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Angela Tilby: Sex, money, and power on the agenda at Synod

03 February 2023


A GOOD deal of time has been allocated at next week’s meeting of the General Synod to the Bishops’ proposals after the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process (News, 20 January). Expect a lot of hot air, as the usual protagonists square up for the usual arguments about sex and the Bible.

The good news is that the Church is to ditch Issues in Human Sexuality, the Bishops’ official guidance since 1991. When Issues first appeared, I wrote a critical review of it for the journal Theology. I pointed out that Issues, while grudgingly conceding that some same-sex lay couples might choose to express their relationship sexually, it said that clergy must not engage in “genital acts”. My point was to deplore the reintroduction into our ecclesiology of a moral distinction between the behaviour expected of the clergy and that of the laity. This was to go back to before the Reformation, when clergy had to be celibate.

My bishop was not pleased. At my pre-ordination interview, he told me that, if it was ever reported to him that I was commenting on Issues, he would remove my licence. Ho hum. I lived uncomfortably with Issues as a tutor at Westcott House. Students were unsure of whether they could admit to being gay, fearing that they might reported to their bishop if they did.

The Bishops’ response to LLF is as good as could be expected. I just hope that it enables the Church to produce a rite of blessing which says what needs to be said for same-sex couples, including clergy, who do not feel bound to perpetual chastity. I don’t think that what has been offered so far manages this. Two grooms, two brides may not a marriage make — but they do make something. We should be giving thanks for forms of human fidelity which are valuable in their own right. The challenge is to discover what God means by gay people, and why their hard-won freedom at this time in history matters for us all.

Sex is not the only issue for Synod members to consider. They should be pondering what they are allowed to discuss, and why. Vital issues of governance, funding, and structural change have been brought in under the radar — Vision and Strategy for example, which has never been properly debated (Comment, 20 January). Big changes hide in small print. A new “Office of the Archbishops” has appeared out of nowhere: a shadowy group, whose remit is not clear. We are clearly not supposed to worry our little heads.

And yet these governance changes could change the Church much more than gay blessings. If this worries you, make your voice heard, stand for your deanery synod. Bishops and bureaucrats like things simple, but cannot always be trusted. If the leadership continues to push change without proper process, what happened to the Bishop of Winchester could happen elsewhere.

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