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Synod’s same-sex vote: first reactions

10 February 2023

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Synod members vote on the blessing of same-sex unions

Synod members vote on the blessing of same-sex unions

BISHOPS were in reflective mode on Thursday, after the eight-hour debate that ended with a General Synod vote to endorse blessings for same-sex couples. Opponents of the proposals, meanwhile have begun to plan their next moves.

The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, said that she was “pleased and relieved” that the motion had passed, but that it was now time for bishops to “really attend to those pastoral relationships on the ground, back in our dioceses”.

She emphasised that bishops were listening to the fears of those on all sides of the debate, and that this would be important as they sought to develop new pastoral guidance to replace Issues in Human Sexuality, the document that has regulated official approaches to homosexuality since its publication in 1991.

“There’ll be some real, forensic analysis, taking care to attend to the sorts of issues that we heard from across the range of views, “ Dr Hartley said; “everything from a sense of reassurance for those who might, in conscience, not be able to use the prayers [of blessing], but also a sense in which clergy themselves can use the prayers confidently and not be fearful of any repercussions.”

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, who last year became the first diocesan bishop to call publicly for same-sex marriage to be allowed in church (News, 3 November 2022), said that he hoped that the provision of blessings would help to “change people’s hearts and minds. . .

“I’ve always thought, and I still feel after that civil debate, that they [the prayers] will be a stepping-stone to greater change in the future,” he said.

Both Dr Hartley and Dr Croft commended the manner in which the debate had been conducted, and praised the chairmanship of Geoffrey Tattersall, who punctuated proceedings with light-hearted remarks, and received a thunderous standing ovation at the end.

The director of strategy and operations for the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), Canon John Dunnett, joined the bishops in praising Mr Tattersall’s chairing. He was critical, however, of some aspects of the procedure, echoing a point of order made during the debate by Stephen Hofmeyr KC, a lay member from Guildford, who noted that, because votes were carried out in houses, bishops were effectively handed a veto on all the submitted amendments to their motion.

Canon Dunnett remarked on the sustained applause that greeted Mr Hofmeyr’s observation. “I think tells you that everybody on the floor felt that there was an imbalance of power in the way that it [the debate] was conducted.”

He called for the Synod to be given a more substantial say on the new pastoral guidance when it is brought to the July group of sessions, and for its contents to be “theologically robust”.

Reflecting more broadly, Canon Dunnett said: “We’ve got a Synod that really is divided straight down the middle with very strong, contradictory convictions on the two sides.”

He welcomed the Archbishop of York’s remarks at the end of the debate, in which he spoke of the need for a “settlement” for those who opposed the introduction of the blessings. Canon Dunnett expressed his hope that this was a “signal that a conversation is now going to be launched about what kind of rearrangement in the Church of England would allow everyone to remain Church of England, but in a way that doesn’t ask them to compromise their theological convictions.”

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesApplause for the debate’s chairman, Geoffrey Tattersall

An official response from the CEEC, issued mid-afternoon on Thursday, said that its members were “deeply saddened and profoundly grieved” by the Synod’s approval of the blessings. “This decision has settled nothing and has only served to deepen divisions and cause deeper hurt.”

It continued: “We will continue to work alongside Evangelicals across the country . . . to contend for biblical faithfulness and to live lives that Jesus has called us to. We are grateful that several speakers noted the need for some kind of settlement, though this would need to be without theological compromise. We believe that putting in place new imaginative structures, ‘good differentiation’, is the only way we are going to be able to reach a settled outcome, that maintains the highest degree of unity possible within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.”

Acknowledging that restructuring the C of E would take some time, Canon Dunnett said that the CEEC would be producing a “menu” of options that churches might wish to use in expressing their disagreement, which would include not inviting certain bishops to preach or conduct confirmations, or withholding financial contributions to the diocese.

Before the Synod debate, the PCCs of two large London churches told the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, of their intention to pause contributions to the diocesan Common Fund (News, 10 February) if the blessings we approved.

After the debate, Ed Shaw, a lay minister and Synod member for the diocese of Bristol, backed the call for a restructuring of the C of E. “We can’t continue on this discussion in the way that we have forever,” he said. Mr Shaw is the ministry director for Living Out, an organisation which aims to support same-sex attracted Christians to live a celibate life.

“I would love to bring the debates to a close by coming up with something that will last as a solution rather than today, that isn’t going to be a lasting solution that’s acceptable to anybody.”

He has argued for a structural separation in the Church Times (Comment, 6 January), and spoke on Thursday about “some separation, in the hope that, at some point, we’ll be able to reunite and return to a full working relationship in the future”.

As a gay, celibate Christian, he said that it was a “massive discouragement to be part of a Church that had been officially supportive of us until about an hour or so ago”. He called for greater clarity about what the Church of England now taught about sexual ethics.

 

THE impact of the Church of England’s decision on the Anglican Communion was invoked several times during the debate, and on Wednesday an amendment which would have involved consulting Anglican Primates around the world was defeated (News, 8 February).

Shortly after the debate concluded, a statement was issued by the conservative group the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA). It “deeply regrets” the C of E’s decision, arguing that it “goes against the overwhelming mind of the Anglican Communion. . .

“The Church cannot ‘bless’ in God’s name the union of same-sex partnered individuals, much less sexual relationships between same-sex persons which, in God’s Word, he declares to be sinful,” the statement says.

Dr Hartley, however, cautioned against seeing the Communion as “monolithic”, noting that in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, where she first became a bishop, there was a diversity of positions on this issue. The Church in the Province had found a way to hold together.

The vice-chair of the Synod’s gender and sexuality group, Professor Helen King, said that the Archbishop of Canterbury was in a “really tricky position” because of his position in the Anglican Communion.

She expressed hope that the last-minute addition of an amendment stating that the changes do not change the Church’s doctrine of marriage (News, 9 February) meant that “we have now got to a point where the Communion will not be disturbed.

“We are not yet doing same-sex marriage. Of course we might — they might, too — but we’re not doing it at the moment, and we’ve maintained the traditional teaching in that amendment.”

She continued: “What has changed . . . is that we will have something that you can offer to faithful same-sex couples in our churches, which recognises their relationship, and publicly celebrates it.” She echoed Dr Croft’s hope that this would, in time, lead to same-sex marriage.

Professor King welcomed the fact that bishops were now more open about their position on such issues. “It’s very affirming to find that there are bishops who think like you,” she said. This was “true for conservatives and for liberals”.

Reflecting on the diversity within the Church of England, Dr Croft said that “a special gift and charism of the Church of England is to hold a number of different perspectives within one Church.

“We have to relearn the skills of being honest with each other, saying where we differ, but discovering what’s in common in every generation.”

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