February 2023 General Synod: sex, sin and separation

Here is the story of ‘my’ Synod experience, for the record. Sorry it’s long but there was a lot of it. My take-home points would be that it is clear that conservatives are now focusing on two battles: to defend ‘sex is only in marriage and gay people can’t be married so gay people can’t have sex’ (whatever sex means) and the quest for a separate branch of the Church of England in which they can be kept safe from the rest of us. If being in communion with people who, in their terms, ‘bless sin’ is such a risk to their own salvation, then I really can’t see how any level of unity will be possible. We can’t both be ‘the Church of England’. And, bearing in mind – as the Bishop of Reading, Olivia, has pointed out, most congregations include people with a range of views on equal marriage.

For clarity, we passed (57% voting in favour) the bishops’ motion which repented of ‘the failure of the Church to welcome LGBTQI+ people and the harm that LGBTQI+ people have experienced and continue to experience in the life of the Church’, commended the LLF process and the Pastoral Principles, welcomed the bishops’ decision to replace Issues in Human Sexuality and welcomed more work on the prayers which include some that could be used (if the priest agrees) with same-sex couples in civil partnerships and civil marriages. Those prayers will come back to the July Synod. This will be a tiny, tiny change, when it comes. An amendment reinforced that the doctrine of marriage is not changed.

Monday was fine; good speech from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Bishop of London gave a thoughtful address introducing the Living in Love and Faith work for this session. The Questions session was good and (amazingly!) we got through all the Questions; the ones I had asked around safeguarding received interesting answers and I was able to ask my supplementaries. Off the agenda, an emergency meeting of the St Hugh’s Conversation – the group set up by the Bishop of Oxford three years ago to bring together prominent liberals and conservatives and to which I belong as a result of my position as vice-chair of the Gender & Sexuality Group – was called to discuss whether members want to propose in the debate the conservatives’ aim for ‘structural differentiation’ (separate bishops, separate training, separate ordinations, maybe difference provinces). This was inconclusive. In the evening, the Gender & Sexuality Group joined with Affirming Catholics in Synod, WATCH and the Evangelical Forum for an event at St Martin in the Fields. After eating together we heard short talks from a range of members including two bishops, all of us united in welcoming the new draft prayers which include some to use with a couple who have had a civil marriage or civil partnership. The closing service of Compline was very moving. There were nearly 200 people present.

Tuesday, the first full day, went downhill fast. The Questions submitted by members on the LLF theme were discussed and the supplementaries were battering for the Bishop of London, who was down to answer many of them. The tone was combative. There was also a demo outside the building which we had to pass on our way to the lunchtime fringe meeting with politicians informing us of the parliamentary situation with equal marriage – being shouted at by loud shouty people, carrying an above-life-size poster of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the devil, and telling us we are going to hell, was not pleasant. I didn’t engage other than to tell them to stop saying what I believe about LGBTQIA+ people when they’ve never asked me! 

Tuesday also meant 4 hours of group work on the prayers and on the proposed replacement document to the thirty-year-old ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’. I have heard that the College of Bishops, when it met separately, cheered at the suggestion that this would be replaced. Yet conservatives are claiming that this is a good document because it is opposed to homophobia. Anyone who hadn’t read the document for themselves may have believed that misleading reading! We are not allowed to discuss what actually happened in group work. I took part in it as fully as I felt I could and remained in the room. I think I am allowed to say that my group was very male and very conservative, and felt oppressive – largely because of its maleness. One of my interventions, intended to illustrate the Pastoral Principle of ‘addressing ignorance’, was just laughed at, and in this forum there was no way to speak about it further. Afterwards I was one of a number of people who spent time recharging with the chaplains.

There was so much being done by conservatives to block even the tiny amount of change proposed. These include 

•       manipulating existing Standing Orders

•       resurrecting obscure Standing Orders: on Monday we had a Petition presented to ‘call upon the General Synod to proclaim repentance of any form of prayer and practice inconsistent with Holy writ’ (shorthand for not allowing the Prayers being worked on by the House of Bishops to be used), and in addition the Convocation of York (= York diocese clergy meeting separately) was asked to pass ‘gravamina and reformanda’ which would stop the bishops bringing the new prayers into use; and then a similar meeting for the House of Laity was inserted into the agenda – Wednesday at 8 a.m. (not my favourite time of day)

•       many, many amendments from conservatives to the main motion. We only saw the list on the day of the debate; not surprising as the office had to deal with over 20 amendments. It became a possibility that 5 hours wouldn’t be enough for the debate and that we would have to resume it on Thursday morning

•       proposing new Standing Orders to require two-thirds majorities in each House even to discuss anything around the new prayers, and to allow Anglican Communion reps visiting Synod to decide if the two-thirds majority is needed

•       something that wasn’t around during my earlier stint on General Synod during the period when women deacons and then priests were discussed: the availability of WhatsApp, meaning not only that people in various groups can be less confused about what they are voting for, but also that what looks like a ‘loud and spontaneous reaction’ to a speech can be pre-orchestrated.

All this suggests that conservatives would do anything to block even the very mild prayers proposed, prayers which do not even bless the relationship between the people coming to church.

Wednesday began at around 5.30 a.m. when I decided to get up to have plenty of breakfast (it can get very busy in the Premier Inn Hub) before that House of Laity emergency meeting which would mean an 11-hour day in Synod. The House refused to back the motion by a good margin of around 20 votes (getting around 170 of us voting was an achievement in itself).

Then worship, followed by the Cost of Living debate for which I had submitted an amendment making it clearer that the responsibility for helping each other rests with us as individuals and that we don’t just do this in ‘churchy’ contexts. This passed unanimously as did the main motion. Depressing to see that many members didn’t think it worth turning up for this debate. Then I left the building, said hello to people already queueing for seats in the public gallery for LLF and spent some time in a café reading Synod papers, thinking, and being quiet (NB one of the best moments at Synod was seeing the Bishop of London chatting to the queue). I met some other members for a quick lunch before the Affirming Catholics Mass at St Matthew’s. As ever, this was a beautiful calm space in which to be fed. Andrew Nunn presided and did a helpful short reflection on the day’s readings in the context of the debate to come.

And then back to the debating chamber for over 5 hours on LLF. After some speeches from people in key roles on Synod or beyond, we started on the long list of amendments. Most were from conservatives, who had earlier said they would vote against the very mild main motion – which says Issues in Human Sexuality will be replaced with pastoral guidance (unspecified) and that the bishops will work on their draft prayers for people in a range of situations – whether or not amended. Most of those amendments were from one member. They weren’t helpful (e.g. to delete the ‘T’, the ‘Q’ and the ‘+’: the Bishop of London told him that they were there because that is how people describe themselves).

But the debate in general was OK. It settled into a rhythm. The person moving the amendment speaks. Bishop Sarah says she accepts the amendment, at which point it is automatically debated OR Bishop Sarah rejects it, then it is debated if 25 people stand or otherwise indicate they want it to be debated. Two more speakers are called, usually just one in support, one against. As the debate wore on, we were increasingly likely to hear a general speech desperately shoehorned into the topic of that amendment. Then a vote, always a ‘counted vote by Houses’ meaning that unless all three Houses have a majority in favour, the amendment lapses. There was a lot of use of Standing Orders in which we need 25 members to stand in order to close a debate or in order to have a count of the whole Synod or a count by Houses (all devices which depend on which you think benefits your ‘side’ more). It became utterly predictable who would stand at what point.

And so we voted… and voted… until we were near the end, all amendments fell. The voting (on a handset so no doubts about it) showed that the House of Bishops strongly resisted amendments – after all they brought the motion. In some cases, two Houses voted one way and one House the other. That means the amendment fails – it must pass in all three Houses. The electronic voting means that a list of who voted how will be available and will be issued in a few weeks’ time. So those who ‘vote against their tribe’, in the words of Alison Coulter, will be exposed and they may not vote as they feel because their tribal identity means so much to them.

The excellent Chair announced at the beginning that his bladder wasn’t up to a 5 hour debate so there would be a ten minute break. In the end we had two of these but otherwise we were in that room until after 7 pm (there was a brief extension to the sitting to allow an ecumenical visitor to speak).

I attempted an early night. 

And at last, Thursday. We resumed the LLF debate at 9.15 with the rest of the amendments; in the end the debate was to last a total of 8 hours.

We listened respectfully, but what was said was very damaging to different people. There were moments when people went too far but we absorbed it rather than calling it out. There was often ‘too much information’ about people’s sexual lives, or chosen lack of them. A young woman talked about how she is marrying her fiancé soon and they have decided not to have sex until they are married; she felt allowing same-sex marriage would somehow mean her choice was not honoured. I don’t see how a decision like hers, with marriage imminent, is in any way comparable to telling gay and lesbian people that they can never marry and therefore must never have a sexual relationship.

The one amendment which made it to the final motion – because all three Houses voted for it, although in the House of Laity it was 98 for, 96 against and 4 abstentions – was ‘Endorse the decision of the College and House of Bishops not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage, and their intention that the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England’. Speaking against this, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes made a superb speech on how there has not been a consistent doctrine of marriage in the history of the church; something I had tried to point out in the small group work. 

And after all that? The Safeguarding debate; poorly attended, very much ‘managed’, deeply unhelpful and just reinforcing my sense that they are not letting Synod know what is really going on with the Independent Safeguarding Board. Then in my GSGSG vice-chair role I did a quick phone interview for the Telegraph, and a longer audio piece for the audio version of the Church Times. I turned down BBC TV for Sunday: I need to lie down soon. And I agreed to be on the panel on Friday morning for the Religion Media Centre which briefs journalists. 

And then, at last, home.

Note: I fully accept the inconsistency of hating alliterative titles, and using one here…

About fluff35

I blog on a range of subjects arising from various aspects of my life. On https://theretiringacademic.wordpress.com, I focus on my reactions to early retirement and think about aspects of teaching and research which I hope will be stimulating to those still working in higher education. On https://shared-conversations.com, I blog as an authorized lay preacher in a pretty standard parish church of the Church of England, who needs to write in order to find out what she thinks. I took part in the Oxford/St Albans/Armed Forces C of E 'Shared Conversations' in March 2016, worked on the Living in Love and Faith resources from 2017 and was elected to General Synod in October 2021, and continue to try to reflect on some of the issues. On https://mistakinghistories.wordpress.com I share my thoughts on various aspects of the history of medicine and the body. I have also written for The Conversation UK on https://theconversation.com/profiles/helen-king-94923/articles
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1 Response to February 2023 General Synod: sex, sin and separation

  1. Pingback: General Synod – 6 to 9 February 2023 | Thinking Anglicans

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