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General Synod digest: Sexuality dominates questions to the Bishops

17 February 2023
Max Colson/Church Times

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark)

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark)

MORE than 200 written questions were submitted and answered before the General Synod meeting. The 206 questions were separated into two documents: those relating to Living in Love and Faith (LLF), and those on all other topics.

Supplementary questions on LLF were heard on Tuesday morning, most of which were answered by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, on behalf of the House of Bishops.

Ruth Allan (Guildford) asked what, in the absence of updated pastoral guidance, church schools and youth groups should teach as the Church of England’s position on sexual activity outside of marriage. Bishop Mullally praised the work done by schools and youth workers, and said that she would expect them to continue teaching the value of lifelong partnerships.

Sam Margrave (Coventry) asked for clarity on whether same-sex sexual relationships were being blessed. “Is it a sin or is it not a sin? A yes or no will do,” he said. Bishop Mullally said that the draft prayers were silent on the issue of sexual activity, and that the Bishops would hear the views of Synod members that afternoon in LLF group work. Their contributions would be incorporated into the deliberations on new pastoral guidance, she said.

A further supplementary question by Mr Margrave was ruled out of order for not being relevant to his original written question. “You don’t want to protect children, and you dare not speak against Pride; shame on you!” Mr Margrave shouted.

Dr Ros Clarke (Lichfield) asked whether bishops had a definition of sexual intimacy, and whether this differed from their definition of sexual activity. Bishop Mullally said that the House of Bishops, and the Synod as a whole, needed to “contend with” the issue of sexual intimacy as part of its work on updated pastoral guidance.

Reference to the forthcoming group work and the pastoral guidance that it would inform was a common theme in Bishop Mullally’s answers.

Clive Scowen (London) asked whether the rubric for the new prayers would include a stipulation that they didn’t apply to sexual relationships, while Daniel Matovu (Oxford) asked: “Are the bishops commending the use of these prayers for all same-sex couples, including those engaged in an active sexual relationship, or only those who are celibate?”

Bishop Mullally replied that there were “many different kinds of relationships”, and reiterated that the prayers were silent on the question of sexual activity.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) asked the chair to remind people to keep the tone of their questions “less aggressive than they seem to be at the moment” — a request to which the chair assented and which members greeted with applause. Canon Butler then asked whether the separation of holy matrimony and civil marriage was now “policy”.

Bishop Mullally answered: “It’s not a policy, but I think what we’re trying to say is the [Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013] raised issues that probably should have been discussed at the time,” and that the LLF process had left the Church “better equipped to look at it”.

The Revd Leslie Siu (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) asked whether consideration had been given to whether the proposed prayers of blessing undermined the exemption given to the Church of England under the 2013 Act.

Bishop Mullally reiterated the Bishops’ view that the prayers did not change the doctrine of marriage, and told the Revd Tim Edwards (Rochester) that bishops were “very mindful” of previous statements made by the House.

In response to a question from Richard Denno (Liverpool), Bishop Mullally said that the House of Bishops “takes very seriously our role as teachers of the faith and teachers of scripture”.

The Revd Mae Christie (Southwark) asked whether ordinands already in training, who had to some degree had to assent to Issues in Human Sexuality, would also be required to engage with the new pastoral guidance when it was issued.

Bishop Mullally suggested that the new guidance would be “interwoven with the discernment process”, but that bishops would look to those in the Ministry Division to determine exactly how this would play out.

In response to another question, Bishop Mullally said that the Bishops hoped that Issues would be rescinded in July 2023, when new pastoral guidance was ready.

Robin Hall (Europe) asked whether a personal apology would be issued to priests whose livelihoods had been effected by the C of E’s decision to suspend the licence of priests who entered into same-sex civil marriages. Bishop Mullally said that she could not answer that question.

Caroline Herbert (Norwich) asked whether there was a timetable for appointing members of the new pastoral guidance group, which would be made up of bishops.

Bishop Mullally said that it would happen as soon as possible, but that she couldn’t give a precise timetable.

Benjamin John (St Albans) asked the Archbishop of Canterbury whether bishops were required to believe the doctrine of the official position, or whether they merely had to teach it. Archbishop Welby said: “When someone says ‘This is the teaching,’ I assume that they believe it.” But he couldn’t “make windows into men’s souls”.

The Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone (Oxford) asked why the proposed prayers were not deemed to change the doctrine of marriage when they were based on the liturgy of the marriage service.

The Bishop of Lichfield, Dr Michael Ipgrave, said that some of the prayers included “could be prayed by any couple sharing a common life. It’s not central to the marriage service, but it is part of the suite of prayers in the marriage service.”

Matt Orr (Bath & Wells) asked whether Anglican Provinces that had made changes to allow same-sex marriage or blessings for same-sex couples were growing numerically. Bishop Mullaly replied that studies suggested that the key factor was not the decision that was made, but how it was implemented.

The Archdeacon of Lincoln, the Ven. Gavin Kirk (Lincoln), asked how the House of Bishops had supported people called to celibacy and how it would support them in the future.

Bishop Mullally said that the Bishops acknowledged that more attention needed to be paid to celibacy, and that this would be covered in the new pastoral guidance.

Several further questions — relating to what protection clergy and churches would receive if they were criticised for not offering blessings for same-sex couples — were likewise answered with a reference to the upcoming pastoral guidance, before the session adjourned for lunch.

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