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Leader comment: Too personal: flaws in the Synod debate

by
17 February 2023

THERE has been much concern about voting procedures in last week’s marathon General Synod debate on the blessing of same-sex relationships. Of the 18 amendments that were finally taken to a vote, 17 were lost. For every amendment but one, a request was made from the floor of the Synod that the vote be carried in each of the Houses of Bishops, Clergy, and Laity, giving the Bishops an effective veto over changes to their own proposals. In the event, had the Bishops been discounted (not technically possible), the four amendments that gained a majority of votes in the House of Laity would still have fallen, since the House of Clergy voted the same way as the Bishops each time. There was only one amendment — Jayne Ozanne’s attempt to have the Bishops reflect on the Synod’s feed­­back when “further refining, commending, and issuing the Prayers of Love and Faith” — that would have been carried by 155 votes to 148 in a vote of the whole Synod had the Bishops sat on their hands (and it is the sort of thing that might be expected to happen anyway).

The final vote, if taken over the whole Synod, was 57 per cent in favour of the Bishops’ proposals, and 41 per cent against, two per cent abstaining. Even if the Bishops’ votes were taken out, those percentages would be 53.5, 44, and 2.5. As the Archbishop of Canterbury told campaigners outside Lambeth Palace late last month, “I don’t have the votes to go further” towards introducing same-sex marriage in church; but neither did conservatives have the votes to resist the blessings proffered by the Bishops.

A bigger problem was not so much that people were arguing from different Houses as from different premises. Speaker after speaker cited personal experience. “I would like to marry my girlfriend in church.” “My fiancé and I have abstained from sex before our marriage.” Arguing from personal experience has obvious advantages: speakers know whereof they speak; and it is at the individual level that people assess new information and can change their minds. What undermines this supposed openness, however, is an election process that favours personalities that most closely conform to the Church’s main parties. Many participants were elected on a conservative Evangelical or an LGBTI+ ticket, and were being relied on to defend a particular position.

We asked Archbishop Welby about the place of personal experience in decision-making. He replied: “If you look through the Acts of the Apostles, the clearest and most important decisions made were a combination of scripture, of observation, and of personal experience.” On the day of Pentecost, for example, “the disciples have a profound experience, an extraordinary experience of the coming of the power of the Holy Spirit. And they look at the book of Job to get an idea of what is happening to them, because they’ve no idea. And, of course, Pentecost was linked with the giving of the law; so they connect it with that in their theo­logical reflection. And their pastoral practice is observing very large numbers of people coming to faith in Christ [prompt­ing the question] whether Gentiles and non-Jews are to be included in the life of the Church — probably the most import­ant single decision ever made in the history of Christi­anity. Peter can point to some scripture, but he points mainly to the fact that he observed the Holy Spirit coming upon those to whom he was speaking. . . So there you’ve got experience, experience reflected on under the authority of scripture, but used imaginatively to recog­nise that . . . the cross brings people who have no know­ledge of Christ into the life of Christ.”

This seems to be an indication that the primacy of per­sonal experience in contemporary Anglicanism — or Western An­glicanism — is a flaw. Surely the Church can do better than wait to improve something until a critical mass of individuals have enough lived experience of, say, women’s ministry, or a second marriage after divorce — or, more widely, God help us, the need to prevent climate change. With the right balance of experience, observation, scripture — or, more classically, scripture, reason, and tradition — the Church could be in the vanguard of ethical decision-making rather than forever dragging its feet. Such an approach would equip it to resist harmful developments as well as cham­pion beneficial ones. This is not an argument against democracy, but for greater engagement. Paradoxically, Living in Love and Faith got this right, allowing groups to reflect on their experience, consider others’, and examine scripture, in a con­text of mutual respect. Perhaps the mistake was to treat it as a process. Last week’s debate showed that it needs to be a way of life.

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