayer for LGBTI people, issued by the House of Bishops, and “allowed ourselves to react to that, in an extraordinary session”. Members who wanted to see this “gut response” were invited to the afternoon’s workshop.

Read about the composition of the groups here: Bishops to work on text of document on sexuality 


Read a report of every General Synod presentation and debate from York 2018, here

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