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General Synod same-sex debate on knife edge

10 November 2023

Raft of amendments expected to House of Bishops motion

Sam Atkins/Church Times

Members of the General Synod gather in York in July

Members of the General Synod gather in York in July

THE outcome of next week’s meeting of the General Synod — which will focus on church blessings for same-sex couples and the status of priests in partnerships — is impossible to predict, as the Bishops face resistance from opposing sides in the debate.

The two-and-a-half-day meeting will begin on Monday, and the agenda is given over almost entirely to debate about the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) programme, which sought to find common ground on the issue of sexuality. On Monday afternoon, members will have an “informal” session on LLF, which may consist of updates from the LLF team, led by the Bishops of London and Winchester, and small-group discussions.

Eight hours has been allotted for debating a motion put forward by the House of Bishops: “That this Synod, conscious that the Church is not of one mind on the issues raised by Living in Love and Faith, that we are in a period of uncertainty, and that many in the Church on all sides feel pain at this time, recognise the progress made by the House of Bishops towards implementing the motion on Living in Love and Faith passed by this Synod in February 2023, as reported in GS 2328, and encourage the House to continue its work of implementation.”

The motion itself is relatively short, but the dividing lines between conservatives and liberals have become more firmly drawn since the February group of sessions, when the Synod approved the draft Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF), drawn up by the Bishops for use in services for the blessing of same-sex couples.

The deadline for members to table amendments was yesterday, but these are not expected to be published until the Synod gathers on Monday.

It is likely that an amendment will be put forward which asks the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to authorise stand-alone services “for experimental use” under Canon B5A. The Church Times understands that it would have good chance of being passed in the House of Bishops.

During February’s LLF debate, in which the blessings were approved by a majority of members (News, 10 February), each amendment was subject to a vote by Houses: a procedure that means that it requires final approval in each of the three Houses of Bishops, Clergy, and Laity rather than a majority of the whole Synod.

This mechanism allows any of the three Houses to veto amendments. This is particularly significant for the House of Bishops, which is much smaller than the other two Houses and, on most topics, more of one mind.

There are several possible outcomes of the debate.

It is possible that the Bishops’ motion will go through unamended, leaving the House of Bishops, despite its divisions, to publish the PLF, with restrictions on their use, and work on a fuller draft of the Pastoral Guidance, etc. This is the least likely outcome, since it would require a confidence in the working of the House of Bishops which seems scarce among other Synod members.

Another possibility is that some liberals will join conservatives in voting to defeat the motion. A proposal to this effect has been put to liberal groups in the Synod by the Church of England Evangelical Council, according to the Revd Dr Charlie Bell, who is a self-supporting minister in Southwark diocese and a prominent spokesperson for LGBT+ inclusion in the Church.

In a post on social media, Dr Bell wrote: “How stupid do they think we are? How little integrity do they think we have?! They have tried to block implementation at every stage, and deny us even the crumbs under the table.”

Were the motion to fall, the Bishops would have to decide whether to go ahead with commending the PLF. They might, in this scenario, feel compelled to accelerate discussions on structural provision — something that conservatives are likely to try to achieve by putting down amendments.

From the liberal side, an amendment calling on the Archbishops to authorise the PLF for experimental use is the most likely to succeed, given the level of support for this among the Bishops. Voting records of the House of Bishops show that, at a meeting on 9 October, they decided against using Canon B5A by 19-16, with one recorded abstention; more than a dozen voting members were not in attendance.

The negative reaction to the decision made in early October might sway some of the Bishops to vote for the immediate authorisation of the services, but such an amendment might not muster majority support among the Clergy and the Laity, even were it carried in the House of Bishops.

The decision to delay the publication of new pastoral guidance for ministers is also likely to be the subject of an amendment. The Church Times has seen drafts of guidance that allows priests to enter into same-sex civil marriages; and, in October, the House of Bishops voted 18-15 for a motion stating that the guidance should “remove all restrictions on clergy entering same-sex marriages, and on bishops ordaining, licensing and granting permissions to officiate to such clergy”.

Nevertheless, when the Synod paper on LLF was published, it was revealed that this work would go forward only after “further work” had been done.

An amendment could seek to accelerate the publication of such pastoral guidance, but conservatives are also likely to attempt to propose an amendment to the opposite effect, trying to get the Synod to agree that any new pastoral guidance makes no change to the current discipline under which clergy are forbidden to enter into same-sex civil marriages.

An amendment calling for “structural differentiation” in the Church is also likely to be put down, though it is understood that the majority of Bishops would be opposed.

Conservatives argue that new structures are the only way forward, and suggest that they would also benefit liberals, who could then — in their portion of the C of E — sanction same-sex marriage in church.

Last Friday, the group Inclusive Evangelicals published an open letter with more than 600 signatures calling for “no further changes” to what was voted on in February. They explicitly oppose “any structural differentiation to accommodate different opinions”. The group says that it has almost 1300 members (News, 3 November).

In contrast, a group of ordinands opposed to the introduction of the PLF, writing to the Archbishops last month, said that the prayers “leave us feeling vulnerable and concerned”. This week, this group, Orthodox Ordinands, reported that the letter had now been signed by 161 ordinands, representing both Evangelical and Catholic traditions.

One of the organisers of the letter, Matt Porter, a theological student in training at Oak Hill, in London, told the Church Times: “Has there been any other occasion in the long history of the Church of England when a group of ordinands this large and this diverse has spoken out to Bishops? To see over 160 in training for ministry speaking so clearly ahead of Synod feels significant.”

New co-chairs. As the Church Times went to press, it was confirmed that the Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, and the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, would be the new co-chairs of the LLF Implementation Steering Group, replacing the Bishops of London and Winchester.

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