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Scottish Synod debates reconciliation in anticipation of Brexit

14 June 2019

The Synod also debated the future of genome editing


THE Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane, the Rt Revd Ian Paton, introduced a debate on “the role of the churches in reconciliation following social change”, on Friday afternoon.

He said that reconciliation was not superficial agreement; Jesus crosses every chasm, and is the heart of reconciliation. “We are a divided Church in a divided world, but we are still called to reconciliation,” he said; reconciliation went hand in hand with justice.

This was the moment when the Synod got to perform a Bible study, he explained. There would be table discussion.

Bishop Paton said that the UK felt divided and polarised at the moment, over issues such as Brexit and independence. “We avoid the subjects the B word and the I word, because they are emotive.”

The Bishop of Clogher, the Rt Revd John McDowell, of the Church of Ireland, said that he had intended to speak about Brexit. Since this was a Scottish Synod, however, and not an Irish Synod, he did not wish to drag the members through everything.

The Church had not yet done the hard work on reconciliation, he said. Reconciliation was a great skill of the Church. Speaking about Brexit, he said that one often heard about the difficulty over the “Irish border”, but it was not only the Irish border, it was also the Ireland-UK border.

He argued that there would need to be a “resetting” of relations between the Republic and the UK. A united Ireland would just create “another alienated group of people”. The problem of the border had been exacerbated by “complacency, exaggeration; and both of those have been influenced by ignorance.”

Bishop McDowell said that you often heard in Westminster that the Republic of Ireland was dragging its feet over Brexit; the Irish Republic, however, was in a position of strength in negotiations with the UK for the first time in history, and had acted responsibly. It had deepened its sovereignty. The Good Friday Agreement had been a “very important influence”. He described it as “the bowl that holds the water that is political and civil society”.

Bishop Paton said that independence and Brexit were emotive issues in Scotland, and populists had poured oils on these fires. “Feelings are likely to persist, and perhaps even deepen.” The reconciliation that was needed would require a long period of healing and listening. Mere reconciliation might take a generation.

Speaking of the part played by faith communities in this process, he asked whether the Church had “insights and relevance for the people at large”. Churches throughout England had invited people to come together over tea to chat about Brexit, he said. Safe spaces for people to express their feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal were needed. “Scotland is rooted in values that make this an inclusive place, and that is mirrored in the life of the SEC.”

He introduced a discussion session between members. “We have to open our ears to these emotions and feelings, if we are to help at all with reconciliation.”

In other College of Bishops business, the Bishop of Aberdeen & Orkney, the Rt Revd Anne Dyer, said that changes were taking place to the discernment process: candidates for ordination would no longer go to England for their final interview — the whole process would be conducted within Scotland.

She said that the College of Bishops had considered what kind of ministries they would encourage, both nationally and provincially. She explained that all members of the body of Christ were called to participate in the mission of God in the world: “Every member of the body of Christ is a minister.” People did not understand that they were disciples, let alone ministers, she said.

Bishop Dyer asked what forms vocation might take: in the workplace, through volunteer work, or family life. Some gave time and energy to activities within church life; some church ministries required approval. Authorised lay ministries (ALM) would now require diocesan selection, authorisation, and training. “Our hope is that these ALM will be what some people are sensing vocation to at this time; but, for others, it might be a stepping stone for something bigger in the future.”

The Bishop of Argyll & The Isles, the Rt Revd Kevin Pearson, asked Synod to remember that wisdom had two facets: vision, and common sense. These are present in the new system, Bishop Pearson explained. He said that the Church had now embraced the whole system, rather than ask people to visit the C of E for training. He said that provincial ministries would now be discerned through the processes of the Scottish Episcopal Church. The Provincial Director of Ordinands (PDO) was now a full-time job, he explained; along with Assistant Directors of Ordinands, the PDO is the Very Revd Ian Barcroft. Lay Readers would come into the process eventually, Bishop Pearson said. “Many people come to discernment, and find it difficult to talk about God,” he said, which was very disconcerting. “This is a sign of the Spirit moving within our Church.”

In a point of order, the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth, asked why these positions had not been published in the Synod papers, and why they had not been given time for proper debate. He questioned the logic behind the “system being imposed on the whole Province”.

Bishop Pearson said that this was not being imposed: it was simply what baptism was about.

The Primus, the Most Revd Mark Strange, gave an update on his work. He had met other Primates at the General Convention in Canada, and addressed the Church in Wales at their assembly last September (News, 21 September 2018).

In November, he met bishops of different denominations in Europe, to discuss how “we can work and love together”. He went on an official visit to the Anglican Communion Office at the same time that he visited Lambeth Palace. He met the Primate of Brazil in London, where he also spoke to various aid agencies. He also spent some time in Kenya with African Primates. He also went to a meeting of regional Primates in Armagh. Bishop Strange had indicated to the Archbishop of Canterbury and others his disappointment at being excluded from some meetings owing to the position of the Scottish Episcopal Church on same-sex marriage.


Genome editing.

THE convener of the Church in Society Committee, the Revd Professor David Atkinson (Aberdeen & Orkney), said that the committee would be setting up a child poverty fund, which would be an opportunity for mission. He explained that the afternoon’s session would be on genome editing. Four speakers would have a dialogue about what it meant to be human.

Professor Atkinson said that there would be a panel with four speakers: Dr Donald Bruce, Dr Lesley Penny, the Revd Dr Jenny Wright, and himself.

Dr Donald Bruce explained what genome editing was, and said that it had created a “revolution” in scientific research. This technique applied to “anything” that people could think of, on a much wider scale than was possible 20 years ago.

The Revd Dr Jenny Wright (Edinburgh) said that this debate was necessary not just from a scientific point of view, but also from a Church point of view. “Scientists are going to do what scientists are going to do,” she said, but the Church was there to ask questions. She said that this dealt with the boundaries of life and death: “Part of our theological task is to develop a bridge between our theological narrative . . . and how we hold that alongside the realities of current science.” Difficult questions needed to be asked, she said, both from theological and scientific perspectives.

Dr Lesley Penny said that editing was being used in science with plants and animals; cell editing treats a problem rather than it being passed on genetically. Dr Penny said that these would be expensive treatments, available only to the super rich when first produced. She asked who was going to get the treatments, and who would not get them.

Dr Bruce explained concerns over the editing of genes in embryos, in the light of the operation performed on Chinese babies. He said that there were “a range of really profound questions”.

Speaking about farm animals, Dr Penny said that populations of animals could be created that were completely resistant to certain diseases, for example, African swine flu for pigs. “Where next?” Professor Atkinson asked.

In response, Dr Bruce said that the bioethics council in the UK would be producing a report soon, which his working group would be looking at. “The Church has a very important role to play,” he said.

Dr Wright said that it was important to recognise the humanity of all people: “Suffering isn’t meaningless”.

Professor Atkinson said that much of scripture concerned what it meant to be human.

Motion 17

Professor Atkinson presented the motion, which would welcome the report.

The Revd Rosemary Bungard (Argyll & The Isles) welcomed the “excellent” report for its explanation to non-specialists. Ms Bungard asked how long a moratorium on gene editing would last, and what form this would take. She spoke of the dangers of “designer babies”, and the impact on those with genetic diseases. She said that it took ten years for a drug to pass testing; so there should be licensed laboratory research.

Euan Grant (St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane) said that the panel and the report had largely given questions, not answers, and would welcome the report more if it was bold enough to give answers. The Church, he said, needed to present its voice. He asked what was wrong with designer babies, and went on to argue that countering this would require some explanation of nature. He said that a theology of human nature was required, which was a hugely controversial topic.

Canon John Cuthbert (Moray, Ross & Caithness) said that he had a theory about scientists over the past few years: physicists do wonderful things, with imagination and intelligence, but are solely observers; biologists actually change things. He talked about how mothers with babies who had Down’s syndrome were persecuted in India, along with their children.

Dr David Simmons (Glasgow & Galloway) wondered if the debate could learn anything from the biodiversity movement. He said that he was a psychologist, and that neurodiversity was a hot topic at the moment. He said there were some single gene conditions that could be edited that would be edited, such as Huntington’s disease.

The Revd Terry Taggart (Aberdeen & Orkney) said that when we are uninformed we meddle at our peril. He spoke of his experience as a special constable, when he investigated the protests against genetically modified crops.

Ruth Warmer (St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane) said that she had personal experience: she had lost a daughter from a genetically inherited disease, which was completely out of the blue. Mrs Warmer said that it had appeared in each of her previous generations, but nobody had put it together in the past.

Dr Bruce responded to the scientific questions. The proposed moratorium was on embryo gene editing, he said, not wider questions. Dr Wright said: “We cannot do what we do without theology.” Professor Atkinson said that not all questions could be answered immediately.

Motion 17, which passed overwhelmingly:

That this Synod:

• welcome the report on genome editing in animals and humans;

• recognise that some applications may be beneficial such as inherited cell gene therapy in humans and disease resistance in pigs but that some applications raise major ethical concerns, such as editing the human germline to produce modified babies;

• instruct the Church in Society Committee to continue to examine these issues and to engage with appropriate national and international fora where these ethical issues are under discussion.

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