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Same-sex blessings: the bus moves forward, but we’re under it, say some Synod members

08 July 2024

Houses of Clergy and Laity vote by narrow majorities in favour of LLF motion

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, moves his amendment to the main LLF motion

The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, moves his amendment to the main LLF motion

PROPOSALS to remove impediments on the use of new blessings for same-sex couples in stand-alone services, along with the provision of delegated episcopal ministry for those who oppose the changes, were shown a pale green light from the General Synod on Monday afternoon.

After two hours of debate, members voted by narrow majorities in the House of Clergy and the House of Laity in favour of a motion put forward by the lead bishop for Living in Love and Faith (LLF), the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow (News, 21 June).

He acknowledged that, in the current proposals, which also defer a decision on whether priests are permitted to be in same-sex civil marriages until February, “none of us get what we want”.

But “all of us have to trust each other,” he said. “We are united in our hope of one day being sat at the table of heaven, and that will be a beautiful sight.”

Despite being imperfect, the motion sought to chart a path forward, he said, acknowledging that there were those who felt that they were being forced out of the Church, though he did not believe that this was the case.

The Archbishop of Canterbury also urged those who opposed the changes not to walk away, saying that he could not imagine the C of E without the members of the Alliance network — an umbrella group which has been vocal in the past year. In its most recent letter, it said that it was prepared to establish a “parallel province” if the House of Bishops pushed ahead with their plans (News, 27 June).

“The reality of the Church as we live it is always messy,” Archbishop Welby said, but its diversity of traditions was “indispensable to the gospel”.

Many of those in the Synod who opposed the motion argued that the proposals for “pastoral reassurance”, which amount to offering alternative bishops, did not go far enough, and that further consideration was needed to find a way forward that was acceptable to them.

A notable opponent of the motion was the Bishop of Bath & Wells, Dr Michael Beasley, who has previously voted for LLF motions and supported an amendment in November last year calling for stand-alone services to be trialled (News, 17 November 2023).

He was voting against the motion this time, he said, because he felt that it was necessary to do more work on questions about whether doctrine was being changed by the introduction of services that some feared would resemble weddings.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Bishop of Bath & Wells, Dr Michael Beasley, argues against the motion

If so, the proper process for their introduction was authorisation through the Synod, he suggested, rather than commendation by the House of Bishops.

On Saturday evening, during a more informal session on LLF, Bishop Snow had said that he struggled to see how, once they had been commended for a trial period, stand-alone services of blessing could be “uncommended”.

This comment, Helen Lamb (Oxford) said, demonstrated that “the bus is travelling, the route stops are mapped out . . . and right now, it feels like some of us are being run over by the bus.” She called for the bishops to engage in further discussion with those who opposed the changes, and to find a settlement which they considered acceptable.

If one side of the debate saw the proposals as steaming ahead in a manner that was “rushed and unwise”, from the other side they looked like “procrastination”. The Revd Stephen Cradduck (Lincoln) made this point, although he said that he would nonetheless be voting for the motion, in the hope that the Church could move on “positively, and by the guidance of the Spirit”.

Unlike in previous debates, where motions endorsed by the Bishops were subject to a raft of attempted amendments, there were only two amendments tabled to Bishop Snow’s motion.

The first, from the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, called for resources to be made available to the Faith and Order Commission for the further work it was being asked to do. This proved uncontroversial, and was duly added.

A second, moved by the Revd Andrew Cornes (Chichester), sought to remove a clause in the motion which stated that updated pastoral guidance, and a Bishops’ statement and code of practice that are yet to be drafted, should collectively replace Issues in Human Sexuality.

Notwithstanding problems with Issues, it was “unwise” to replace an extant document with several that had not yet been agreed, Mr Cornes said. “This was asking for too much trust.”

Opposing the amendment, several members argued that it had already been agreed that Issues would be replaced. Samuel Wilson (Chester) asked members to trust the Bishops: they “are not idiots and would not propose something to us which doesn’t have the confidence of this place”.

In the end, the Cornes amendment was lost in all three houses: Bishops, by 23 votes to 11 (with five recorded abstentions); Clergy, 97 to 93 (with two recorded abstentions); and Laity, 93 to 90 (with three recorded abstentions).

In further debate on the main motion, the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, urged members to vote against it and invite the Bishops to think again rather than proceeding in a way that, he said, threatened to split the Church.

The Archdeacon of Bolton and Salford, the Ven. Rachel Mann (Manchester), however, said that the motion, despite being imperfect, would help move the debate forward.

It was a sentiment echoed by the Archbishop of York. He emphasised that no one would be forced to do anything against their conscience, and appealed to members of the Alliance to work with the Bishops to work out what further provision was necessary.

After a counted vote by houses, the motion as amended was passed in all three houses: Bishops, 22 votes to 12 (with five recorded abstentions); Clergy, 99 to 88 (with two recorded abstentions); Laity, 95 to 91 (with two recorded abstentions).

At the end of the debate, Bishop Snow thanked members for the tone in which it had been conducted. The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, however, took to social media to deplore a remark made by a lay member for Oxford, Daniel Matovu.

Speaking against the motion, Mr Matovu had said: “So we want to be the generation of which future generations say: ‘In those days, England had a king, and each bishops taught as he, she, or it saw fit’?”

The term “it”, Dr Hartley said, was “completely unacceptable, whatever theological view you hold”.

On Tuesday morning, a written apology from Mr Matovu was circulated to Synod members, in which he said that the point he was making was not aimed at LGBTQ+ people, but about “teaching contradictory doctrine”.

“I am absolutely devastated that I appear to have caused a great deal of hurt by the use of language which has been taken to be inflammatory or derogatory. I can assure you that it was never my intention to cause any offence in that way. I am truly sorry for any pain or hurt that I have caused,” he said.

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