Having written to my bishops (replies received, thanks) and to lay representatives of my diocese on General Synod (wish I could say the same), I was sufficiently disappointed in the Bishops’ Report (GS2055) that I took the opportunity to go along to Church House, Westminster, for much of the day on which it was debated. I was on General Synod for 7 years, and before I stood for election I used to attend regularly – and not just for the Big Debates – to get a sense of what it was all about. The public gallery was therefore familiar territory to me, but when I started my journey on Wednesday I didn’t care whether I made it that far. I just wanted to register my disappointment and to be with those hurt by the Report.
Outside Church House
I started off joining those stationed outside the building, complete with banners; it was great to meet people I’d only previously met online, as well as lots of new people. I also said hello to members of GS with whom my path has crossed over the years. I even spoke to my bishop. I sat with for a while on the steps with someone from a news channel who wanted to know what a ‘take note’ debate meant and what passing or rejecting the motion to take note would mean; I remember my Standing Orders pretty well and was able to give her some pointers.
The last time I stood there on the steps, I was holding one letter of the word WAITING, as part of a Movement for the Ordination of Women vigil. It all felt very familiar. At that time, many people assumed I was active in MOW because I felt a vocation to be a priest, but that was never the case; I was there because I believed that all roles in the church should potentially be open to women, because women are as much members of the church as men are. This time around, perhaps those who don’t know me assumed I am in the LBGTI+ group. Wrong again: as before, I was there because for me this is an issue of inclusion and of recognition that all members of the church are of equal value. I think it’s very important, in both debates, to have people present about whom it can’t be said ‘You’re only here because it’s all about you.’
Despite a lot of media people desperate to get some footage, I avoided giving interviews – I think it’s far better that those closer to the issues than I am are able to share their experience. Some people I stood with were very much a part of the Church of England, including those hearing a call to full-time ministry: others had reluctantly left our church, making their presence at the vigil outside Church House perhaps even more significant.
One highlight on the steps was when a supporter came along with sandwiches, fruit and sweet things for those of us who hadn’t managed to take a break to eat. I was very touched that someone would do this. His gift reflected a sense of generous hospitality all round.
As we stood on the steps, there was also a lot of confusion, which brought back many memories of my time on GS. We heard the (true) rumour that as many as 60 people had decided not to take part in the session in small groups discussing real-life case studies (while I was on the steps, one person came out of a group in tears because of what someone else in that group had said). We heard that the Archbishop of Canterbury was going to see the people who had opted out of group work (also true). We heard that around 160 people had asked to speak in the debate (again, true). We also heard about when tickets to the public gallery would be issued, and I decided to try to get one of those. Success.
Inside the debating chamber
Once installed in the gallery, I spoke to the woman sitting next to me. She was, she said, a supporter of ‘traditional marriage’. We spoke for a while and I told her something of my story. I resisted asking why she uses the words ‘traditional marriage’ when marriage has changed so much over the centuries. Others sitting around me were familiar from Shared Conversations or from my time on the steps of Church House.
I spoke to the staff in charge of keeping order in the gallery; they weren’t really expecting any trouble (and we behaved impeccably – apparently someone in the morning had a banana confiscated, but we weren’t as daring as that!). One said ‘I don’t see the problem – two brides, two grooms, what does it matter?’ Another agreed and said they’d be ‘praying into’ the debate.
The debate was interesting; one of the best I’ve heard in GS, either from my years there or from listening online since. It was firmly chaired, which was a mercy as I don’t think I could have managed to listen to much more from the one speaker who had to be stopped at the three-minute time limit (we had reached something about excommunicating people, so I think we may have been in the wrong church there…).
- A speaker on the use of the language of ‘welcoming’ LGBTI+ people as wrong because it’s suggesting we (straight married people) are inviting other people into our home, but it’s not, it’s their home too. Nobody needs to be welcomed into their own home!
- A speaker on his fraught relationship with another person on GS who disapproves of his civil partnership, and who drew on Genesis 32:6, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’
- A deaf speaker on what it feels like to be excluded; and a BAME speaker on the difference between being excluded because of something visible to others, and being excluded because of something unseen by them.
- Lay speakers on how, if they are in civil partnerships with clergy, they find the special rules for clergy (basically, no sex in the relationship, whatever ‘sex’ means) affect them too; how had I not thought of that before, when I’ve met clergy with lay partners?
- The result: the vote against ‘taking note’ of the report, and the clear message that sends to the House of Bishops who endorsed it.
Other than the excommunication speech, that has to be the attempts of the House of Bishops to maintain collegiality regardless. The motion was passed in that house with one vote against, and the errant bishop promptly apologised because he had pressed the wrong button. Apart from the excellent joke which that generated – about how one should never get in a lift with him if one wants to get anywhere – this was depressing. Why did the bishops decide that, regardless of their own opinions, this theologically weak and pastorally insensitive report, which – as many speakers observed – does not reflect the Shared Conversations, was worth supporting as the next step (backwards?) on our journey? Some insisted that the words ‘maximum freedom’ used in the report were key – it’s too much effort to change canon law (er, but we do, in other cases) and it wouldn’t get a two-thirds majority (possibly true) so let’s be as free as we can within the bounds of canon law. I suspect that those opposed to further inclusion – even the very mild version in which clergy would be as free to bless a civilly-partnered gay couple as they are to bless a fox hunt or a warship – were alarmed by ‘maximum freedom’. The rest of us felt that there wasn’t much freedom on offer.
It doesn’t feel right to have a House of Bishops where nobody dares to step out of line. One of the people I met on the steps, someone who like me used to be a member of GS, observed that back in our day the voting of the bishops reflected disagreement, seriously-argued theological disagreement. Interested in this point, I looked back at the voting patterns of the House of Bishops. In November 1984, on the motion asking for the Standing Committee to bring forward legislation to permit the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Provinces of Canterbury and York, the bishops were in favour, 41-6. In 1992, when all three houses approved the women priests measure by the necessary two-thirds majority, the bishops voted in favour 39-13. Most recently, on women bishops, the bishops voted in favour 37-2 (one abstention). No sense of the need to be collegial. No three-line whip.
Do the bishops think nobody will take them seriously unless they speak with one voice? For me, the reverse is the case.