by Charlie Bell
The Revd Dr Charlie Bell is a Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and curate at St John the Divine, Kennington.
In this article, first published in ViaMedia.news, he concludes: “This Synod, as divisive and tiresome as some of the debate was, has done what no Synod previously has ever been able or willing to do. The next step is equal marriage, because try as you might, you cannot hold back the justice of God.”
All About Power: General Synod and the LLF Debate
The General Synod of the Church of England is a strange beast, and this week was no exception. Most of us don’t pay an enormous amount of attention to it most of the time, but this week felt different. This week, our lives and loves were up for debate – once again. And whilst the outcome was – to my mind – a positive, albeit small, step for LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the Church, the debate gave us an insight into far more than that.
In 2017, the bishops were asked to bring something back to Synod that might prove acceptable to the majority, and that might model a better approach to same-sex relationships. In many ways, they have done precisely what they were asked to do – their offering ‘passed’. Yet one thing that they – corporately, although there are individual shining examples – cannot be accused of is being courageous. It is absolutely true that the numbers from this synod – a body that is entirely unrepresentative of the wider church, most particularly given the ludicrous method of electing lay representatives – suggest that equal marriage would not have secured the required two-thirds majority in all three Houses, a stipulation that Parliament must surely look to change in the coming years. Yet a refusal to even debate it, whatever the result of the vote on the prayers – a refusal backed by the House of Bishops – is frankly pathetic.
For at the heart of the debate in the chamber, and the endless faux outrage outside, was the outworking of power, and a refusal to dare to let go of it. For years, a relatively small yet vocal and uncompromising minority have spent their time holding us all to ransom. The motion in front of Synod was one that offered a compromise, that enabled people to hold different views and follow their consciences. It is fascinating – in that light – that the majority wasn’t any larger. The reality is that many people who oppose same-sex marriage don’t just oppose it – they oppose anyone being permitted to disagree with their point of view, their theological or biblical interpretation. This is all about power.
We saw this in the scandalous employment of endless delay tactics at Synod, whether by appeals to process or the crass disingenuity of some of the amendments tabled. Up popped the same group of people, time and again, to try to bring down any possibility of change and to try to kick this into yet longer grass. Synod, on the whole, saw through this, but it cast a shadow on proceedings in quite a significant way. “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one”, as we hear in St Matthew’s Gospel [Matthew 5.37]. There is no moral get-out on truthfulness – we cannot simply ignore the need to be honest in the small things in order to serve The Truth™. That is not how Christianity works, and I hope those who stood up in an attempt to subvert Synod might reflect a little on how that looked from the outside. The intervention by the Second Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous mp, was also somewhat unusual – shall we say – in suggesting that the real victims were the conservative MPs who felt unable to speak out in public. This argument is tired, and false victimisation is not a good look. Finding it difficult to express a view is not the hard bit; having your entire lives discussed by other people as a matter of abstract debate just might be. Giving up power, too, is hard.
Many have said that the Church of England is obsessed with sex. I might modify that a little bit – from the outside, the Church of England’s General Synod seems to be obsessed with other people’s sex lives. It was embarrassing to watch, and at times quite infuriating, most particularly when hearing the spurious nonsense that suggested gay people having sex would ruin opposite-sex marriages. Sorry, folks, but you’ve ruined marriage quite enough by yourselves – it ain’t us who have increased the divorce rate – and are your relationships really that fragile?! Someone even stood up to say their entire engagement would be rendered a waste of time if gay people were allowed to have sex. Give me strength.
Of course, this was all because the bishops were remaining silent on sex outside of marriage, and several speakers told Synod that this was an outrage. Well, might I remind those members of Synod who appeared terribly upset about that, that they are the very people who have stopped us even having the conversation about equal marriage. You cannot complain that the bishops have to find some kind of pastoral accommodation outside of marriage when you won’t allow the conversation on marriage. But then, they know this already. As I say, it’s all about power.
There were some key takeaways from the debate. The first was that this Synod, to a large degree, found good in same-sex relationships – for the first time. At last we can face down the usual claptrap about how same-sex relationships, with or without ‘sexual activity’ (whatever that is), are bad in the ‘settled mind’ of the church. They aren’t. It’s over. Issues is gone (or at least soon will be).
Secondly, the amendment that passed was a total waste of everyone’s time and effort. In effect, it did absolutely nothing – it endorsed the decision of the bishops not to bring same-sex marriage to the chamber on this occasion (unsurprising, albeit absurd), and endorsed their intention (a strange turn of phrase) that the prayers shouldn’t be ‘contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England’. Given that the bishops made that explicit in their accompanying paperwork and given that this is required anyway under canon law, this amendment is totally pointless. Neither did it restate the current position on marriage (and amendments seeking to do this comprehensively failed), nor does it bind any later synod. I suppose the phrase commonly used is ‘virtue signalling’.
Thirdly, those who oppose same-sex relationships should be careful what they try to amend for. Whilst it might have been a great play at delaying tactics – winsome even – it rather takes the wind out of the sails when Synod votes down the wrecking amendments. The final amendment, seeking once more to police the bedroom, was particularly nasty, and there was a delicious pleasure in watching it sink beneath the waves. Synod did not agree with the proposer that the prayers ‘should not be used so as to indicate or imply affirmation of sexually active relationships outside of Holy Matrimony or to invoke God’s blessing on such relationships’. That’s rather unfortunate for those seeking to make the new Pastoral Guidance another prurient, sex-obsessed, holes-ridden, tool of oppression.
So here we are. We can finally, as a Church, catch up with God in blessing same-sex relationships. We can finally recognise the role of conscience in debates in which different perspectives have been reached with integrity and with due attention to Scripture. And we can finally see the light coming through the ever-so-slightly open door to equal marriage.
This is the beginning and not the end. This Synod, as divisive and tiresome as some of the debate was, has done what no Synod previously has ever been able or willing to do.
The next step is equal marriage, because try as you might, you cannot hold back the justice of God.
This article originally appeared on the ViaMedia.news website on 11 February 2023 and is republished here by kind permission of the author and publisher. The original article is to be found here: https://viamedia.news/2023/02/11/all-about-power-general-synod-and-the-llf-debate/.