working to allow all couples to marry in church, regardless of their sex or sexuality
Some reflections on General Synod
by Nic Tall
Some reflections on General Synod, from someone who was there at the heart of the action:
From outside the church this will look like a tiny step, a begrudging tokenistic shift which still falls far short of the rights enjoyed by LGBTQIA+ people in British society. But from inside the church this was a seismic shift.
The voting was decisively in favour of greater inclusion. On the final vote 57% supported, 41% opposed, with 2% abstaining. The vote also passed in all three Houses, so there is support for greater inclusion across bishops, clergy and laity.
The next task is the refinement of liturgy and the drafting of pastoral guidance to replace Issues in Human Sexuality. This will be overseen by the bishops, and it is hoped that they will be ready for Synod to see in July 2023. Changes to what we can do should start to filter through then.
In the drafting of pastoral guidance and the refinement of prayers, the deep divisions that persist will need to be acknowledged. However, the numerical weight of the 57% voting in favour needs to be acknowledged as the senior partner in shaping future directions.
Much as we want much more progress, much more quickly, we have to be realistic about the nature of the Church of England and the diversity within its membership. To achieve equal marriage would require a two-thirds majority in all three houses, and the eight-hour debate has shown that we are a long way from that. We will need to let the changes approved on Thursday bed in and change culture before we can break down more barriers. I wish it were not so, but we have to be realistic and do what we can now while working towards what we can further achieve in the future.
Concerning traditionalists in the church, we do need to be reaching out to them and modelling Christian love. Those from the LGBTQIA+ community know what it is to be othered and rejected. Right now the traditionalists who voted against the proposals are hurting, and we need to find an appropriate response to their pain. It is not equivalent to the pain of rejection suffered over the years by LGBTQIA+ people, but it is still pain. I believe the conservative evangelical leadership have been unwise to lead their people to a cliff edge and whipped up fear about how terrible it would be if there were any progressive change, providing no off-ramp to de-escalate the rhetoric. We need to be calming that situation and showing there is a way to step back from the brink and modelling what inclusion means in this context.
Be in no doubt that this vote will change the culture in the church. A group of affirming Christians met at the start of Synod at St Martin-in-the-Fields, itself a pioneer in inclusion. We were drawn from all walks in the church – Anglo-Catholic, evangelical, broad church, high and low, young and old, from cities, towns and villages, all united by a sense of the all-encompassing love of God. There was a visible sense of the Kingdom of God and what the church could be. At the end of the meeting Neil Patterson, the Chair of the General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group, said that this Synod could be the turning of the tide. At the end of the week we can see the tide has turned.
We all owe a huge debt to the tireless work of campaigning groups and their supporters. Inclusive Church, The Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England, Changing Attitude England, OneBodyOneFaith, the Ozanne Foundation, MoSAIC – to name just a few of the groups that have galvanised support and helped shape the environment that made change possible. For every one of you who has responded to their calls to action – writing a letter, responding to consultation, offering up prayer, you have been a part of this. Thank you.
We also need to remember the inclusive Christians in Synod who delivered when it mattered. The level of togetherness, unity and determination to see off procedural nonsense and conservative amendments was superb. Progressives in Synod presented a formidable argument for inclusion and against the status quo. Sitting in the heart of the chamber, any point it looked like things might move away from us, people stood up and gave speeches that swung it back our way. Intelligence, passion, eloquence – this was inclusive Christianity at its best, taking on the arguments, making the case and coming out on top. This has been a gruelling week for us, and it will take a little time to decompress and make sense of it all. A special shout out to LGBTQIA+ members of Synod who were prepared to make themselves vulnerable and be in a very uncomfortable place – you are heroes.
If you ever doubt whether you can make a positive change in the world, look at the events of this week and realise that you can. It isn’t easy, it takes dedication and hard work, you need resilience, wisdom and friends on the journey. Most of all you need to hear the call of God to step up and make a difference. But this all came about by the actions of people, most of us quite ordinary, captured by a vision of the radical inclusive love of God and know that is something we can never give up on.