*** DEBUG END ***

General Synod: same-sex debate goes into overtime

08 February 2023

Procedure and emotion characterise five hours of discussion

Max Colson/Church Times

The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks early on in the Living in Love and Faith debate on Wednesday afternoon

The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks early on in the Living in Love and Faith debate on Wednesday afternoon

THE General Synod adjourned its long debate on whether to welcome the Bishops’ proposals to provide prayers for blessing same-sex unions in church (News, 20 January) at the end of Wednesday without making it to a final vote.

Several attempts to alter and remove clauses from the motion from the College and House of Bishops — or, in one instance, rewrite it entirely — were lost; but more are due to be debated when the Synod reconvenes on Thursday.

The motion was the culmination of six years of discussion about a way forward for the Church on sexuality, under the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) project. This was brought about after the Synod voted down a previous Bishops’ report on human sexuality in 2017 (News, 17 February 2017).

It included an apology for the Church’s treatment of the LGBT community and a commitment to replacing the guidance Issues in Human Sexuality.

Two things characterised the debate. One was procedural: each amendment was voted for by Houses, allowing the Bishops to vote down any that deviated from their desired process.

The other was emotion. Without the final voting figures, it is impossible to describe the Archbishop of Canterbury’s second intervention as a turning point. But Synod members were visibly stunned as he described the issue as “the most painful thing I’ve ever known”.

The specific issue was the relationship between what many in the C of E wanted to do and what it meant for Anglicans in other Provinces of the Communion.

“This isn’t just about listening to the rest of the world. It’s caring. Let’s just be clear on that. It’s about people who’ll die; women who’ll be raped; children who’ll be tortured. So, when we vote, we need to think of that: this is not just about what people say: it’s what they’ll suffer.”

He ended: “I beg you to believe that there is nothing in my life or heart or prayers that comes as high as the safety and the flourishing of the people I love in the Anglican Communion.”

Before the five-hour debate began, the chair, Geoffrey Tattersall (Manchester), called for brevity and sensitivity. “If we believe that we are capable of disagreeing well, now is the time to show it.”

Introducing the main motion, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, also warned members not to allow synodical procedure to overtake the “relational mode of engagement that is so much more fruitful”.

Disagreements between the Bishops had not changed, she said, but they had nevertheless discerned a call to walk together, which was set out in the main motion. While conservatives believed this to be a betrayal that warranted a schism, and liberals considered this to fall too far short of equality, many others wanted to remain together. “We wanted to create a space where we could just about touch each other, understanding each other and embracing radical Christian inclusion.”

This underlined the main motion, which committed the Church to a “journey of repentance” for a failure to love LGBTQ+ people. It also sought to push forward with the Pastoral Principles — the guidelines on how to discuss sexuality which had been drawn up earlier in the LLF process — and called for a replacement of the current guidance used by bishops, Issues in Human Sexuality. This was a chance to review all existing guidance, pastoral statements, and teaching documents relating to sexuality, civil partnerships, and marriage. The new work would also cover areas on which there was currently no guidance, such as singleness and celibacy.

Introducing the proposed Prayers of Love and Faith for same-sex couples, she said that the Bishops had wanted to listen to the Synod and create space for conscience, with “freedom and protection” for clergy who chose to use the prayers in different ways or not use them at all. “The House of Bishops commends this motion for your prayerful consideration,” she concluded.

Beginning debate on the main motion, the Archbishop of Canterbury argued that the Church was not divided: it simply disagreed. What the Bishops were seeking was what they thought was right, not convenient or easy, he said.

He acknowledged that some feared that this motion was a slippery slope towards same-sex marriage in church, but he urged members to trust the Holy Spirit. “Each of us will answer to God at the judgement for our decisions today,” he said.

“I am supporting these resources not because I am controlled by culture, but because of scripture, tradition, and reason evidenced in the vast work done over the last six years so ably by so many. I may be wrong, of course, but I cannot duck the issue any more.”

Several speakers expressed the “slippery-slope” view, arguing that the prayers confused or overshadowed the Church’s current teaching on marriage as being between one man and one woman.

Canon Vaughan Roberts (Oxford) said that, by carrying the motion, the Synod would be “naming as holy” that which in the Universal Church “has always before now been called sin”. The message to same-sex-attracted Christians, like himself, who had lived a celibate life was that they “needn’t have bothered”, Canon Roberts said. If the doctrine could not be reaffirmed in the motion, he asked for a “mediated settlement, which takes seriously the very deep, irreconcilable differences that are between us, that seeks to find maximum unity without theological compromise”.

Speaking against the motion, the Bishop of Lancaster, the Rt Revd Jill Duff, agreed that the motion would alienate faithful same-sex-attracted believers and Christian overseas.

Speaking in favour, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, said that there was too much “bad fruit” in current pastoral practice, including deception, harm, and overly heavy burdens for LGBTQ+ people. Conversely, there was so much good fruit that had flowed from loving, permanent, faithful, stable LGBTQ+ relationships. “Their pain and witness have caused me to revisit scripture and change my heart and mind,” he said. “I am so sorry it took me so long to change.”

The Revd Robert Lawrance (Newcastle) said: “We should accept that marriage is not the foundation stone of Christian doctrine.” He queried a distinction, recently promoted in a note from the Church’s Legal Office, between holy matrimony and civil marriage (News, 30 January). This was “not Anglican polity”, he said.

Sam Margrave (Coventry) had tabled a flurry of conservative amendments. One, which would have rewritten the entire motion to rearticulate the Church’s existing teaching on sex and marriage, was resisted, as was a further amendment to add in a new clause reaffirming Canon B30 that marriage was a permanent union between one man and one woman. The latter was rejected in all three Houses by a counted vote.

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, agreed with Mr Margrave’s theological position, but could not condone the manner of his campaign to achieve this, on social media and elsewhere.

Though also ultimately rejected, an amendment from Busola Sodeinde (London) which appended to the motion a request for the Synod’s secretary-general, Sir William Nye, to “consult personally the Primate of each Province of the Anglican Communion about the potential impact of the proposals”, received a considered response from Archbishop Welby, who mentioned that the Communion’s secretary-general, Bishop Anthony Poggo, was the appropriate person for the task — and he was carrying it out already.

Mr Margrave attempted through another amendment to remove the clause welcoming the replacement of Issues in Human Sexuality, which was again lost in a counted vote by Houses.

Bishop Mullally said that the one consistent call heard throughout LLF was a desire to replace Issues. The Synod had been consulted on what sort of information and issues should be included in the new pastoral guidance, she reminded members.

Several Synod members expressed concerns about this clause, however, and two further amendments were brought and lost.

The first, from Christopher Townsend (Ely) asked the Synod to “note” rather than “welcome” the Bishops’ decision to replace Issues, arguing that no information had been given as to the contents of its replacement, so how could it be welcomed?

Samuel Wilson (Chester) said that, as long as the new guidance did not present LGBT people like him as “inherently promiscuous” it would be a “damn sight better” than Issues and as such should be warmly welcomed. The Dean of St Edmundsbury, the Very Revd Joe Hawes, agreed that clergy lived in fear of the application of Issues and of intrusive questions.

A second, from Christina Baron (Bath & Wells) attempted to specify that the new pastoral guidance “should allow freedom of conscience for clergy and ordinands”. Issues had never been intended to bear the weight that had been put on it, she said. There were no other areas, except for sex, in which personal lives were “micro-managed”. She asked whether the Church of England really wanted to “make windows into men’s bedroom”.

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) argued that there were few, if any, members of Synod who thought that clergy should be allowed to order their personal lives with no constraints, and that it was up to the Bishops to decide what these constraints should be.

Yet another amendment was defeated by a counted vote. Debbie Buggs (London) sought to insert a proviso that the new pastoral guidance should be “consonant with the doctrine of the Church of England and the responsibility of its ministers to order their lives according to the same”. Bishop Mullally said that the guidance would of course be consistent, but, resisting, noted the word “minister” was ambiguous.

Nicola Denyer (Newcastle) said that nobody during her discernment process had asked whether she was sleeping with her unmarried partner, so why were gay people being under such scrutiny? Why should her bisexual son, if he was called into ministry, have to answer questions that she was not asked.

An amendment from the Revd Dr Patrick Richmond (Norwich) requesting that a draft of the pastoral guidance be brought to Synod for approval before it was published was also defeated by a counted vote. A similar amendment from the Revd Kate Wharton (Liverpool), that the prayers and pastoral guidance be assessed by the Synod “at the earliest point reasonably possible” was likewise defeated, albeit after some debate.

As the debate wore on, the connection between speeches and amendments tended to drift apart. The Revd Andrew Moughtin-Mumby (Southwark) recalled how black Christians had been barred from his church by his predecessor because of the colour of their skin. Even when they had been allowed in, they had been made to sit at the back and had been refused communion, he said. He could no more change his race than his friends could change their sexual orientation. “Let’s err on the side of grace and generosity.”

The Revd Graham Kirk-Spriggs (Norwich) spoke of God’s love for him as a gay person. “All I want is equal dignity to be judged with the same standards as my straight colleagues. Is that too much to ask?”

The Revd Chantal Noppen (Durham) was one of many who detected a desire to delay matters in amendments such as one requesting Synod’s scrutiny of the Bishops’ replacement for Issues. Canon Rachel Mann (Manchester) warned against anything that would delay a decision: “Grass keeps growing longer.”

The Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, said that he had pledged to Parliament to make the views of MPs known to the Synod. Several had expressed a hope that the Church would alter its doctrine to make same-sex marriage possible in church, he reported. Others had contacted him privately to offer their support for traditional marriage teaching, and to reaffirm the Synod’s right to legislate for itself.

As the session drew to a close, the Revd Dr Ian Paul (Southwell & Nottingham) attempted to persuade the Synod to include in the final motion a request for “a full theological rationale for the proposed Prayers of Love and Faith, grounded in the scriptures and the formularies of the Church, and which engages with the previous statements made by the House on the nature of marriage”.

Like early amendments, it was heavily defeated in the House of Bishops, though it attracted eight votes in favour. The vote in the House of Clergy was closer: 89 in favour, 108 against; in the House of Laity closer still: 98 in favour, 99 against.

Yet another amendment from Mr Margrave — to remove the entire clause welcoming the prayers — was also lost, as was an amendment by Ms Ozanne to remove the word “welcome” from the same clause.

Archbishop Welby made a point of order asking for Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Representative) to make the final speech before the Synod was adjourned.

Archbishop Angaelos said that he was “very aware of the difference between a blessing and holy matrimony”, but that the distinction would “sound like a mere technicality” to many around the world. He concluded that the current proposals would not bring closure on the issue.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Forthcoming Events

Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Church Times/Sarum College:

Traditions of Christian Spirituality

January - May 2024

This is a five-part series on major strands of the Christian spiritual tradition.

Book individual session tickets or sign up for the full programme


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)