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General Synod digest: Update on same-sex blessings underwhelms members

14 July 2023

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The Area Bishop of Croydon, Dr Rosemarie Mallett, speaks to the Synod

The Area Bishop of Croydon, Dr Rosemarie Mallett, speaks to the Synod

THE first “informal update” on the Living in Love and Faith process since February was introduced to the General Synod on Saturday afternoon by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, and the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally.

Bishop Mullally ran through the variety of responses heard since then, including those who had criticised the Bishops for supposedly abandoning scripture, rejecting orthodoxy, and isolating the C of E from the Anglican Communion. But others had received the prayers with joy, regarding them as a huge step forward in how the Church engaged with LGBTQ+ people.

“There have also been concerns about reassurance, for those who use the prayers and for those who do not,” she said. Some clergy wanted to differentiate themselves from their bishops or dioceses, while others were concerned that the decision made in February had been reneged on. There had also been debate about how the prayers would be authorised or commended, as well as a “damaging reverse in the language we use and an increase in homophobia”.

LLF had begun in the context of sharp disagreement, and its solution was not to find common ground, but to help the Church to learn together in the midst of uncertainty, Bishop Mullally said. Since February, three work streams had been set up with a diverse if not fully representative membership. Noting questions from earlier, she acknowledged that there were not enough lay people on the committees.

One had looked at Prayers of Love and Faith (PLF), listening to feedback from the Synod and discussions from the College of Bishops. They had developed rubrics and introductory material for using the PLF. A second group was working on the Pastoral Guidance promised to replace Issues in Human Sexuality. They had identified what the guidance needed to contain and its structure, which would be very different from Issues. This group was also looking at how the new guidance would fit into discernment and vocations. A final group, focused on Pastoral Reassurance, was considering questions around freedom of conscience, implications for clergy and laity, and transparency around using the PLF. This group was also considering guidance for theological colleges, diocesan directors of ordinands, and ordinands, as well as a range of different approaches for pastoral reassurance which the bishops could utilise.

Now the three streams of work were overlapping so much that it made sense to bring them together, Bishop Mullally explained. Despite the House and College of Bishops’ not being of one mind, it still had a desire for unity. The intent was to create a “generous theological, ecclesial and pastoral space”, offering a pastoral welcome to same-sex couples while not altering the doctrine of marriage.

Further work was needed on three critical questions: the relationship between holy matrimony and civil marriage, the relationship between doctrine and teaching, and the different routes to using the PLF. The three working groups had been disbanded (although they continued to function as a more informal reference group), and the intention was now to draft pastoral guidance that could be brought to the Synod in November. Over the summer, more consultation would be held with different stakeholders, to listen to “hopes and fears”.

Finally, a Pastoral Consultative Group had been set up by the House of Bishops to consider a future timeline of work on topics that LLF could not cover in detail. Discussions around sexuality would not stop in November, she confirmed, but would continue indefinitely. She committed the Bishops to bringing forward something in November to implement the motion carried in February. But “We need to get this right rather than get it done quickly.”

Bishop Mounstephen then introduced a panel of bishops who had co-chaired the three working groups to reflect on the “complexities of the work they have done”.

The Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Revd Michael Ipgrave, began by suggesting that his working group on the PLF was probably the least fractious of the three groups, as it had inherited a draft text from the House of Bishops and large amounts of feedback on the prayers from Synod members. His co-chair, the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Rosemarie Mallett (Southern Suffragans), said that the speed required had been a challenge, and a lot of the work had happened by email. The best and most productive meetings had, however, still been face to face, with all the group. Conversations had also gone deep on the question of authorisation or commendation, but no decision had yet been made.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, who had co-chaired the Pastoral Reassurance group, said that it was challenging to consider “what level of change are we making”. Therefore, they had to come up with a number of scenarios addressing what would happen if teaching was deemed to have changed or not changed. More structural forms of differentiation had also been considered, and five ways had been identified to do that, including extended episcopal oversight or opt-out systems. “We are only ten or 15 per cent through the task. I do question quite how we get from here to there [before November],” he said.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, answers questions on the National Redress Scheme

The Bishop of Southampton, the Rt Revd Debbie Sellin (Southern Suffragans), said that the boundaries and size of the task had become much clearer over time. Ambiguity about what had actually occurred at February’s vote was also increasingly obvious to their group, which had made things challenging.

The Bishop of Stockport, the Rt Revd Sam Corley (Northern Suffragans), joked that everything would be made clear in the Pastoral Guidance, including the date of the Second Coming. The weight of expectation placed on the guidance was difficult, especially as some questions were not yet determined. He was also thinking at all times how this guidance would “land” for people in a vocations journey and the need for clarity and confidence that this would be sustainable. “It’s got to be compassionate as well,” he emphasised. “Let me tell you, it’s really, really complex.”

Bishop Watson said that his group had been dependent on the work of the pastoral-guidance group as it determined a lot of what they could do. This point was underlined by the Bishop of Berwick, the Rt Revd Mark Wroe (Northern Suffragans), who said that this was why they had decided to bring the three groups together.

Bishop Sellin said she had been touched by people in her own diocese trying to understand the perspective of others. “We may not change our own theological understanding but to have travelled with somebody. . . The more of that that happens, the fruits of this exercise will land in other areas of church life, too.”

 

QUESTIONS were then taken from the floor. Adrian Greenwood (Southwark) spoke of the gap in the age of sexual consent, 16, and the minimum age that people could marry (recently raised to 18). Would materials be produced to address this and help young people to understand the place of sex in marriage, he asked.

Canon Kevin Goss (St Albans) said that February’s motion had given hope to the nation that the Church actually believed in a gospel of love. Could they reassure the Synod that all that was promised would be delivered, and not “reverse-ferret” out of negativity and fear?

The Revd Rachel Webbley (Canterbury) asked how churches could prepare for the imminent arrival of the PLF in the context of the Church’s finally apologising to LGBTQ+ people.

Bishop Mullally said that an apology without action did not mean anything. In London diocese, an LGBTQ+ pastoral advisory group had been established as a result of LLF and they had been asked how this “joyful welcome” could be implemented.

Bishop Corley said that he would welcome prayer, and also reminded the Synod it must remember this was about “people not problems” and that there was something positive to say about sex and relationships.

Bishop Sellin said that stories about what was working well in different dioceses had been shared within the College of Bishops, to ensure each was not having to reinvent the wheel.

Bishop Watson said that in Guildford diocese, a chaplaincy team had been set up to provide pastoral care which had been helpful. He also recalled how he had given the same talk to both his diocesan evangelical fellowship and the local LGBTQ+ group, which had led to both groups coming together to discuss what good pastoral care could look like in a conservative setting.

Bishop Mounstephen said the right mechanisms to address ongoing problems of pastoral theology and ethics had not been set up in the Church, which was unfortunate.

Bishop Wroe said that, once a pastoral-care team was set up in a church, everyone else stopped doing pastoral care. It was important that the Church did not delegate this entire job just to a national pastoral guidance team.

The Revd Dr Ian Paul (Southwell & Nottingham) said that the question of trust was being dodged in this process. How could trust be rebuilt when the House of Bishops was meeting in secret or intending to bypass the Synod to commend the Prayers of Love and Faith via the Archbishops? There was a need to be honest about irreconcilable differences.

Amanda Robbie (Lichfield) asked what the time and staffing commitment was to this stage of the LLF process.

Bishop Wroe said that he had been given two days a week by his diocese to work on LLF, and that two other staff members had been seconded to the project. There were others in the national church institutions giving more ad hoc time as and when needed.

Bishop Ipgrave addressed the question of lay involvement in the PLF. In their present draft form, the prayers could be led by a lay minister, he said. Well-managed and sensitive conversations in churches were needed about what was happening. Pain came when clarity was not present.

Bishop Mullally said that LLF had not been sprung on people suddenly, given that it had been going since 2017, and that 6000 people had responding to the initial consultation. Lay people had been involved from the start, she insisted, perhaps in a way in which they had not been involved before in similar church initiatives.

Bishop Watson said that the House of Bishops should be able to meet in private, although he acknowledged the importance of bishops’ working through the Synod when it came to formal implementation.

Vicky Brett (Peterborough) asked why the live feed of the Synod had been cut.

The Revd Andrew Cornes (Winchester) praised the commitment to clarity and longevity in the pastoral guidance. In February, the House of Bishops offered to bring forward teaching on singleness, celibacy, chastity, friendship, community, and household, with further pledges on transgender and intersex made earlier in this session, he noted. How could all this be included in a single document — will it really be adequate? Secondly, how could all the work be completed in the four months to November, given Bishop Watson had warned that he was only 10 per cent of the way through?

Canon Lisa Battye (Manchester) said that her congregation had been liberated by the vote in February. How could this be fed into discussions?

Bishop Wroe said that the team was very aware there were lots of issues to get to, but it was prioritising same-sex relationships. But the Pastoral Consultative Group would then take on other themes and explore them, adding to the pastoral guidance as it went. As for speed, similar numbers of people were complaining that the process was going to fast as thought it too slow. But what was brought in November must be “ready” for scrutiny.

Bishop Mullally said that far too much weight had been placed on Issues in Human Sexuality; there was going to be a different way forward with the new guidance. “There will be some stuff that does come and doesn’t come,” she said. Not all work would be done by November, she conceded.

Bishop Watson said that the LLF course had opened up positive conversations in congregations, which must not be lost. In more conservative circles, the recognition of goods in long-term same-sex relationships was more common, as was the ability of people to come out as gay in such contexts. Bishop Wroe said that sharing good news stories of what was happening in churches was how culture would ultimately be changed.

The Revd Charlie Skrine (London) said that it would be impossible to progress until the bishops had decided if sexual intimacy outside holy matrimony was sinful or not. Could that be referred to the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC)?

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) was tired of these discussions, noting that there were, yet again, eight straight people talking about LGBTQ+ people on the platform. “People like me exist: we’re not going anywhere,” she said. “I’m tired of being treated like something different, of the questions trying to shut us down.” Conservatives could not force her to believe that God did not want to bless her, and no LGBTQ+ people were going to force them to bless them in their churches against their will. Who should young LGBTQ+ Christians turn to for reassurance and listening?

Ros Clarke (Lichfield) said that, despite all the good conversations and friendship, there remained profound disagreement. Some felt that this divide was too deep for walking together to continue in any meaningful sense. This issue was excluding people from the Church’s life and ministry, she warned. “It may be the case there is no timeframe in which we could square this circle. The group may have been given an impossible task.” Was there room in this process to think the unthinkable and admit their goal could not be achieved?

Bishop Wroe responded that the FAOC was part of the work under way, and the issue of sexual intimacy outside marriage would be considered by them. Replying to Ms Ozanne, he said that he hoped that giving space and room to listen to one another was what took place during LLF.

Bishop Watson said that bishops found talk of differentiation very difficult, as they loved the diversity of their dioceses. “The heart of a parent is that your children get on well, even if they disagree fundamentally on stuff,” he said. Discussion of structural differentiation had begun to open up regardless, he said, referring to the Meissen Commission’s exploration of the episcopate rather than individual bishops as a focus for unity. That already existed in part with flying bishops for those opposed to women’s ordination, he said. But a lot more work existed to be done on that.

Bishop Mounstephen added that bishops look at the prospect of division with as much unease as a parish priest would at schisms in their congregation.

Bishop Mullally said that unity already existed, and insisted that reassurance was not about finding agreement but finding what Church looked like despite that.

 

AFTER a break, the Archbishop of York informed members that Archbishop Welby had left York to be with his mother, who was “seriously ill, and probably close to death”. Archbishop Cottrell led the Synod in prayer before the session resumed.

The Bishop of Dover, Dr Rose Hudson-Wilkin (Southern Suffragans), said that “it has been very painful listening and being part of the discussions in the House, in the College, and here in the Synod,” she said. “All our children and grandchildren are having sex, and yet I do not hear us saying ‘We’re not going to walk with them.’”

“Glib” calls for differentiation, and comparisons with the settlement over women bishops, were upsetting, she suggested. “The woman-bishops thing ain’t working: we are paying the price.”

Dr Hudson-Wilkin questioned why the focus was on same-sex relationships rather than premarital sex: “more than half the people who come to us for marriage are living together and they’re having sex. So, what is it about homosexual [that] we’re reacting in such a visceral way? What is it saying about us?”

To be able to assure people that they were “made in the image of God” was, she said, “far more important than doctrine”.

Stephen Hofmeyr (Guildford) said that he would like Bishop Hudson-Wilkin to speak with his triplet daughters, who were 37, about these issues, as she might find that they took a different view.

Mr Hofmeyr said that the “ultimate irony was that by striving for the greatest possible level of unity” actually caused disunity. Structural changes would be a “better way”, he said, as it would allow “conscience without compromise”.

Bishop Ipgrave responded to a question about the rubrics for the Prayers of Love and Faith. They were still being developed, as they would need to reflect the pastoral guidance. He agreed with Canon Mark Bennet (Oxford) that it was important that the tone of the rubrics should be appropriate to the purpose of the prayers.

Canon Judith Maltby (Universities and TEIs) emphasised the importance of safeguarding to be considered when the new pastoral guidance was being decided

Sammi Tooze (York) asked for clarification the process for developing the prayers.

“We’ve heard very little reference to the scriptures,” Canon John Bavington (Leeds) said. To say that “we just disagree” about scripture suggested that they had adopted a “post-modern hermeneutic”. He asked whether the Bishops would produce a clear scriptural justification of the prayers.

Agreeing with Canon Maltby on the importance of safeguarding, Bishop Mullally said that “culture change only comes about with our actions in the Church, and we’re all responsible for that.” Talking was a first and important step, she said.

Bishop Watson agreed, and said that a culture of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was damaging. There was a danger that the question of safeguarding “could be weaponised”, and it was important to resist the idea that the traditional view was inherently dangerous to people.

Bishop Rowe said that the pastoral guidance would include a theological rationale “grounded in scripture”.

“Let’s talk about the Bible,” the Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (Liverpool) said. The Song of Songs was a “beautiful” evocation of desire, and there was no indication that the two people were married, she said. She had had sex with husband before marriage, she said, and asked whether that meant that the sex had been sinful before the wedding, and then suddenly became holy. “Sex doesn’t work like that; people don’t work like that,” she said.

The Revd Arwen Folkes (Chichester) asked whether it was possible to know how much had been withdrawn from parish-share contributions in protest at the decision in February (News, 10 February), and wondered whether the bishops felt that they were feeling “held to ransom”.

Bishop Sellin said that in Winchester only two parishes had withdrawn their parish share, but a number of others had said that they might.

Dr Helen King (Oxford) commended the LLF book, and urged bishops to make more use of it as their attempted to implement the process.

Bishop Wroe responded to Dr Threlfall-Holmes with a commitment to working as hard as possible to bring to the Synod in November something to consider; but anything could happen in between.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) asked what reflection had been made on the nature and extent of freedom of conscience.

Richard Denno (Liverpool) noted there were seven positions on the authority of scripture explored in LLF and said that Dr Threlfall-Holmes’s views fell outside of traditional Anglicanism. He then reminded the Synod of Jesus’s warnings against false teachers.

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone (Oxford) said that there needed to be a briefing paper on the various canons that could be used to implement the PLF, to inform members about the routes available. He said that Canon B4.2 had been used only once before, to introduce prayers for Remembrance Sunday, more than 40 years ago. It was for “occasional material of lesser importance”.

Bishop Watson said that freedom of conscience was on the agenda of the pastoral-reassurance group, and intersected with the State, too. Would the Equality Act prevent conscience protections for clergy, for instance?

Bishop Ipgrave said that the FAOC had also done work on conscience, which was part of the LLF book. The conversation about different canonical routes was taking place, he told Dr Atherstone, but no decision had been made. A paper briefing Synod would certainly be helpful, he agreed. He said he thought Canon B4.2 had been used during the Coronation, which could not be considered unimportant.

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