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: “Synod reps, I urge you to get this done. Say no to delay, and drag the Church of England on the first step of the journey. There is an inevitable finale to this particular spectacle, and that finale is full inclusion – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday soon. This is a time for hope, and for new beginnings – Synod reps, you are the midwives of this new creation. God bless you in what you will do this week.”
No More Delay: A Call to General Synod
I’ll admit to approaching Synod this week with rather mixed emotions. This is the case not least because I’m not a member – so I’ll be sitting on the side-lines, somewhat glad I’m not in the debating chamber, and yet also finding myself in that position that so many of us find ourselves in: watching other people make decisions about our lives.
The sense of powerlessness amongst LGBTQI+ folk has been palpable as Living in Love and Faith dragged the Church of England into conversations many didn’t want to have, for many different reasons. Yet there was always going to be an endpoint, and here we are.
What’s on ‘offer’ from the bishops is, in a sense, staggering from two directions. The wet-behind-the-ears young upstart me who despaired at the pathetic episcopal Valentine’s Day poison-pen letter issued in response to the introduction of same-sex marriage back in 2014 would not believe we now have blessings on the table. Frankly, I’m not sure I would have believed they’d be on the table when the House of Clergy gave the bishops a bloody nose in Synod in 2017. Yet looking at where we stand now, I can’t help but be disappointed that that’s all we’re being offered, after all this time, after all this expended energy – I can’t help but be staggered that this is all the bishops, corporately, think we are worth.
I care little for whether the draft prayers are blessing the people or the relationship – the fact of a blessing says that something is ‘good’, and for years we have heard that our relationships are no such thing. LGBTQI+ clergy have been hounded out of jobs; LGBTQI+ laity have had doors slammed in their faces; we have been told to have ‘warmer hearts and cooler heads’ whilst our entire lives, loves, and very existence has been trashed. We have been told to stop calling ourselves gay, and instead use whatever terminology is foisted upon us by those who know better. It is only in the Church that those who are doing the oppressing get to determine what the bounds of that oppression are, what homophobia is, what transphobia is. Meanwhile the world looks on, and cannot understand how we have gotten ourselves into this mess. The Church of England is seen as prejudiced, hateful, unwelcoming – however much we tell ourselves blessings is a big step.
So I come to these proposals with anger, certainly, and yet with a sense of realism, too.
The problem is that – however much we hate it – the next step in this process is political. That is simply a fact – this is now about votes. It is abundantly clear that nothing more than what is on the table could get through Synod, however much we wish it could. And that hurts, because here we are again being told to wait, wait, wait. Oh for more bishops to speak in our favour in more than a whisper; oh for them to stop hiding behind procedure and speak prophetically.
And looking at the Questions for General Synod during this session, the sheer, prurient nastiness from some quarters continues. This does not look like a Synod that truly wants to apologise for the hurt done – that continues to be done – to LGBTQI+ Christians.
We know that the bishops will authorise some form of these prayers ‘for use come what may’, whatever happens at Synod. The key thing now is how they are ‘received’ at Synod, and let’s not be naïve in thinking that this week doesn’t matter for what the future looks like.
Self-professed conservatives seem divided, not least on whether same-sex relationships can ever be a good thing (however obscene that might sound to anyone who has ever met a gay, lesbian or bisexual person). Some ‘conservative’ bishops have offered a theological reflection on their concerns about equal marriage, yet this paper’s thinness of content perhaps belies the disagreements that remain beneath the surface in that camp. But notable is that even they are willing to say what would previously never have been said:
Same-sex relationships can, of course, be lifelong, loving, committed, faithful, and provide deep and enduring companionship. As such the church needs to find ways to recognise and welcome such relationships, without explicitly or implicitly changing her teaching by doing so.
Yet the wider conservative response appears to be in one of two camps – delay, delay, delay, kick the can down the road yet again, or bizarre videos consisting primarily of weaponised prayer and threats to withhold money. In a sense, at least this mode of operation is finally out in the open. The threats have been there for years – the bishops have just been too scared to say anything.
The delaying tactics aren’t going to work: the prayers are going ahead. We know this. There will be procedural nonsense and attempts to water everything down. You can just imagine what is coming from the usual suspects.
Yet this is nothing more than a loud minority in the wider church that are excellent at getting themselves elected to stymie progress, and who have wasted our time for years.
For what it’s worth, I think these proposals are the next step on the road, and the destination is equal marriage. I strongly believe inclusive synod members should vote them through, even if the progressive amendments don’t pass. We can reason with people all we like, but it’s through experience that people change their minds. The minute we bless same-sex couples, people’s prejudice will be challenged by real, living people, right in front of them, living ordinary, faithful, loving, honest lives of love and faith, to coin a phrase.
Are these proposals enough? Absolutely they are not. Are they demeaning? Absolutely they are. Are they our best chance of changing the culture of the Church of England and creating an unstoppable momentum? I believe they are. If we vote them down, we simply provide ammunition for those who have always held the power over us. We won’t even be given the scraps, and the small but increasing group of genuinely supportive bishops will take the heat.
Make no mistake: the ‘conservatives’ will do anything to make these proposals fail, because they know this is a step on the road and not the end of the journey. They know that this is their last chance to hold back the floodgates. We have been held back long enough – enough of this.
But I would urge inclusive Synod members to make it abundantly clear that this is but a step on the road, and an unsatisfactory one at that. I would urge them to make it clear that if the new Pastoral Guidance is in the same vein as Issues in Human Sexuality, and if our clergy cannot marry according to their conscience, then the bishops will have betrayed us, again – and that there will be mutiny in the ranks. If the ‘conservatives’ won’t give us marriage, then they can hardly complain that sex outside of marriage is the next logical step. They made their bed.
The Bishop of London has said in response to a Question that:
The response of the bishops makes no proposals for further decision-making, nor does it have plans to do so. However, it is not within the bishops’ power to ensure or predict that there will never be further change in any direction.
Let’s be absolutely clear – there may be no ‘plans’ for further decision-making, but any bishop who thinks that this thin gruel of acceptance is the end of the road is in for a rather rude awakening. Unlike those who threaten to take away parish share, I don’t offer this as a threat – I offer it as a promise. The way forward is clear, and it is time bishops were held to account.
No more silence but much more honesty. Respect for theological differences of opinion. Freedom of conscience. No more punitive measures. And perhaps – at last – a recognition of the gift of LGBTQI+ people to the church.
Synod reps, I urge you to get this done. Say no to delay, and drag the Church of England on the first step of the journey. There is an inevitable finale to this particular spectacle, and that finale is full inclusion – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday soon. This is a time for hope, and for new beginnings – Synod reps, you are the midwives of this new creation. God bless you in what you will do this week.
This article originally appeared on the ViaMedia.news website on 4 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/2023/02/04/no-more-delay-a-call-to-general-synod/.