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?