Disturbing advice to evangelical candidates for General Synod

by Phil Gardner

Phil Gardner is a member of the Equal Campaign’s organising group. A lay Anglican, he is on the synod of the deanery to which his parish church belongs in the Diocese of Leeds. He is thus an elector in the forthcoming Church of England elections to General Synod, and so has a direct interest in writing this article.

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” 2 Corinthians 4:1–2 (ESV)

“Sound as if you are a practising member of the Church of England”

The elections for General Synod are taking place only a matter of days away. All the various factions in the Church of England (evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics and so on) have encouraged their members to stand for General Synod, and they are supporting their candidates by advising them how to win votes, how to present themselves favourably in their election statements and at the hustings.

Canon Simon Butler
*The Revd Canon Simon Butler has a lot of clout. He is the Prolocutor of the Lower House [i.e. clergy] of the Convocation of Canterbury – the most senior elected member of the clergy, whose job it is to represent all the clergy of the Southern Province in General Synod and in the Church of England’s corridors of power. In his capacity as senior prolocutor he chairs the House of Clergy in General Synod and is a member of the Archbishops’ Council. He is also Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea, and an Honorary Canon of Southwark Cathedral.
, a member of the Archbishops’ Council, was sent a copy of one such briefing document and posted it on his Facebook page. Issued by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) and the Evangelical Group of General Synod (EGGS), it is entitled ‘Guidance Notes for Lay and Clergy Candidates’ and is sent to their supported candidates standing for General Synod. Despite the simple label ‘evangelical’, these are conservative evangelical organizations with strict fundamentalist doctrines – as their writings and websites demonstrate.

So why is this document worth noticing? Some of it is common-sense stuff that no one would object to (they should include a nice smiley photo of themselves), but other aspects of the advice that CEEC/EGGS are giving their candidates must be of great concern to anyone who cares about the integrity of the Church of England and its electoral process.

Here’s one example:

Don’t focus on controversial matters such as:

  • same-sex relationships/marriage, transgender, etc
  • women priests/bishops
  • abuse within the Church

“The issue of human sexuality is obviously important – but you need to take a view as to whether it’s helpful to reference this in your statement or not. It might be that it is wiser not referred to. As an alternative – it might be helpful to talk about listening positively to and respecting the views of others, even when we find ourselves disagreeing.”

In effect, that’s suggesting they shouldn’t clearly state their actual negative beliefs about same-sex relationships and marriage, trans people, women in leadership positions, and – perhaps most bizarrely of all – abuse in the Church (appalling, sad, but hardly controversial), for fear of putting off voters who might run a mile if they knew how negative and exclusionary the candidates’ views really were.

Here’s another example, this time from a list of things they should do:

“As much as possible, sound as if you are a practising member of the Church of England, that you are an Anglican!”

This could just be an unfortunate way of saying “You are an Anglican, so write like one” … but a more natural reading is that they may be only marginally Anglican but should portray themselves as being fully so.

The overall impression of the document is that candidates should pretend to be much more ‘moderate Anglican’ than they actually are. This is reinforced by the accompanying ‘hustings tips for dealing with potentially hostile questions’, which could come out of a spin-doctor’s manual.

One tip, for dealing with a question about diversity and inclusion of LGBT+ people, suggests they say that all credal churches must have boundaries and point out that

“the church does not permit/bless threesomes in a cohabiting relationship.”

This is sleight of hand. If someone asks a legitimate question about whether the Church should adjust its boundaries so as to accept, include and affirm LGBT+ people and committed same-sex relationships, the advice is to imply that the questioner doesn’t want us to have any boundaries at all. No one thinks that; we just disagree where the lines should be drawn. The irrelevant example of cohabiting ‘threesomes’ is just included to provoke the questioner and thereby divert the discussion away from answering the question, which surely deserves a proper answer.

Of course, many evangelicals would be uneasy at or even horrified by the aspects of this guidance we have highlighted. Nor are such things restricted to one branch of the Church: factions of all kinds can tempt people to put loyalty to their cause before their commitment to honesty and integrity. But as Christians we must all be on our guard against the enticing idea that a small deceit is okay in order to help our particular ‘truth’ to prevail. That is not the way of Christ.

A final suggestion for those of us who are electors to General Synod: let’s ask the candidates some really clear, precise questions about matters that concern us. They don’t have to answer them, but fudging or silence can also speak volumes. And let’s not get diverted by mention of ‘threesomes’!

The two documents referred to may be downloaded here: GS21Guidanceforcandidates3Sept21.pdf Hustings-tipsforpotentiallyhostileQs.pdf