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Press: Thirty-five years of Synod wrangling over sex

11 November 2022


THE GUARDIAN’s editorial on same-sex marriage and the Church made me want to scream. “For more than a decade, the Church of England has engaged in an agonised, divisive and often poisonous debate about the status of same-sex relationships,” it said.

More than a decade? It is (counts on fingers) 35 years since I stood in the press gallery of the General Synod with Bishop David Jenkins watching the debate on the Revd Tony Higton’s motion. The motion, amended from a policy to an aspiration, was carried overwhelmingly. It was the worst and most dishonest outcome possible. I was pretty new in the job, but even then I knew bishop who would ordain gay clergy only if they were in stable relationships. A fat lot of good their discretion in that debate did them.

This week, I exhumed from the British Library The Guardian’s leader from 1987 to see if anything had changed in 35 years of wrangling. Some things have: the 1987 description of the Synod as a body whose “decisions create a climate of opinion and redound through the rest of the secular world” is a glimpse of a wholly lost world.

But the real shock was to find the leader quoting from a 1979 report by the Board for Social Responsibility: “There are circumstances in which individuals may justifiably choose to enter into a homosexual relationship with the hope of enjoying a companionship and physical expression of sexual love similar to that found in marriage.”

And I love the unimprovable pipe-smoker’s conclusion in the leader: “In today’s cultural terms — it is hard to speak sub specie aeternitatis — the Board seemed to have thought that out wisely and well.”

Perhaps 42 years is a short time for debate considered against the length of Christian history. But it is depressing to reflect how much of this “debate” has consisted of repeating exactly the same arguments and hoping that the other side will, in God’s good providence, die — not that even that helps much: most members of the 1987 Synod must now be dead, and yet their arguments long outlive them.

I HAVE just looked up “Rowan Williams” on Twitter and discovered that his most recent tweet was this: “Wow I’d have an absolute field day buying all the new @skinnyfoodco products that have just been launched!” This isn’t, of course, the Rowan Williams that Church Times readers think of. That is why the site has a system of blue ticks beside some user names, to show that they are who they claim to be.

Journalistically, the big news of the week was Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. This isn’t nearly such a large or influential site as YouTube, Facebook, or even TikTok. But it is irresistible to journalists: useful as well as fun.

Mr Musk has always enjoyed using the site, where he has 115 million followers — an unfathomable figure — and, since he bought it, he has been tweeting with a complete lack of self-restraint. He has also sacked all the company’s leadership and half its workforce.

He then proposed charging blue-tick-holders $20 a month to be known as who they say they are. When journalists protested, he replied: “You represent the problem: journalists who think they are the only source of legitimate information. That’s the big lie.”

This delighted the Trumpists, to whom it is axiomatic that journalists who contradict their view of the world are lying and should be execrated or ignored.

Mr Musk then announced: “Twitter needs to become by far the most accurate source of information about the world. That’s our mission.”

At this point, “information” has become a meaningless concept, and “accurate” has simply become a term meaning “pleasing to the audience”. This is, in fact, how many Americans (in particular) see the problem of censorship or moderation: as ensuring that no one need ever see anything that upsets them. Of course, this ends up censoring everyone who might see or say anything that would offend good and sensitive people such as you and me.

THIS tendency culminates on Mastodon, a social network that some people suggest as an alternative to Twitter. You can tell which communities there are “inclusive” by running through their lists of banned opinions, and, in some instances, professions, too, such as the police. One suggested set of ideological guidelines bans “TERF, SWERF or otherwise anti-trans or anti-sex worker” and “Religious fundamentalism or anti-abortion”. But Furries — people who play at being animals in a sexual way — are fine, unless they are also Nazis. “Nazifurs” are specifically excluded.

The joke is that the technology behind Mastodon is freely available, and by far the largest users are Donald Trump’s “Truth Social” network, and Gab, a home for real neo-Nazis.

Twitter will remain indispensable until Mr Musk gets bored with it, because everyone who uses it can find among its 350 million users 30 or 40 with whom it is possible to have civilised conversations.

Talking of accurate information, I wrongly identified Suella Braverman in an earlier column as a Hindu (28 October). She is a Buddhist.

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