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General Synod digest: no appetite for Bishop’s motion on LLF work

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The desk of the chairman, Geoffrey Tattersall KC during the LLF debate. The Bishop of Leicester is speaking, watched by the Archbishops of York and Canterbury

The desk of the chairman, Geoffrey Tattersall KC during the LLF debate. The Bishop of Leicester is speaking, watched by the Archbishops of York and Ca...

THE General Synod decided by a large majority not to vote on the latest motion on Living in Love and Faith (LLF), but to move to next business.

Introducing the debate, LLF lead bishop, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, joked that he was looking forward to retirement. “It’s been an intense few days,” he said, hoping that tiredness would not affect the tone of the debate. He offered a “heartfelt apology” for not bringing concrete proposals for implementing previous decisions on LLF (News, 10 February 2023), but he would do “everything possible” to bring practical proposals to the Synod in July.

“Whether or not we get to a formal vote, the work goes on,” he insisted. There was “no intention of rowing back” in the suggestions of a “reset” of the LLF process, he said, but emphasised the seriousness of his commitment to maintaining the unity of the Church of England. He also repeated his assurance that the substance of the legal advice received by the House of Bishops was all in the public realm.

Anglicanism had beenb “born in discord”, Bishop Snow continued. He hoped that the Church could learn from its history and remain unified in spite of deep disagreements. Calling himself a missionary, he referred to his long family history of overseas mission; he had reached the conclusion that “the missionary imperative is less about ‘Do we or don’t we agree with same-sex marriage?’. That question alone will not determine whether the Church grows or shrinks in the coming years. The missionary imperative today is reconciliation.”

His paper gave an illustration of ten commitments that “might” offer a way forward, he explained, but emphasised that their wording was not final, but, rather, indicative of a principle. He begged members not to make a series of speeches in which they simply stated that others needed to agree with them. People were not going to change their minds, he said, though he conceded that his approach — to seek reconciliation — might not work, either.

The Archdeacon of Dudley, the Ven. Nikki Groarke (Worcester), said that she represented the “silent middle”. Many Evangelicals had shifted towards a more inclusive stance. She believed that a reset was needed to move from “fruitless arguments about why we can’t bless same-sex marriages to fruitful discussions about how we can”. The leadership of the Church must remember that it existed to serve the will of the Synod. She urged the House of Bishops, which, she suggested, also needed a reset, to ignore the calls for differentiation from a “small minority”. “We voted for change as one Church,” she argued. Most in the Church were able to disagree with one another without needing to fracture unity.

Professor Helen King (Oxford) said that she struggled with the motion and paper. She could not see what could happen between now and the next group of sessions in July; nor could she understand how the various consultation groups had fed into each other. “We have to be better at speaking to each other, in each other’s presence, and speaking about each other,” she said. There was a need for more work on ecclesiology, about what unity consisted of, and about the part played by bishops, she said. Issues in Human Sexuality should be scrapped: the Church had managed without it before, and could manage again, until the new pastoral guidance was ready, she said.

Jane Rosam (Rochester) said that her rural parish, which encompassed the breadth of traditions, worked hard to agree to disagree with kindness. She was a licensed lay worker and was married to her same-sex partner of 30 years. There were many more like her in ordinary parishes, who were upset by large neighbouring wealthy Evangelical parishes that had cut off contributions to the diocese, for fear of being “tainted” by association, she said. Little parishes like hers were not going away, and longed for space to “be the people God made us to be”.

The Revd Rachel Webbley (Canterbury) had been “alarmed”, she said, by some of the references to global-majorityiheritage (GMH) people in the Synod paper that was being debated. Grouping people in this way risked suggesting that they held a “homogeneous perspective” on issues of LGBT inclusion, she warned.

The Acting Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Ruth Worsley, spoke about reconciliation, referring to her pectoral cross fashioned from nails from the rubble of the blitzed Coventry Cathedral. She wanted to play her part in seeking “peace and justice”, she said, and hoped that members would, too. “Let us stand together in hope.”

Luke Appleton (Exeter) prefaced his speech by saying that he was “every bit as wretched and sinful as everyone else in this room. All of us are only justified by the blood of Christ.” He characterised the debate at the heart of the LLF process as a “conflict between biblical Christianity and worldly compromise”. The danger was that pursuing the current course would, he argued, break the Elizabethan religious settlement, because it was impossible for the whole Church to walk together on this issue.

The Revd Joy Mawdesley (Oxford) moved her amendment, to change “welcoming” in the motion to “noting” Bishop Snow’s paper. She did welcome, however, the new emphasis on bridge-building and reconciliation, and the honesty about the difficulties of implementation. The ten commitments were still in draft form and would need to be negotiated, she said. “We don’t know what we are welcoming.”

Bishop Snow resisted the amendment.

The Revd Fraser Oates (Worcester) said that the Church was caught in a “miserable and exhausting cycle”, becoming entrenched in division without addressing the underlying reasons for disagreement. The Synod had hit a brick wall, legally and procedurally. If the task was reconciliation, then there needed to be more wrestling about the real theological depths of disagreement. “I’m struggling to see my place here any more,” he said, and so would support the amendment.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesLuke Appleton (Exeter)

Vicky Brett (Peterborough) welcomed the change in tone, before recalling how, in St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus became angry at religious leaders or his disciples trying to prevent people from coming to God. “Would Jesus be angry today I wonder?” LGBT people were “heartsick” at ongoing rejection by the Church, she said.

The amendment was carried.

Ed Shaw (Bristol) moved an amendment to acknowledge that “some of the issues raised are not matters on which they can simply agree to disagree.” He said that it was important to be “honest about the present”, and to avoid deeply held differences’ being “smoothed over”. Not everyone in a “sexual minority” supported the introduction of the Prayers of Love and Faith. His amendment sought to be “honest about the depth of our current divisions”. Moves to stop paying into diocesan common funds, and to delay or seek alternative ordination, demonstrated how deeply held the divisions were, he said.

Bishop Snow thanked Mr Shaw, but resisted the amendment: enshrining it risked conceding that there were no “new and imaginative ways” of finding a way to move forward together.

Kenson Li (co-opted) urged the Synod to vote against the amendment, as it suggested that reconciliation was not possible. “We overcome not people, nor ideas: we overcome disagreement itself,” he said. Unity without difference was death, but reconciliation after a “dialectical process” was life.

The Revd Dr Mark Smith (Universities and TEIs) said that the amendment highlighted how hard the debate was and how the Church even disagreed about what kind of disagreement it was having. Without resolving this, “we will keep on talking past each other and hurting each other,” he said. The amendment simply stated a truth, that people on both sides were motivated by non-negotiable convictions. The Bishops had presumed that the divide was within the breadth of things that Christians could agree to disagree on, which would marginalise those who saw the split as over apostolic truth.

The Revd Steve Wilcox (York) referred to the parable of the wheat and the tares, suggesting that both sides saw their position in the imagery of the wheat, and the other side as the weeds. Using another horticultural metaphor, he said that it should be recognised that the “roots” of the two positions were very different, and that for the fruits of both to grow, structural change was necessary.

The Revd Graham Kirk-Spriggs (Norwich) believed that those who disagreed with him were Christian, and that their position was legitimate, but there was a danger of “structural prejudice” if changes were made, which suggested that a bishop was only bishop to those with whom they agreed. Imagine, he said, if an “inclusively minded bishop” were to refuse to ordain someone on the grounds that they did not support equal marriage; bishops could not be a figure both of unity and factionalism.

Prebendary Karl Freeman (Exeter) suggested that liberals had an advantage in that they could flex their positions according to circumstance, whereas conservatives were bound to obey the certainties laid down in the Bible. Any solution would need to be pragmatic, and must accommodate the flexibility of liberality and the certainty of conservatism, he said.

Lucy Gorman (York) said that she had felt unwelcome in the C of E her entire life. But she chose to stay, because Christians were called to stay together and hold each other. It was time to move forward on the basis of last year’s votes, she said, and look to the future without fear.

The amendment was lost in all Houses: Bishop 20-8, with two recorded abstentions; Clergy 92-83, with two recorded abstentions; and Laity 98-86, with one recorded abstention.

The debate was adjourned on Monday evening. It resumed on Tuesday morning, with an amendment from Jane Patterson (Sheffield). This sought to add a line on “openness and transparency” to “rebuild trust”. While she held a traditional view on marriage, realism was needed to move forward from the “who, what, where, when” questions about legal and theological advice, she said. Without “future-proofed, secure pastoral reassurance”, no resolution was in sight, she argued.

Bishop Snow welcomed the amendment.

Alan Dowen (Chester) said that true reconciliation required honesty. The can was not just being kicked down the road, he suggested, but speeding away “on the back of a lorry”. He could not believe two mutually exclusive things at the same time; his theology had to be aligned with science. “I feel reconciled with myself and I believe God is in all things, the science as much as the theology.” A house divided against itself would fall, he told the Synod.

The Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford) endorsed the amendment. Not enough transparency had been seen in the “labyrinthine” process over the past year, he said. If the Church was going to remain united, it needed to be clear about what it was doing and how. Part of LLF was about “coming out from hiddenness and hypocrisy”.

The amendment was carried.

The Revd Charlie Skrine (London) then moved his amendment, which said that the Church was stuck at a dead end, “condemned to continue hurting each other”. He praised the Bishops’ moves to reset the debate; his amendment would not stop that happening, but simply lock in structural provision for conservatives. He questioned those who had voted against Mr Shaw’s amendment: “If we’re going to get out of this dead end, at some point I’m going to have to vote for something you want, or you will have to vote for something I want.”

He acknowledged the accusation that conservatives were exploiting LLF to sow disunity, but said that this was untrue. “Show me that you believe in unity by being willing to explore changes of structures.” If like-minded people could gather in separate structures, conservatives would no longer be in the way of liberals, but they could all remain within the C of E.

Bishop Snow resisted the amendment, mostly owing to what it removed from the motion about implementing the decisions that the Synod had already taken. But he was sympathetic to Mr Skrine’s argument, and said that one of his ten commitments pointed in the same direction.

The Revd Gary Kennaugh (Chester) particularly valued the emphasis on “bridge-building” in Bishop Snow’s report. He agreed with others that this was too big an issue to agree to disagree, and the only way to bring unity was for structural provision that “honoured the consciences” of everyone.

The Revd Jody Stowell (London) was ambivalent about the report, against the amendment, but in favour of reconciliation. She argued that any provision must not be so structural and defined that it told mixed parishes like hers that they could not stay together. Any reform must not “draw a thick solid line through the heart of parishes like mine”.

Sophie Clarke (London) asked what it really meant to “walk together”. Were tight votes and lack of trust indicative of any sense of unity, she asked. The Church, she argued, would remain “utterly divided”, regardless of what happened in the Synod — but, she suggested, structural provision could “set us free”.

James Wilson (Manchester) said that “structural provision”, in practice, amounted to “schism in all but pension fund”. The division over women bishops was about ecclesiology, but current proposals by the C of E Evangelical Council amounted to a much deeper division, he argued. The amendment would export divisions in the chamber to PCCs around the country, which would be forced to decide which structure they wanted to join.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, supported the amendment, saying that exploring structural provision had almost unanimous support in the House of Bishops. People could accept what was on the table, with Prayers of Love and Faith as an opt-in; but the further the C of E moved along this path, the greater the need for a formal structural settlement. “Walking together only works when the parties agree on the speed and direction of travel. Otherwise, it’s a frog-march,” he said. If large numbers of conservatives were forced to leave it would provoke a recruitment crisis for the Church and sever relationships across the Anglican Communion, he argued.

Simon Friend (Exeter) said that the theological dispute was about whether traditional teaching on marriage was a “first-order issue”. He blamed the Augustinian interpretation of original sin, in the sense of a sexually transmitted guilt going back to Adam and Eve. This should be abandoned, he said. The original sin was not about sex, but eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The amendment was defeated in all three Houses: Bishops 24-8, with two recorded abstentions; Clergy 98-78, with eight recorded abstentions; Laity 100-81, with seven recorded abstentions.

The Archdeacon of Liverpool, the Ven. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (Liverpool), invoked Standing Order 33, triggering a vote on whether to move to next business. If this were carried, it would prevent the motion from returning in the same form during the life of this Synod. “This is not intended as any sort of partisan move,” she said. Her conversations with people on all sides of the debate suggested that there was nothing to be gained by proceeding to a final vote on the motion. If that happened, she would have to vote against, as she was “fundamentally uncomfortable”, she said, with signing a “blank cheque” regarding a set of commitments that had not been finalised. Everyone would be better served by moving on, and returning to the LLF debate in July after more work had been done.

Responding, Bishop Snow said that he was open to hearing the view of the Synod on the motion. He thanked members for a good debate conducted in a positive tone, and praised the staff who had been working on LLF with him behind the scenes. He was still hoping to bring in more bishops to co-lead the next stage of the process, which would focus on implementing the Synod’s decisions and exploring “what degree of communion is possible for us”. The continuing presence in the chamber of large numbers of conservatives gave him hope that a way could be found to keep them in the C of E, he concluded. “You would not be here if you did not believe some degree of communion was possible.”

Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) did not consider this an aggressive move to kick things into the long grass, but the risk was that it appeared to be a rejection of Bishop Snow’s direction of travel and his appendices. Dr Harrison was sympathetic to moving on, saying that a vote on the debate would not be helpful.

Debbie Buggs (London) said she would be sorry to not discuss Andrew Cornes’s amendment, especially as it touched on more theological matters, but thanked Mr Friend and Mr Li for tackling theology in their speeches, even if she did not agree with their conclusions. She opposed the motion so that Mr Cornes could speak to his amendment.

The chair, Geoffrey Tattersall KC, accepted the procedural motion, which was voted on and carried by 322-69, with 20 recorded abstentions.

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