I’ve just been packing my bag for the Synod sessions which begin tomorrow. I remembered to include sunglasses, in case the lights from TV cameras turn out to be too headache-inducing. I also packed some paracetamol to be on the safe side.
For many members of this Synod, it will be their first experience of being so exposed to the mass media. In my experience, based on a previous spell on Synod when the women’s ordination measures were the main area of contention, it’s never been helpful to have this sort of attention. The whole ‘The eyes of the world are upon us’ vibe can lead to playing to the cameras, or to extreme nerves.
Ah yes, ‘the world’. One of the main themes since before the elections to this Synod concerned how the church and the world should connect. As I addressed in a blog post here at that time, are we supposed to be ‘counter-cultural’? If so, which culture are we called to ‘counter’ and why does that always seem to be about sexuality and gender identity, rather than about poverty or racism or consumer culture?
I’ve heard the phrase ‘car crash’ used by conservatives, but we don’t yet know whether, or at what point, this week’s meeting is going to become unpleasant. We’ll continue to be exhorted to be gracious, to show respect, to honour the Pastoral Principles: to ‘acknowledge prejudice, speak into silence, address ignorance, cast out fear, admit hypocrisy and pay attention to power’. The first part of the group work on Tuesday is focused on these, but the difficulty lies in knowing how to balance them. If someone shows ignorance then we address it. But if they disagree and tell us we are the ignorant ones, we end up with a slanging match. So do we just tiptoe around, treading cautiously on any potential eggshells, or tell it like it is?
There’s plenty of fear around, expressed by those whose lives are the object of discussion (not a good place to be) and who have not always been in the room where decisions are made, including those from a range of positions who say that they can’t stay in the church if the bishops’ document GS2289 is to be taken as the way forward; too much/not enough. Others, of course, have already left because of how they have been treated in their congregations, or – at the conservative end – because they felt they could not remain in the C of E even while sexuality was under discussion. GS2289, with what to me seems a very gentle approach of entirely optional Prayers to be used with people in various situations – not just after a civil partnership or civil marriage – is for conservatives the final straw, in a way that the ordination of women somehow wasn’t (although at the time when that was passing through Synod, I recall that it too was supposed to be fracturing a ‘creation ordinance’).
And then there’s power: in a Synod which seems to be split down the middle, who has power? After six years of LLF, and decades of previous reports; over 10 years since the House of Bishops brought together a group to reflect on human sexuality (the ‘Pilling Report’); more than 30 years since the Osborne report was commissioned before being suppressed (for twenty-two years…), and since the House of Bishops published Issues in Human Sexuality, using the term ‘homophile’ to avoid any idea that those attracted to people of the same sex would ever go beyond feelings; and over 40 years since the ‘Gloucester Report’… I don’t see how any Bible passage, argument or personal experience is going to persuade one group that they were wrong all the time. Does power lie with the House of Bishops? Who can do what, with what level of synodical majority?
My view is that the proposals offer a way forward which will help some people while allowing those who disagree to stay well away from any exposure to something with which they can’t agree. Blessing same-sex relationships (which isn’t even included in the draft Prayers commended by the bishops) is never going to ‘devalue’ my opposite-sex marriage. Nor do I see how it would ‘devalue’ those who have felt called to find ways of living other than marriage; whether they classify what they are doing as not yet having found a partner, or as singleness, or as celibacy (there’s even a Single Consecrated Life service offered in some dioceses) and that includes people who would welcome the Prayers now being suggested for something else called Covenanted Friendships. I am not sure how far this last category is open to friends who are not of the same sex, as two bishops I’ve asked have answered this question differently, but no doubt we’ll find out next week.
Tomorrow, Monday, we have half an hour from the Archbishop of Canterbury, presumably in part setting the scene, and also a presentation on the group work. On Tuesday, a session of Questions about Living in Love and Faith, and four hours on the group work itself. On Wednesday, five hours of debate, presumably with someone trying a procedural motion to argue that over forty years of foreplay isn’t enough and that we need to go away again. Somewhere in all that, there are three other debates in which I am particularly interested: on funding theological education, on the cost of living and on safeguarding.
Prayers as you start this week and looking forward, as always, to your reflections
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As a now ex-Anglican it looks to me like an invitation to a public ritual disembowelling