Clouds without rain: trying to explore fear

So here’s a question for conservatives in the CofE. What do you fear? I don’t see anyone wanting to force you to marry people or bless them if it’s against your conscience. As with divorced people. So what do you fear?

This was something I tweeted last week. Living in Love and Faith is still going on, and there’s a certain amount of speculation as to whether compromise is possible, or whether this is the end of the road. As you’d expect on Twitter, my tweet led to a range of responses, some of them taking us down quite bizarre rabbit-holes like whether the Methodist Church is a church or a social club. Although some people engaged, many were not those taking a conservative position themselves, but those who assumed they knew what conservatives thought. Hmmm. I was trying to get away from such an approach. Like everyone else, my Twitter bubble is no doubt slanted towards people who largely agree with me, but it is not entirely closed.

Some took issue with the wording of my question, not liking the word ‘fear’ and saying they feared nothing. One person answered ‘The Lord’. Another wrote ‘No Christian fears what any man says or thinks about them. Why would they – it’s not another human who they are ultimately going to be judged by!’ Fair enough: so what they fear is judgement. Me too, actually. Someone tweeting as ‘Justin Welby’s cat’ (!) said ‘We fear the Holiness of God, as the bible tells us too. We fear more getting deceived as being lost eternally, as the book of Jude tells us. That many more will end up as you, clouds without rain’. So that’s Jude 1:12 (surprised that the Bible didn’t start with an upper-case B). Nobody mentioned 1 John 4:18, and perfect love casting out fear.

I asked this question because I am surprised that those who take a more evangelical view (and yes, I know, all these labels are very approximate and risk putting together people whose positions are quite different) are so resistant to offering church marriages to same-sex couples when some – not all – of them are prepared to do so for couples where one or both partners has been divorced. There are two reasons for my surprise. 

First, if a person uses the Bible as their sole or preferred source of authority, well, there are comments from Jesus on divorce but none on LGBTQI+. So I’d expect the sola scriptura people all to be opposed to second marriages: but they aren’t. As for those who are opposed, the position of the Church of England is that no parish priest is obliged to marry someone who has been through a divorce. Individual conscience is respected, and people taking this position are able to remain in a Church which accepts such marriages. 

Second, if your faith is very much about your individual response to God – saying the ‘sinner’s prayer’, giving your testimony – then I’d have expected you to say that your own salvation depends on that response, not on the position taken by the wider Church body to which you belong.

When I was opposed to the ordination of women, alongside the theological arguments that then made sense to me (that there aren’t any women priests in the Bible; and that only a man can represent Christ at the altar), I most definitely felt fear. This fear was focused on church unity; this was the time when my favourite hymn was the one including the lines ‘make thou our sad divisions soon to cease’ and ‘We pray thee too for wanderers from the fold/Oh bring them back, good Shepherd of thy sheep’. If we were to ordain women, wouldn’t this put a further barrier between the C of E and the Roman Catholic church? When I had my Damascene moment of conversion from anti to pro, caused by hearing Mary Tanner talking at our Deanery Synod, the fear ceased. The good we would be doing, by including the gifts of women in our leadership, felt as if it outweighed that hope for unity with Rome.

Those who remain anti on this question can remain in the Church of England. If your reading of the Bible tells you that women should not be admitted as priests, you can ask your parish to pass a resolution that no women will be sent your way. If you believe that women can’t be bishops, your church can ask for episcopal oversight from a bishop who is not a woman and has not ‘laid hands’ on one. 

Yet somehow it still isn’t seen as theoretically possible to stay in a Church which welcomes same-sex couples who want to mark their committed relationship in the place where they regularly worship God, even if that Church accepts that not all priests will want to be involved in such a ceremony.

Sorry, but I still don’t get it. The talk about salvation issues, first-order issues, and creation being applied to same-sex marriage reminds me of what was said when women’s ordination was being discussed, and somehow we came through that. But not this?

Posted in equal marriage, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Me and Christ Church: beauty and truth

Even those not in the bubble of Anglican Twitter are likely to have noticed that Christ Church has been back in the news this week, and no doubt this will continue as tomorrow it’s the unofficial farewell service for the Dean, Martyn Percy, whose management of the release of his story via different newspapers and blogs has been highly impressive. Even before it happens, this service has already been ‘interesting’; the Dean was not allowed to have it in his own chapel – which is also the cathedral, the mixture of college and diocese being part of the issue – then it was going to be at the University Church, then that booking was cancelled and Somewhere Else found but, reminding me of various expensive theatrical events in London, those attending weren’t going to find out where it would be until the day before. I didn’t apply for a ticket for the service.

Why not? Well, why would I? It seems de rigueur for anyone writing about the Dean to say he’s an old friend, so let’s say now that he isn’t. I don’t know him personally. I have read some of his writing and liked some of it very much. He has done things which I strongly support, such as allowing the Cathedral to be used for services offering safe space to LGBTQI+ Christians. I have met him once, at an event in the college. He asked me who I was and when I told him he gave me the impression that, as I wasn’t relevant to his world, he wasn’t interested (I wasn’t on General Synod then). Maybe he was just shy: maybe he was having an off day. He moved away to talk to someone else. I’ve met Emma Percy a few times because we both belong to WATCH, Women and the Church, the group set up after the ordination of women to keep an eye on issues around gender justice, equality and inclusion. I’ve seen it suggested online that we support whichever ‘side’ it is because they’re our friends; really, no, that’s not why I’m here, and in any case I also know some of the academics at Christ Church. 

But I still have an interest, not only because safeguarding and bullying, in both academia and the church, have been things on which I’ve focused since being a harassment officer at the University of Reading. I have an interest because Oxford, where the Dean was the senior priest, is my diocese, the one I represent on General Synod. 

And I also have an interest because the place where it all went wrong, Christ Church college, could have been my college. I owe my academic career to having had a Junior Research Fellowship in Cambridge, at the wonderful and supportive Newnham College, and I’ve mentioned briefly my trip round the Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowship circuit here: “I was often the only woman being interviewed, usually the only person not to come from Oxbridge, and certainly the only person working on bodily fluids.” One of the places which interviewed me was Christ Church and there I came second; there was an agonizing wait while they located the successful candidate, who was on his way to South America immediately after interview.

I was relieved in many ways not to get that fellowship. It was always a bit odd at Christ Church. I don’t know if they still operate in a different time zone, five minutes and two seconds behind GMT. But – and I had plenty with which to compare it – that interview was bizarre. About a dozen robed dons, all men, all sitting on one side or the two ends of a long thin table, making me think of the Last Supper. No idea who they were; how would I even be able to spot a Classics specialist, not being an Oxford student myself? (NB at Newnham, more like six interviewers, and a clear diagram for me, identifying who was sitting where) One of the Christ Church people had no shoes on, something very clear from my side of the table, where my seat also felt on the low side, making me feel … well, lowly. If this was the Last Supper, then who was I? A servant brought in to wash the men’s feet? The painter?? Questions were fired from all directions, so my head was moving as if I were watching a high-speed tennis match. I received the most stupid or the most clever question ever (read this in an elderly and wavering voice for the best effect): “Miss King, people have been studying the ancient world for a Very Long Time now: will they ever stop?” I decided to take that as clever, as an entirely serious invitation to discuss the reception of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and gave it my best shot. Apparently, they liked it, although at the time they gave me no clue.

The various leaks of emails between the academic staff of Christ Church have given me the impression it is still odd there. Academics can be pretty unpleasant about each other, but even so these emails are exceptional. The pro-Percy site Turbulent Priest has issued a very useful timeline for anyone needing to remind themself of the successive, different, allegations and tribunals and their findings. What I still don’t understand is why the accusations lurched on from one claim to another, with something new turning up every time a previous allegation was dismissed. Did the governing body have nothing else to do? I would have thought the various other college scandals during the period when the Dean was being attacked would have occupied their minds: an academic jailed in France for child pornography offences, another accused of stealing and selling on papyri, the theft of art from the college gallery…

I wonder if members of the governing body have taken advantage of another Christ Church oddity. According to the college’s Staff Handbook, ‘Specific benefits’ for those employed by Christ Church include this one: 

BEAUTICIAN. Visits from a beautician will be arranged from time to time if there is sufficient demand. A notice is circulated to staff by the Steward’s PA a few weeks prior to each visit and any staff member wishing to make an appointment should do so through the Steward’s PA. As the number of appointments is limited, they are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Staff should pay the beautician directly.

Christ Church is, shall we say, ‘special’. For anyone outside the university world: No, a college beautician is not standard practice! Beauty, however, is more than skin-deep. 

Posted in Safeguarding | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

What do the bishops think? LLF and trans people

What do the bishops think?

Well, that’s something of a mystery to us at the moment. In General Synod, when there is a division by houses, the members of the House of Bishops currently all vote the same way. It was not always like this; expressing disagreement was not an issue, but – as I was told when I asked my diocesan bishop about this at a meeting last week – apparently this disturbed people, so now the bishops just vote together. So we may know what our own bishops think about something – or we may not – and we’ll hear more from those who are called to speak in a debate but, as far as the majority of the House goes … no idea.

The House of Bishops, like the other sections which make up General Synod, sometimes meets on its own. When it does so, there’s a press release which gives the rest of us the key points from the meeting; at least, in theory. The notes from the meeting of the House of Bishops on 24 March 2022 were released last week. We are now becoming familiar with their regular mixture of management-speak and deliberate obfuscation. How is any reader supposed to know what ‘proposals to join up the work of the Diocese Commission and the Transforming Effectiveness work stream’ really mean? When the House discussed ‘possible mitigation opportunities’ for dioceses with financial problems, what might those be? No idea. 

And that’s all we’ll be getting, because the House does not issue minutes, so we have no idea who said what, or what different points of view were expressed, and so the rest of the church isn’t properly informed about what is going on. Significantly, in contrast to General Synod, nobody else can turn up and listen to the House of Bishops in action. The Standing Orders of the House of Bishops state that the public can be admitted (SO 13) but I am not aware that they ever are, and that would suggest issuing an agenda and meeting time in advance: does that ever happen? Overriding SO 13, the bishops appear to be invoking SO 14, which allows the House to go into something called ‘Committee of the Whole House’ which means that the public have to leave. Reading those Standing Orders, the way they are set out clearly suggests public presence is the norm, and asking the public to leave is not. Yet, currently, we can’t attend.

According to these skimpy notes which are all that we have, most of the recent meeting of the House of Bishops was on Living in Love and Faith. There are many questions buzzing around at the moment about the bishops and LLF. The official statement is that ‘Importantly, the Bishops are themselves committed to learning using the resources’ offered by LLF, but it isn’t clear what that means. Telling other people to ‘learn’, or doing it themselves? I’ve heard of dioceses where the bishop did the course with their staff team. At my own diocese’s most recent Synod meeting, the bishop said he had done sections of the course with the House of Bishops. Yet I’ve also heard of Diocesan Synods where the bishops didn’t take part in their small group meetings to talk about LLF. So what does ‘using the resources’ mean?

Apart from confirmation of the LLF timetable for 2022, the notes from the House of Bishops include some new items. First, the LLF Reference Group is going to ‘accompany the bishops’ during ‘parts’ of the three meetings scheduled for the College of Bishops later this year (for anyone bemused by the C of E, the College includes the suffragan/area bishops as well as those in overall charge of each diocese – so, it’s larger than the House of Bishops). The role of the Reference Group members is now going to be ‘to enrich the discussions by offering perspectives from outside the episcopal arena, ensure that the insights and sensibilities of diverse lived experiences and convictions are embedded in the discernment process, and act as a diverse sounding board.’

This is progress. When the Next Steps Group (bishops only) was set up, the Reference Group was going to provide ‘diversity, experience and expertise’ on which the Next Steps Group could draw. Questions have been asked at General Synod about how this group has been used to date; answer, well, er, we intend to use it later on. That wasn’t clear when the NSG came into existence. Perhaps at last the Reference Group will be able to help, although I am not sure what ‘accompanying the bishops’ means. Does a group of bishops get its own personal RG member to have chats with? Do they sit together for lunch? Will sections of the RG be brought on to the stage to address the bishops? (I had to address the College of Bishops during LLF and can tell you it is a very strange experience, not least because I had to do my talk three times because there are a lot of bishops and there wasn’t a very large room) Will members of the RG be involved in the rest of the College’s meetings, for example being asked to serve at communion or read the passages set for the day? Did they sign up for any of this, or did they expect this to be a desk-based role?

The second change is that a Pastoral Consultative Group is being set up – however, as with so much of the LLF structure, it is going to comprise only bishops. There will be external advisers with ‘subject expertise as well as pastoral and lived experience’ but it’s not clear how much they will be used, let alone how they will be chosen (always a mystery for the working groups of the Church of England). Do they have any connection with the Reference Group? This is not to be confused with an earlier LLF grouping, the Pastoral Advisory Group, which came up with the pastoral principles ‘for living well together’. So what’s the difference between ‘advisory’ and ‘consultative’ supposed to be here?

Those pastoral principles, by the way, identified what they called the six ‘pervading evils’: prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and power. And those are relevant to the third change announced in the notes of the recent meeting; one that seems to have no positive dimensions at all. ‘The House then reviewed attempts to explore questions of gender identity and transition and agreed to seek and commission an appropriate group to take this work forward.’ Once more, what counts as an appropriate group? You may think it would be a good idea to involve trans and non-binary people, but as it happens there was an earlier stage, back in May 2021, at which the House of Bishops agreed to form a working group on gender identity and transition. Trans people who had been involved in LLF were disturbed by this, and correspondence went back and forth through the rest of 2021. They argued that there was no point in yet another working group: LLF had already discussed these questions, and to single out trans people as a special case, as needing yet more ‘exploring’, would be abusive. Revd Tina Beardsley’s July 2021 letter to Bishop Sarah, chair of the NSG, has been published here. At one point it looked like what was wanted was just an annotated bibliography on gender identity and transition, but there are already suitable resources on the LLF Learning Hub.

There’s a much bigger question here, however: why is the House of Bishops still wanting to talk about trans people, rather than being prepared to stand by the existing pastoral guidance? The guidelines for those considering a call to ordination make it clear that trans people can be considered for selection. In 2017 General Synod passed a motion recognising that transgender people need to be welcomed and affirmed in their parish churches and asking for some liturgical material for marking gender transition. In 2018 resources were published about using the rite of Affirmation of Baptismal Faith in this situation. What more needs to be said? Why can’t the Church of England be a beacon of welcome and support for a group of people who really need that?

Last week also saw the government back-tracking on its stated commitment to conversion therapy. A U-turn to a U-turn then saw a claim that the ban on conversion therapy would cover lesbian, gay and bisexual people – but not trans people. Why not? Let’s go back to the pastoral principles and their ‘pervading evils’ of prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and power: why don’t they apply to the House of Bishops riding rough-shod over what trans Christians have said to the Next Steps Group? The medical profession condemns conversion therapy. The Prime Minister has said it’s ‘absolutely abhorrent’ and ‘has no place in a civilised society’. 

But somehow it is still OK for trans people? Isn’t that prejudice and hypocrisy? What do the bishops think of that?

Posted in Church of England and gender, General Synod, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Church and the new normal

From one of my other blogs: some reflections, for the record, on where we are two years into the pandemic.

Posted in Shared Conversations | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

General Synod, February 2022: what felt most bizarre


This isn’t a summary of decisions made at the February 2022 General Synod. You can find that elsewhere. Instead, I want to offer my overall reflections on the meeting and how it felt.

To summarize: it felt not just tiring, but pretty bizarre. Before General Synod met, there was considerable discussion about the plan to change how the Archbishop of Canterbury is chosen. After debate, the consultation period on this continues, so I am saying no more about this now.

The other main concern we had as rank and file members was around how we would be doing Questions – this may sound really petty in the great scheme of things, but it’s the one chance we have to ask for data and to hold those in authority to account, as well as to bring topics to the attention of other members. This time, we had two and a half hours allocated for this, but we still didn’t make it through the 150 Questions submitted. The system is that a written answer is supplied in advance, so the meeting only involves asking supplementaries on these written answers. I was lucky in that both of my Questions were reached – one on John Smyth’s African victims, the other on how the House of Bishops’ blanket rejection of FGM manages to coexist with a lack of interest in Ghana’s draft Family Values Bill which would involve non-consensual surgery on girls and women with variant sex characteristics. However, due to the hybrid nature of this meeting, we were all restricted to a maximum of two supplementary questions. Almost everyone obeyed this request and we are too polite to object when someone doesn’t. I obeyed, which meant I couldn’t follow up on several questions around how and why the 30-year-old document ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ came to be binding not only on those going for ordination but even for lay ministers in some (not all) dioceses. There’s so much to ask here, but I had to let it go. Questions felt more than usually constrained.

More of the bizarreness, though, was down to the Standing Orders being summonsed out of the dark places where they usually lurk. ‘Is there a quorum in the House of Bishops?’ (because if there isn’t, then we stop, but it can be hard to count as they don’t all wear purple) ‘Chair, would you accept a motion for a count of the whole Synod/count by Houses?’ (because sometimes the voting is too close to call just by looking at a show of hands/sometimes it’s significant to know that one House – Bishops/Clergy/Laity – disagrees with the others) Moves like this can require at least 25 members to stand up to support them, which at least gives us some exercise. 

Most tricky of all proved the Standing Order allowing Synod to ‘adjourn’ debate on one motion. That took place in the case of a multi-paragraph ‘following motion’ tabled against the simple ‘take note’ motion on the most recent update on safeguarding (if I’ve lost you there, sorry, but just let it go and keep reading, although I’m not sure things will necessarily improve). This following motion was important because it was clear that there was unease with how the National Safeguarding Team is working; for example, the following motion was asking for more checks on how effective the NST are, and pointing out apparent inconsistencies between what the Independent Safeguarding Board has asked for, and what is really happening. There was also concern expressed that bullying is not being addressed. According to the official statement of what we did, Synod actually voted to ‘pass to the Next Business‘, not to ‘adjourn debate’. That’s important because – if I’ve got this right – when you agree to pass to next business, not only does the following motion fall, but its various paragraphs can’t be discussed again in the life of this General Synod. That’s tricky because the proposer also has two Private Member’s Motions in the system, with similar wording. I’ve been back to the Standing Orders and I don’t know what happens next – I’m actually more confused now than I was when it happened – but apparently there’s always the discretion of the Business Committee to invoke, in terms of deciding whether the intention of Synod was indeed this dramatic.

For the 60% of so new members, this was all either traumatic or a revelation, or possibly both at once. 

Another revelation lay in the value of proposing an amendment. I’ve heard people saying that, if only they’d realized how it all worked, they’d have tried amending the motion to extend the special arrangements for having meetings on Zoom beyond 7 August 2022. But no such amendment was tabled. Members now have more sense of how the system works and of what they need to do to make it work for them.

For me, the most bizarre aspect of this session came in the meeting of the House of Laity, at the end of the final day. In an earlier Zoom meeting of the House we’d discussed co-opting 5 members from global majority heritage people to improve our diversity. I thought this was done and dusted – the way it would work, with invitations for nominations and then a vote, had all been aired in advance. Yet we ended up with a surprisingly long debate about whether or not to proceed. Those opposed seemed to think that they’d stood in the main elections, and been elected, so nobody else should be allowed in. Yet it was also clear that, with the voters being deanery synod members, there was often little chance of anyone who didn’t look like them getting on to Synod. One Black member said he’d recently been to his first deanery synod meeting (if you get on to General Synod you are ex officio on the deanery synod) and he was the only black or brown person in a room of 50 or so members. Earlier in the week, Paul Boateng had made an inspiring speech to us in his role on the church’s Archbishops’ Commission for Racial Justice. He had pointed out that the government’s front bench are far more diverse than the people on the platform with him when he addressed Synod. The proposed co-option was a very simple way of improving diversity. Yet it proved contentious. Eventually, we agreed to go ahead. I was very pleased that we did, but not happy about how the debate had played out.

Finally, back to the point this was the first hybrid Synod. It worked pretty well, I think. Being hybrid made it much more inclusive. There seem to have been around 50 members on Zoom and they were able to vote and to speak in debates, thanks to the hard work of the excellent admin and tech people who support us all so well. There was also steady improvement over the course of the three days in terms of putting up motions-as-amended on the screens in the debating chamber, so we could see exactly what we were voting on, and also in terms of Chairs of debates spelling out ever more carefully just what each vote was about and what the implications of accepting or rejecting it would be.

One of my friends asked me why I’d bothered to go to London when I could have just zoomed in. Well, that’s easy; being there in person makes it so much easier to meet new people, forge relationships, hear what others are thinking… and that was, as in November, very valuable indeed.

Posted in General Synod, Safeguarding | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

February 2022 General Synod – before it starts

It’s February 1; one week until General Synod meets again. I’m writing this for those who have been asking me when it is and what’s on the agenda. The theme (there isn’t usually such a clear theme) this time is racial justice: we have an update on how things have been going since various targets were set (answer: not as well as one would hope, shortage of funds taking some of the blame) and a diocesan synod motion on slavery and human trafficking. GS is of course a legislative body, and so we have some legislation to consider; there’s also an update on safeguarding, a preliminary look at plans to change how the Archbishop of Canterbury is appointed, a review of clergy remuneration, a further stage of the governance review, and an update on the ‘Setting God’s People Free‘ report, a 2017 aspect of the ‘Renewal and Reform’ programme which was a big thing at the time and which aimed to create ‘whole-life discipling dioceses’ and a national portal to inspire your average lay person. That portal is here, but I’ve tried to register on it several times in the last few days to no effect (and yes, I have sent a message about that), so maybe we’re not there yet. The ‘SGPF’ report contains a huge range of suggestions, including that clergy should have two days a week off so that they could ‘sustain friendships with lay friends’; but the laity are supposed to be the focus, with lay development supported and some sort of strategy developed for encouraging lay people to explore their gifts and their vocations. As someone in a diocese-based authorised lay ministry, I have many views on this, not least that exploring one’s gifts and vocation doesn’t have to take place within the church.

There’s plenty of interesting material on the agenda, but I am not sure how any of this is going to make a difference to the average parish. We shall see. It’s also quite a range of topics for one meeting. When they tell you the likely workload, people tend to present it in terms of three weeks of work a year, and they usually add something about how, recently, GS hasn’t used every one of the three weeks which are in your diary. Of course, they add, if you serve on any committees or working groups, there’ll be more. What they don’t say, though, is how much there is to do between meetings. Nor do they mention the length of a synodical day.

Let’s start with that synodical day. Thank God, unlike when I was on GS for Guildford in the late 1980s, there’s an allowance for accommodation, so I don’t have to commute; facing the rush hour was never pleasant. I can stay in a simple hotel five minutes away from Church House. Getting refunded for this can, however, take a while; months rather than weeks, and I know I am not alone in this experience. So much for any idea that being on GS is easy for those without some money in the bank. For this session, we are only (only!) meeting from lunchtime on the Tuesday until the evening of the Thursday; so, much like November 2021, except that some of the time there was spent on the Westminster Abbey service and the inauguration, plus the initial sessions on how it all worked. Because of this relatively short session for November, the various fringe meetings are squashed into two lunch breaks and two evenings. This means that, for anyone whose interests go beyond a single issue – and I would hope that means all of us – it’s very difficult to sort out the diary. In the interests of sanity, I am prioritising the Affirming Catholics in Synod evening event (Mass + meal) because it sustained me so well last time around. On Wednesday lunchtime, I’m prioritising the General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group, and on Thursday lunchtime it’s Inclusive Church’s event on disability and church. But because I am going to GSGSG, I can’t be at the Conversion Therapy event scheduled for the same slot, or the panel discussion on the reform of clergy discipline, both of which sound interesting, although the Conversion Therapy meeting appears to be promoting the claim that prayer for people to change their sexuality is fine, whereas I would say that this can be just as coercive and damaging as other forms.

However, I could still attend the one breakfast event. Breakfast event! I didn’t realise these existed! The newly-formed RIGGS, the Rural Interest Group, sounds interesting, and although I live in a market town my diocese has many rural areas. But… breakfast event. Starts at 7.45 a.m. I just can’t. It is fun talking to other members at the hotel’s breakfast and I think the connections made there are essential, otherwise we could just stay in little bubbles of like-minded individuals.

Self-care at GS is essential. This requires thought and planning. There are no breaks other than the lunch hour, so cups of tea, loo trips and so on have to be fitted in while debates are in progress. Last time around, I managed to combine loo trips with high speed walks down the road to Pret to have a cup of soup to sustain me, but it’s a risk; what are you missing in the debating chamber? My back tends to seize up with long periods of sitting, even with my trusty lumbar cushion, and I don’t want to risk returning to pre-diabetes (my experiences of which are discussed here), so both exercise and healthy eating are important. One can spend much of the time in the tea room, in which there’s a screen showing what’s happening, but there’s nothing I am able to eat there; sitting down isn’t really what’s needed; and that room can get crowded, with it feeling wrong to hog the limited number of chairs.

As for the between-GS meeting activities… Well, first there’s reading the papers. They come out in a batch, in this case issued on 21 January for a meeting starting on 8 February. That isn’t long for reading. I wonder why they can’t be made available as and when they are ready, and I know someone is asking a question about that in the formal Questions sessions. Then, in the weeks before we meet, many of the different groups have Zoom sessions of an hour or so to brief members on items of relevance to the group; others send a digest around to serve this purpose. Dioceses, many of which would normally have a meal for the bishop to brief her or his diocese’s reps on the local dimensions of the topics on the agenda, may meet in person or on Zoom. This time around, the House of Laity also had its own Zoom meeting to consider the suggestion of coopting more people from UKME/GMH backgrounds to the House. And then there are the between-sessions elections; meaning election addresses to read, votes to cast.

If there are issues about which you are concerned, you may want to send in a formal question, and that involves researching the background, drafting the question, maybe sharing it with someone else you know on GS for feedback, and making sure you submit it by the deadline. The question may then come back to you with suggestions to improve it, as not everything can be asked. This time around, because the meeting will be a hybrid one (hooray – so much more inclusive) we also have to give notice of any supplementary questions we would like to ask, although we don’t need to say which questions they refer to – and as the list of questions comes out a few days before GS meets, I need to factor in that reading time as well, to discover the answers to the two questions I’ve posed, and to decide whether a supplementary is needed.

And then there’s the rest of life to fit in. If you take your role as an elected member at all seriously, General Synod isn’t easy, even for someone like me who is not working a 9-5 job. Be warned!

Posted in General Synod, Renewal and reform programme, Safeguarding | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Bake a cake for Living in Love and Faith: how to make your response count

15 January 2022 (minor updates subsequently)

The story so far: this blog began as a reflection on participating in the Shared Conversations, and then – because I was asked to join Living in Love and Faith’s History thematic group – focused on how the LLF resources were produced. The shift from the originally-conceived ‘Bishops’ teaching document’, with all its subsequent confusion about whether the bishops were receiving or doing the teaching, to a ‘learning document’ for the whole Church, happened gradually over the years since we began creating the resources back in (gasp) 2017. Readers may well be wondering: what happens next?

They would not be alone in asking this. The deadlines on the LLF book, which those of us working on it were told was supposed to be a ‘gift to the Anglican Communion’ at the Lambeth Conference in 2020, moved due to the pandemic, as did the Lambeth Conference itself. The book has been available for over a year now, so the bishops who attend the Lambeth Conference can pick it up whenever they fancy a 468-page bedtime read. But the LLF ‘process’ continues to roll on, and won’t be anywhere near complete until at least 2023.

When the Church of England debated whether or not to ordain women, the legislative process required many stages of debate, with discussions at deanery and diocesan level, with invited speakers (I was one of those on the circuit) and votes on a motion. Who knows, perhaps somewhere down the line this will happen for the presenting issues which led to LLF: the question of equal marriage, and of the training and ordination of people in same-sex relationships. To put it simply: full inclusion of all of us, regardless of sexuality and gender identity. But we’re nowhere near that yet. When LLF – not the presenting issues, but the process of using the resources – comes to General Synod in February 2023 this will only be what is now being described as ‘the beginning of a new phase of work’.

Now, and in the next few months, people who do the five-session course produced at a late stage of the LLF process are being invited to record their responses in a survey. The survey has been produced by Rev Dr Fiona Tweedie and her small team; Tweedie trades as Brendan Research. Everyone is encouraged to fill in this survey, so here is my basic guide to it, and to what is involved. I’m sorry it’s so long, but I think it’s important that people share their responses with the LLF team and there are many things I find disturbing.

Before coming to the content, I do have some basic questions about the format of the survey, the results of which are clearly going to be taken to General Synod at some point. It has a mix of open (free text boxes) and closed questions. In terms of producing any quantitative data, it avoids the ‘frequency scale’ which would have a limited number of options (do you do this never/rarely/sometimes/often/always?), and instead relies heavily on the visual analogue or ‘slider’ scale, which has an infinite number of categories according to where you move the little pointer on the spectrum between, for example, ‘strongly agree’ and ‘strongly disagree’. Importantly, none of the questions ask you to give your view on equal marriage, or on any other presenting question which you may have expected LLF to address. What is instead considered interesting is whether you think you know more about the issues than you did when you started.

In more detail, then, this is what the survey asks. After finding out which diocese you are in, it asks questions about five aspects:

  • Teaching from the Bible
  • The inherited teaching of the Church
  • Emerging Christian views on these topics
  • The complexities underlying identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage
  • How you relate to people with different views (specifically, after engaging with the course, can you now do this ‘more compassionately and respectfully’?)

These are taken from the learning outcomes of the LLF process. Of these five aspects, rather confusingly two of them – inherited teaching and emerging views – are combined here, so they generate just four questions which are answered using the slider scale; you are asked to move the marker on a horizontal line into a position between ‘strongly disagree’ and ‘strongly agree’. That’s tricky because if you think you have always been able to relate compassionately and respectfully to those with whom you disagree, you just put the marker in the middle, because it’s asking if you can now do this ‘more’ than before, and you don’t. If you feel you already understood ‘what the Bible says about these topics’ then what do you with the line under ‘I have a deeper understanding of what the Bible says about these topics’? Strongly disagree, because you’ve thought about it all before? I suspect Church of England people are going to want to put lots of ‘agreement’ in there (even if it’s the wrong answer) because that sounds nice and friendly and isn’t that how we like to see ourselves?

The next section is about specific sections of the formal course, so if your engagement is instead based on reading the book and/or watching the videos, you can’t answer. There are other ways available for giving feedback if this applies to you: you can email direct or you can draw a pretty picture. Yes, seriously. In the interests of involving everyone, not just those of us who like playing with words, you are invited to ‘make something’: to ‘paint, draw, sculpt, sew, knit, bake, grow, write (a song, poem, prayer etc.), compose, sing, and so much more’ either as an individual or with your family, friends, or LLF study group. Or you can submit an image which will ‘be thoughtfully and creatively curated and presented in a creative and impactful way’. I can’t share a link to you for those last two sentences because you need to register on the LLF Hub to see this page. I can think of a number of songs I would like to sing about LLF – ‘I will survive’ being a leading contender – but I obviously lack imagination, as I can’t envisage a cake that represents the themes of LLF. There are plenty of gay cakes around, but they don’t somehow fit. If I were to paint something, I think it would involve tears of sadness. I’ve now heard of one group who did the course and are knitting rainbows to send to every member of the Next Steps Group, so there’s a thought. It reminds me of the US ‘Knit your congressman a vagina’ campaign, and why not?

Returning to using the online LLF questionnaire, if you have done the course, for each of the five sections you are asked whether the material there was ‘Very familiar’ or ‘Very new’ or somewhere in between. That’s tricky too. What if all the material was familiar but one new thing jumped out at you and made you revisit your beliefs? In this case, the response should be close to the ‘Very familiar’ end, but that doesn’t really capture your experience.

You are then asked where, on a spectrum from ‘Terrible’ to ‘Wonderful’, you found ‘the experience of engaging with the course materials’. That’s another difficult one; doesn’t it depend on the group with whom you did the course? Not to mention your sexuality: but you are invited to tick a box for that later on, if you get that far with the survey, so there is scope for discovering that one group of people found the course less wonderful than anyone else.

After these slider scales, there are two free text boxes to fill in. One is about ‘the overall course experience’ and the other on how ‘engaging with this course made a difference to you’. I wonder how these free text boxes will be used. Are the team looking for key words, or trawling for quotable sentences, or both? Judging from Brendan Research’s recent report on the Scottish Churches’ experience of the pandemic, the LLF survey report will include a mixture of tables and diagrams along with a large number of assorted anonymous quotations which are considered to exemplify the answers. In the Scottish Church, these are given general attributions such as ‘Senior Pastor, Independent’ and ‘Minister, Baptist Union’. Here, perhaps, ‘Oxford Diocese, in civil partnership’? Interestingly, in the LLF questionnaire, that standard binary division in the Church of England, lay/clergy, isn’t used. And nowhere are you asked how you would classify your theological position. Later in the questionnaire they want to know how you would describe yourself: sexual orientation, marital status, gender identity, age group. There is opposite-sex married, same-sex married, and also ‘other married’ (what’s that?). As well as same-sex and opposite-sex cohabiting, there’s ‘other co-habiting, e.g. where one person is trans’. And so on. 

Moving on with the questionnaire, you are then asked what else you used, besides the course – the book, podcasts, story films or learning hub library of further resources. Finally, for this section, two more free text boxes – one on ‘How do you hope the engagement with this course will make a difference in your local church?’ and the other on ‘How do you hope the church-wide engagement with this course will make a difference in the national Church?’, a question which assumes that there is, indeed, ‘church-wide engagement’. The survey then moves to ask you if you have shared what you’ve learned with others, whether you’d recommend it to a friend, and why/why not. The final box is ‘Anything else’. 

But you’re not finished yet. Although question 23 includes the possibility that you did the course on your own, questions 29-32 ask about the group in which you did it; including whether you felt you could ‘participate openly and safely’ in it.

Some very basic use has already been made of the questionnaires submitted thus far. The NSG press release from the 24 November meeting includes:

The meeting welcomed an interim report on the Living in Love and Faith Questionnaire. Respondents have generally found the course positive with their understanding deepened. The story films and book proved consistently positive, with almost 75% of respondents saying they would recommend the course and over 80% saying they have shared the information with others. The Next Steps Group encouraged ongoing efforts to increase the response rate by the end of April and emphasised the importance of continuing to hear from a broad range of respondents.

Meanwhile, the even more minimal press release from the House of Bishops meeting on 13 December 2021 tells us

The House was invited to reflect on issues raised in an interim report on a set of responses to the Living in Love and Faith resources. The House took note of the interim report.

As a result of this meeting we’ve been told that 6000 people have taken part in ‘diocesan taster days’, 500 are now LLF facilitators in their dioceses, and 12,500 have registered on the LLF Hub. In an article in the Church Times January 2022, Dr Eeva John commented

People are saying “I haven’t changed my mind but actually I understand so much better why someone thinks differently, and I have met people that have moved my heart.”

This makes me wonder: how do we survey and process a movement – not a change – of the heart? 

And then there are those numbers. I wonder, have there ever been any success criteria for this questionnaire? How many responses does it need in order to become a meaningful indicator of engagement? 12,500 on the Hub… Well, in 2019 there were around 20,000 active clergy in the Church of England. The number of regular worshippers was 1.11 million, and the usual Sunday attendance 690,000. I am assuming much weight will be placed on the questionnaire, as the main – only? – means of showing whether people think they have learned anything, but is it fit for purpose? We’re exhorted to focus on the journey, not the destination, but how does this seven-year (so far) process feel to those faithful Christians longing – for example – to celebrate their committed relationship in their church? For those I know: it feels interminable, and abusive. Those cakes baked for LLF, those songs written and sung and submitted as feedback … these feel like an insult, not a response. Nevertheless, the questionnaire and the opportunity to send in your comments are all we have, so I would urge people to engage before the process ends in late April.

Posted in Church of England and gender, Episcopal Teaching Document, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

General Synod: feeling the weight of the Church of England

(‘Questions’ section corrected 22 November 2021)

I’m back on General Synod: for the second time in my life. What’s it like? I published a short piece just over a month ago, after my election as a representative of the Oxford Diocese to the House of Laity of General Synod; and now I’ve had my first meeting. It was very full-on, information-heavy (by necessity) but my overall reaction was strongly that it was right for me to be there. ‘Coming home’ would be far too strong, but I was absolutely certain that I was right to stand. 

I represented Guildford Diocese in 1985-1993, in my late twenties, as one of the five youngest members. There are still very few in their twenties, but those I’ve already met clearly have a lot of experience and thinking to offer. Synod also looks more ethnically diverse than it did then, and of course – big difference – when I went on in 1985 women were only in the House of Laity. Things can, and do, change. So it was odd to meet people who, when told I’d been a member a long time ago, said “Oh yes, I thought I recognised you!” 

This blog is subtitled Reflecting on sexuality and gender identity in the Church of England, and although I am far from being a single-issue member of General Synod it’s not going to become a general blog on everything that happens at every meeting. Nor will it become a blow-by-blow, day-by-day summary. Other people do those and, quite honestly, I need time to decompress every evening rather than rushing back to my computer. So, sparing you all my thoughts about Synod in general (and I’m sorry that, even so, this is a longer blog post than usual), here goes, mostly on those themes.

Living with Living in Love and Faith?

I put in a request to speak in the debate on the Agenda, when members can ask the Chair of the Business Committee about the reasons why topics are included; or not included. I wanted to ask why the Leeds Diocesan Synod motion (on the wealth gap) was ‘in’ the agenda when the Hereford Diocesan Synod motion (on blessings for same-sex couples after a civil partnership of marriage) was ‘out’. This meant I could flag up to new members the way that the current policy, of not allowing debate on such themes until after the ‘Living in Love and Faith process’ is complete, will mean at least six years of silence on topics which are very important indeed to many of us. I spoke to the Chair of the Business Committee before and let him know what I was going to say, or at least roughly what, as it rather depended on what he said in his intro to the debate, and what other speakers raised. 

In fact, I was called to speak first. But before the debate could start, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke to Synod. Following a lot of concern about the widely-reported statement from the Anglican Church in Ghana apparently endorsing a bill proposing the criminalisation of LGBTQ+ people, he denied that this is their church’s policy, supporting this with reference to private conversations he is having. This was a surprise, bearing in mind the bishops in Ghana, for example, offering to “open our counselling and support centres for the needed transformation services required by these persons or groups”, which sounds a lot like conversion therapy. The beginning of the debate on the Agenda was further delayed a little by a silent protest by LGBT members of Synod holding up placards pointing out that if the proposed bill in Ghana goes forward, they would be imprisoned there; of course, if the bill becomes law, it will also affect those of us who are allies, as we too would be liable to be imprisoned. This was a powerful reminder that, in debates about sexuality and gender identity, it’s not ‘us’ talking about ‘them’. ‘We’ are all the Church.

Then we moved to the debate on the agenda. After pointing out that the Hereford Diocesan Synod motion had been bumped down the list, I asked whether there is a ‘forbidden list of words’ which evoke the ‘Not to be discussed while the LLF process continues’ response: I named sex, sexuality, gender, friendship – because LLF talks about friendship – and marriage, asking whether a Diocesan Synod motion from Blackburn will also fall foul of the ‘not yet’ rule because it includes the word ‘marriage’. The answer was that there is no ‘forbidden list’, but everything is considered on its merits: a clever answer, but I think I know what it means.

Questions

I also decided to submit two questions (every member is allowed up to two) for the Questions session which is traditionally on the first day of a Synod meeting, and to think about possible supplementaries after the written responses to my questions came out a few days before Synod met; the deal is that the original questioner can ask a supplementary, and it’s possible to ask these on other people’s questions too. While there are not always helpful answers, the Questions session offers an opportunity to hold our leaders to account. 

At a late stage, I decided to ask one supplementary on someone else’s question: I asked the Archbishop of Canterbury about the Ghana bill’s Clause 23, which would mean non-consensual surgery on people whose bodies do not fit the binary; he obviously wasn’t expecting this and gave an answer on the lines of Ghana not being the business of the House of Bishops. But at least members of Synod who didn’t previously realise this group of people is also affected now know about it. 

One of my own questions concerned how the Reference Group is being used by the Next Steps Group taking the Living in Love and Faith process forwards: the answer made it clear that it is only being used now, which seems odd, but it’s an answer and I appreciated the Bishop of London introducing her answer with “Thank you for this question which appropriately calls the work of the Next Steps Group to account”. So, no supplementary.

The other question I asked was on safeguarding: I was at a meeting shortly before Synod at which a church member challenged the amount of money being spent on safeguarding training and on support for survivors, and this made me pretty angry. There are no excuses for rejecting the training, and I am delighted that at last the Church is helping survivors. My question was simple: when is the Makin review into the abuses carried out by the late John Smyth going to be published? (useful video here) The Scripture Union Independent Case Review has now been issued but had a very narrow remit; Smyth was a trustee from 1971-1979. Survivors have been kept waiting for over two years already for the Makin review, apparently because of new evidence being brought, but what we’d been told most recently – publication “in 2022” – is still vague. The response I was given from the Lead Bishop for Safeguarding started with the usual “deep regret” but could not give any date. So I asked a supplementary about whether the review is including Smyth’s actions in Africa, since it seems to me that these have never been taken sufficiently seriously, and that the whole idea of sending someone with such a history to Africa is not just horrendous, but deeply racist. Smyth moved to Zimbabwe in 1984 (he continued to visit family in the UK) but then moved again in 2001, to South Africa, after nearly being brought to trial for offences against boys at his camps in Zimbabwe, including the death of 14-year-old Guide Nyachuru. The Bishop’s reply was that “If and when evidence comes forward of abuse which has taken place outside of its [the Makin review’s] specific remit, then that evidence is taken seriously, and further investigation into what comes to light will be, and must be, undertaken.” The terms of reference for Makin suggest a time frame up to August 2019, covering C of E bodies and office holders who had knowledge of what Smyth was alleged to have done; so, does that cover their knowledge of Africa? By 2013, the C of E authorities most definitely knew about what Smyth had done (the ‘Ruston report’ of 1982 was originally kept within the circle of Iwerne Trust leaders) and had informed the Anglican church in South Africa. But previously we had been told that Africa was not included in the Makin review.

Pomp and circumstance

There is just one other aspect of this first Synod of the quinquennium on which I’ll comment here: the Westminster Abbey Eucharist. It was very traditional, with of course the Abbey choristers, the organ, the robes and all the pomp. In contrast to the services I remember in 1985 and 1990, the Abbey didn’t want us all processing in, so we were seated with other diocesan members. This spared me what I recall as the most emotional part of the whole thing, that feeling of walking down the aisle to my fate, like a chosen victim in an animal sacrifice. But the service was still highly emotional, and not just because the hymns included one my parents had at their wedding and two we had at ours (‘Be still for the presence of the Lord and ‘For all the years’) which are already on my emotional high-octane list. 

Alongside the emotion, though, this time around I felt something else, alongside the feeling of being entrusted with an important responsibility. 

What you see speaks more powerfully even than what you sing and say. Over and over in the following two days, we heard the current C of E mantra of “simpler, humbler, bolder”. But did any of that apply to the service? Simple? Humble?? We also heard a lot about “Setting God’s people free” – one of Synod’s ongoing programmes, about valuing the laity. However, for the service, clergy were instructed that they must wear Convocation robes. Lay members of Synod were not to wear robes or uniforms, and that included laity who are Licensed Lay Ministers/Readers, who often wear robes when performing their roles in church. Why no robes for lay members of Synod? Because they ‘represent’ the laity. No, I don’t see the logic there either – clergy on Synod ‘represent’ the clergy who voted for them – and my preference would be for no members of Synod to wear robes or uniforms; just be there as Christians. 

At the same time as the service emphasised that we have been entrusted with a role which needs to be taken very seriously, there was another message: that this is the established Church. How can we possibly say anything that will change its course? The feeling of weightiness here is huge, and not always positive: and I was very aware that the weight of the Church is still crushing people. 

… UPDATE: Further reflections, focused on the Archbishops’ address, on the Via Media blog.

Posted in General Synod, Living in Love and Faith, Renewal and reform programme, Safeguarding | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Handing on the baton? Part 2

Back in July 2021, I wrote ‘Handing on the baton? Part 1‘ as a response to the presentation given to the outgoing General Synod on where the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process had then reached. You’ll remember that this all started in 2017, at which point I was a member of the History Thematic Group, supposedly feeding in a historical dimension to the creation of the learning resources. Since then, I’ve been elected to the Synod myself. There isn’t any formal discussion of LLF scheduled at the November 2021 Synod, but there will be an optional briefing session from the Bishop of London and members have all been issued with a new document to bring them up to speed on where we are with the ‘journey’ (a rather over-used image), GS Misc 1306. This has a section summarising the responses to the questionnaire issued to members of the ‘old’ Synod, and the ‘passing the baton’ image is used there too.

Presumably the phrase ‘passing the baton’ was suggested, or at least agreed, by the group of bishops who are now taking LLF forward: called, in another reference to travel and journeys, the Next Steps Group. But it’s now concerning me. The idea of a race has good Biblical precedent; it is used in the New Testament by the author of Acts (who mentions finishing the course) and in the epistles, for example in 2 Timothy 4: 7 on how ‘finishing the race’ is equivalent to keeping the faith, as well as 1 Corinthians 9:24, where only one runner takes the prize. In a context like that of LLF, where everyone is supposed to be heard, the idea of a prize seems out of place.

I’m not a runner, but it seems to me that there are important differences between LLF and a race. In a normal race, the course is marked out; you know where the finishing line lies. That doesn’t seem to be the case with LLF. Briefly, when we began in 2017 after the failure to ‘take note’ of the report GS2055, it was clear; the finishing line, in the sense of the date when the report was to be completed, would be summer 2020, ready for the Lambeth Conference. But even then it was less clear where the finishing line would be in the sense of the Church taking decisions on the questions which led to LLF, questions which in in GS2055 were all around equal marriage. That finishing line has continued to shift and shift; part of that was due to Covid and to the postponement of the Lambeth Conference, and it’s my suspicion that the latest timeline’s schedule for issuing a report on how participants responded to the LLF course reveals that the bishops want that to happen only when Lambeth 2022 is safely over. The distance over which this ‘race’ is run goes on being extended.

I am a realist. I know that when LLF started, we were making up the plan as we went along. There couldn’t be a clear list of topics for a publication until our discussions began, and for some time there wasn’t even agreement over whether there should be a ‘big book’ or something more accessible as the output. Over the course of 2017-2020, things kept changing. The initial concept for the book was to have something on where society and the church are ‘now’, with an explanation of how we reached that; then, a section on how God communicates – at one point, in that time-honoured Church of England tradition of things beginning with the same letter, that was going to be Creation, Canon, Church, Context, Conscience – and then a section on being human. That final section moved more and more towards being about humanity as fallen and then redeemed. You may well wonder how a document on equal marriage became such a huge project.

If there is a baton to pass on, it has changed its shape many times over the process. At one point, the book was drafted so that the story of the road to Emmaus provided the overall shape: at another point, one of the eucharistic prayers became the framing device. This all felt awkward; trying to fit everything into one of these frames obviously changed the content and its emphasis, but we were told that some bishops thought the book should tell the story of salvation more fully, and it’s the bishops’ teaching document.

When you pass the baton in a relay, you don’t change the baton and you don’t change the race length at the same time. Yet even at this (supposedly) late stage, there is the proposal to add in more resources: one of them, a resource called The Gift of the Church. What’s that? I’d no idea until I saw the document which forms the basis of GS1306, which tells me that it “encourages theological reflection across the church about what it means to be church in the light of the LLF process and the questions it raises. It also aims to ensure that the work of discernment and decision-making is biblically, theologically and
experientially grounded in what it means to be church”. Who’s writing it? From the minutes of the Next Steps Group meeting of 29 September 2021, apparently the Next Steps Group and the Faith and Order Commission, with unspecified “others”.

Another addition is “an annotated bibliography relating to gender identity and transition”, even though trans Christians have argued against going ahead with this now. The letter from Revd Tina Beardsley of Changing Attitude England to the Bishop of London, summarising the current situation for trans people, has been published on the Unadulterated Love blog. Who is this bibliography for? Does anyone need it, bearing in mind that the LLF book has already discussed what it is to be trans and that, as Tina points out, the Church’s position on ordination and marriage of trans people is clear? Why problematise this group now? Tina has offered a training session to the Next Steps Group and, as for a bibliography, I’d have thought a simple recommendation to read Shon Faye’s book, The Transgender Issue: An argument for justice (2021), would suffice.

If this is a race, the losers still seem to be people who identify as LGBTQI+. The bishops-only Next Steps Group has a more diverse advisory group but it isn’t clear whether this has even met. At the moment, the involvement of LGBTQI+ people in this process has moved from minimal to apparently non-existent. It feels to me like the baton is just being passed between white cis-het people, while the race continues to be extended.

Posted in Church of England and gender, Episcopal Teaching Document, General Synod, Living in Love and Faith | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ghana, Anglicans and expediency:

Living in Love, Faith and Lambeth

The current outrage about the support of some Anglican bishops in Ghana for the proposed legislation imposing 5-year prison sentences for identifying as gay or trans, or 10 years for promoting anything other than heterosexuality, yesterday reached the stage where the Archbishop of Canterbury has made a statement and various other bishops are repeating it or making comments of their own. To my mind, the best response so far is that of the senior staff of Portsmouth, the diocese which is officially linked to Ghana. They rightly draw attention to the document signed by all Anglican primates in 2016, rejecting criminal sanctions against LGBTQI+ people. So how do the Ghanaian bishops get away with this?

The discussion has made me think again about the Lambeth Conference, the official once-a-decade international meeting of Anglican bishops. In the C of E, what is resolved at these conferences has moral authority, but not legal force. Successive Lambeth Conferences have changed their views; for example, on contraception, condemned as “hostile to moral welfare” in 1908, seen as “an invitation to vice” in 1920, but fine within marriage by 1958. In the context of the Ghana situation, a resolution from the 1998 conference, known as Lambeth Resolution 1.10, has been mentioned again. I hadn’t really read it properly at the time; I wasn’t in any church roles and had other things to do, but now I regret not having been aware of what it said and how it was put together. It supports “faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union”, so, I ask, is marriage after divorce acceptable? probably not, so that would already put the C of E – and me! – in a difficult position. It recognises that – even in the Church – there exist “persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation”. That’s pretty mealy-mouthed, hinting that these persons may be misled by their feelings, or what the 1998 documents called their “false understandings” of themselves, and contrasts with Portsmouth Diocese‘s point that what Ghana proposes is imprisoning people “for being who they are”.

Lambeth 1.10 rejected all “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture”. In terms of our current discussions in the C of E, the resolution went on to state that the Lambeth Conference “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions” (why use “sex” and then “gender” here? I think I need this unpacked). The Resolution also condemned “irrational fear of homosexuals”; what, I wonder, would count as a “rational” fear?*

When you go further down the webpage giving Resolution 1.10, you will find that – rather like the C of E today in the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) book – the bishops “confess that we are not of one mind about homosexuality”, some of them thinking it’s a disorder but that “through the grace of Christ people can be changed, although not without pain and struggle”; presumably this means conversion therapy is fine, but that has been condemned since 1998, even though the current statement by the Anglican bishops in Ghana is still promoting what they call their “transformation services” – sounds like an interior decoration firm, but it most definitely is not. At the other end of the spectrum in 1998, there were already some bishops who thought that monogamous homosexual relationships should be supported and people in them should be able to be ordained.

In 2016 George Conger blogged about his experiences of the creation of 1.10. His intention was to show that some of the liberal attempts at that time to cite another clause of 1.10, on ministering to all regardless of sexual orientation, in order to support the involvement of C of E bishops in Pride parades, were not what those who voted for 1.10 had in mind. I can quite see that! Conger was at Lambeth as a gofer – the one who went out for late night takeaways, drove bishops to the station, served the canapés, put the conference directory together and, along with all this, typed up handwritten notes to create the final documents. Along with his fascinating comments on the lack of trust between the bishops, he gives an explanation for the origin of that “irrational fear of homosexuals” phrase; it was there to avoid saying “homophobia” because the Bishop of Dallas wanted to avoid giving the impression that opposing “the ‘gay’ agenda” counted as homophobia. Simon Sarmiento has also posted his experiences of Lambeth 1998, including the various stages which 1.10 went through in drafting, and Bishop Buchanan of Johannesburg’s critique of the idea that homosexuality is a “white man’s importation”, something I have also commented on here. Simon’s version of what the “irrational fear of homosexuals” is doing there instead credits a Kenyan bishop, Samson Muraluda. He also pointed out that, when considering this Resolution, “The unsolved mystery of yesterday is why 100 or so bishops attending the Conference apparently did not vote at all.”

I’m very glad that I wasn’t at Lambeth but, as regular readers of this blog know, I played a small part in LLF as a member of one of the thematic working groups, on history. Lambeth was mentioned all the time; the Terms of Reference under which we worked from October 2017 onwards stated that the document should be available for discussion before summer 2020, as it was both the end of the 2015-2020 Synod quinquennium and the occasion for the next Lambeth Conference. The LLF book was often described as “a gift to Lambeth”, calling up worrying images of bishops being given a presentation box, opening it expecting something lovely, and finding several hundred pages of reading matter. It reminds me of the random gifts received by royalty; a selection of which are here. But there wasn’t a Lambeth in 2020, and it still hasn’t happened. Were copies of LLF sent around the world anyway? I have no idea.

And if there is a Lambeth conference next year – the fifteenth one is now scheduled to happen at Canterbury from the end of July 2022 – how does it fit with the timeline for LLF? At the moment, that timeline involves the publications of two important items only in September 2022. These are the findings of ‘Listening to the Whole Church’ – the feedback from those who want to say how they found the LLF course – and yet another resource, ‘The Gift of the Church’, a late addition to the huge number of pages published as part of LLF, and something I’d never even heard about until this month. Only after those are published, a month or so after Lambeth has happened, can the ‘discernment’ process begin in the College of Bishops.

From the imperative to rush to publish in time for Lambeth 2020, it seems to me that there is a further pause being put on the LLF process now in order to ensure that no decisions are made until Lambeth 2022 has happened. Why? Because that way, the Archbishop of Canterbury keeps his hands clean and somehow holds the Anglican Communion together. “Yes, brother (and sister) bishops, we have published these resources, but no, we haven’t changed anything and of course we may not do so.” Are these delays, with the continued uncertainty for those who long for their relationships to be blessed by the church, a fair price to pay?

*Various amendments to 1.10 were proposed but were defeated or withdrawn. If you find 1.10 worrying as passed, I suggest a stiff drink before reading these.

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