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General Synod digest: challenges during questions

16 July 2021

DURING formal Questions on Friday evening, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, was asked to justify the Archbishops’ Council’s decision not to fund full-time racial-justice officers, as recommended in the report of the Archbishops’ anti-racism taskforce, From Lament to Action (News, 23 April)

The Revd Dr Anderson Jeremiah (Universities & TEIs) noted that Archbishop Cottrell had written in the Vision and Strategy paper “that it would be disastrous and foolish to ignore God”. By refusing to fund racial-justice officers in each diocese, was the Archbishops’ Council not “doing what you describe as disastrously and foolishly ignoring what God is calling us to do” Dr Jeremiah asked.

Archbishop Cottrell expressed “sadness”, which he said was shared by members of the Council, “that, for pressing financial reasons, it is not able to progress this recommendation at the moment”. The Council was doing its “best to find out how racial justice can be supported through a network of officers”.

The Archbishop continued: “That’s not really the answer I want, nor the answer he wants, but I think it would be unfair to see this as not being fully committed to racial justice.”

Zahida Mallard (Leeds) asked why money had been found for “other equality characteristics”, but, on the matter of racial-justice officers “there appears to be no movement or no negotiation. What is this saying about the culture change and the voice of people like me and my family?”

Archbishop Cottrell replied: “I hear what you are saying. I think I can assure you and the Synod that money is being put into this work, but, at the moment, this particular recommendation is not being supported in the way that it was proposed. . .

“I do not underestimate the disappointment this has caused, but I continue to make that personal commitment for us to be a more diverse Church and to put racial justice at the centre of our agenda.”

On other topics, misgivings about the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process were expressed by several members. Sam Margrave (Coventry) said that the Synod had previously been told that LLF would be “a teaching document, not a process”.

He continued: “Now it is a process, has the House of Bishops considered if there is a danger that, with limited resourcing, LLF has now become a Poundshop Shared Conversation, and, if so, what was your conclusion about resourcing needs?”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who chairs the LLF Next Steps group, replied: “Whether it is a document or a process, what I would say is actually what we’re doing is engaging people to listen to each other. It is about learning in that way.

“So, we’re using different tools, different models, as well as . . . a document; but there are different ways of learning, and that’s about widening the accessibility to people.”

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford), spoke of those in the trans community who were “upset and concerned” about the appearance in an LLF film of Debbie Hayton, a trans Christian woman, who, Ms Ozanne said, “is outspoken in her denial of the very existence of trans people”. This “completely undermines the willingness of trans people to engage with the LLF process, and diminishes the credibility of the Church of England in the eyes of all those committed to international human rights and who view this as evidence that the Church of England is, sadly, transphobic”.

Bishop Mullally acknowledged that some were “clearly upset and concerned” about the film, but “other voices . . . [have] said they had found it helpful”.

She continued: “One of the challenges of us talking about things that affect us and other people so personally is that there will be challenges for people around how it affects them, which is why one of my biggest concerns is around how we create safer environments for people.”

The Revd Dr Ian Paul (Southwell & Nottingham) asked: “What action is being taken to protect the important voice and the felt experience of people like Debbie, who are transsexual but are opposed to transgender ideology? What is being done to protect voices like hers from intimidation and from attempts to silence her?”

Bishop Mullally replied: “The work that we’ve done around how we create safe spaces goes for all of us, whatever our theological view or whatever our sexual identity. . .

“The team itself from LLF has spent a lot of time with those that have been involved in the filming of material, and we are supporting them as individuals, and, of course, we hope that LLF will be a conversation of love.”

Stephen Hofmeyr (Guildford) asked for confirmation or denial as to whether, when putting together the LLF resources, “a deliberate decision was made not to set out systematically the case for and against maintaining the status quo”.

Bishop Mullally replied that the purpose of LLF was neither to affirm or deny the status quo in relation to the Church’s teaching on sexuality. Its purpose, rather, “was around how we enable the whole Church to enlarge and deepen their understanding of what it is to be human, and to begin to explore those questions of identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage in that context”.

Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) said that there was “a real issue . . . about take-up at parish level of LLF . . . [resources] as we come out of Covid”. Would the Next Steps group consider reviewing the timescale for parish engagement with LLF?

The group was aware of the pressures, Bishop Mulllaly said, “but also we’re aware that there are people who don’t want us to knock this into the long grass”. The group was listening to feedback, however, and would consider altering the time-scale.

Angus Goudie (Durham) asked about the implications of the Methodist decision to permit same-sex marriages. What did the next steps group propose should be done to enable Methodist congregations within local ecumenical partnerships “to act in accord with their will and prayerful discernment, especially during this interim when we are seeking to discern the Holy Spirit’s leading in our own LLF process?”

Bishop Mullally said that this was probably a question for the Next Steps Covenant group to answer.

Clive Scowen (London) asked whether the House of Bishops would ensure that the Methodist decision about same-sex marriages “will not result in Church of England buildings being used for Methodist same-sex wedding services”.

Bishop Mullally said that this was “an area of overlap” between the LLF Next Steps group and the Next Steps Covenant group. “I will take that away and come back to you.”

During questions to the chair of the Pensions Board, Clive Mather, Pat Hawkins (Lichfield) asked what consideration had been given to clergy who retire early “not because of their own ill-health but because they have necessarily become a full-time carer”.

Mr Mather said that early retirement was a complex issue which had a “very significant financial impact on, of course, the individual, but also on the [pension] fund”. The C of E’s pension fund was regulated he said, and had to abide by the rules of its trust deed. “It is simply not possible for us to allow people to retire without the cost of that arrangement being addressed — otherwise, the other members of the fund could be disadvantaged by the person leaving.”

Mr Margrave asked whether the Pensions Board had “considered developing a national scheme to ensure no clergyperson who is having to retire due to disabilities or ill-health is unsupported because of the financial difficulties or constraints of one of the responsible bodies — for example, the diocese simply having no cash?”

Mr Mather replied: “We recognise that, in a period of change, we all need to be sensitive to individual arrangements, but it is simply not within our gift to enter that domain, other than to provide whatever support we can through the services we’re commissioned to provide — that’s, of course, pensions, housing, and retirement services, so making information and support available in specific cases. But I think the thrust of your concern would have to be addressed in the responsible bodies and from there the conversation could come to us. I don’t believe that that is something we could take on and answer.”

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