A Sum Total of Nothing

by Charlie Bell

The Revd Dr Charlie BellThe Revd Dr Charlie Bell is a Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge, assistant curate at St John the Divine, Kennington, and a consultant to the LLF Implementation Pastoral Guidance Working Group.

In this article, first published in ViaMedia.news, he concludes: “We have had enough. We have been taken for granted in Synod, and you should know, bishops, that you are no longer guaranteed inclusive votes based on private assurances. … You offered us bread but gave us a stone. You still have time to knead the dough.”

A Sum Total of Nothing:
The Prayers of Love and Faith Return to Synod

Well, here we go again. Another set of consultations, conversations, demands that LGBTQIA people make themselves vulnerable, another set of raised hopes, quiet promises, and damned hard work, and …well, nothing. Nothing at all.

It is almost unfathomable, yet entirely predictable, that we have ended up exactly where we started. This November Synod, where we had been told significant progress would be brought forward, what we are being given is absolutely sod all. Please don’t mistake this for hyperbole – I am speaking in simple factual terms. Nothing has changed. This is nothing, warmed up and then cooled down again, and presented as radical inclusion.

Not only are we presented with a sum total of nothing, but we are back talking in the way some of us had hoped was now history. The Synod papers have next to nothing positive to say about LGBTQIA people, and we are back to the despicable language of both-sides-ism that the ‘apology’ (which has shown itself to be utterly meaningless) suggested we might have finally grown out of. The motion being presented has inexplicably returned to the language of pain ‘on both sides’, as though there is even a remotely comparable situation for LGBTQIA people and those who oppose us having even private prayers.  The motion doesn’t even mention us – we are once again at best an abstract issue, and at worst simply erased. It is hard to take any other message from this that they wish we didn’t exist, and they don’t really care that we do. We are ‘less than ideal’ (with very uncomfortable echoes of the Higton motion in 1987) – our lives are clearly, in the bishops’ view, a blight on the life of the church.

The motion states, too, that we are in a ‘period of uncertainty’: we are not! A clear decision was made in February and the House of Bishops is actively choosing to frustrate its clear purpose. There is talk of ‘implementation’. Where, precisely, is this implementation?

We have been told that we are not to see the results of the Pastoral Guidance until 2025! The bishops are attempting to impose two more years of Issues in Human Sexuality blighting the lives of LGBTQIA clergy, preventing married people from getting ordained, and handing coercive control over our loves and lives to the meanness and lack of imagination of episcopal discipline. The cruelty of this – a decision imposed by an (allegedly) entirely straight House of Bishops on LGBTQIA clergy, with ever-present calls for us to be patient. Enough. We have been patient enough – over thirty years of patience.

It is a bare-faced lie to say that there is no draft guidance – I have seen it, and it has been presented to the House and College of Bishops. Very substantial votes in favour of change have been registered amongst the bishops. So what exactly is going on? We need to be told specifically what needs to be done for it to be brought back, and we need it to be brought back in February 2024 for final sign off at the very latest. We need, too, for Issues to be rescinded immediately, at this November Synod. As a wise priest friend said to me: what the bishops have done may be legal, but it is not honest. Bishops, it is time you remembered the wording of our ordination vows. Our obedience is not without caveats.

The commended prayers are – extraordinarily – a backward step. They quite literally amount to no more than our being able to pray for the gays in the intercessions of a regular Evening Prayer – and nothing more. The accompanying document makes it clear that the prayers can be used privately or ‘only in acts of worship where Prayers of Love and Faith are not the principal focus or form’ (and the guidance bizarrely suggests that nonetheless we ought to warn our parishioners in advance in case they want to avoid the beastly homosexuals!). This means that the commended prayers serve no pastoral purpose whatsoever – absolutely nothing has changed. I repeat, nothing – the commended prayers change nothing. So out of years and years of patient work, all we can do is pray for people like we already could do, and now we are specifically banned from holding special services for them. This is a scandal and the General Synod must demand that this ridiculous, offensive, unacceptable stipulation is removed if this motion is to be passed.

And finally, the accompanying document for discussion in Synod has gone against the express will of Synod by entirely errantly eliding the ‘doctrine of marriage’ (for which we might look to Canon B30) and ‘the place for sexual intimacy’. Laying aside the fact that the bishops have still not actually defined what that means (itself rendering Issues utterly meaningless), the press release from the Church of England contains within it a lie – stating that ‘Synod also voted for no change to the doctrine of the Church of England around marriage and sexual intimacy.’ No, it objectively and absolutely did not, and nor did it agree that the doctrine of marriage included the assertion that ‘marriage between one man and one woman’ is the ‘proper’ place for sexual intimacy.

The bishops accepted (including alleged ‘affirming’ bishops) – foolishly, as we told them, time and time again – an amendment that stated that Synod ‘endorse[s] 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’. Synod also rejected two further amendments that stated that ‘sexual intercourse as an expression of faithful intimacy belongs within marriage exclusively’ (motion 44) and a motion that required ‘instructions making it clear that [the prayers] should not be used so as to indicate or imply affirmation of sexually active relationships outside Holy Matrimony or to invoke God’s blessing on such relationships’ (motion 68). Synod therefore specifically did not vote for no change on sexual intimacy when presented the opportunity to do so, and nor is there anything in our doctrine that supports the claims made that sexual intimacy and marriage are one and the same thing.

Whoever drafted, or is ultimately responsible for, the press release and the paper accompanying the Synod motion is attempting to pull wool over the eyes of Synod and the wider church. Throughout the process, we have had long and fruitful conversations about teaching and doctrine, development and refinement, and yet here we are presented with a blunt and dishonest summary.

Yet why are we surprised? The level of backroom deals, conservative backchannels, central church dishonesty, wink-wink nudge-nudge antics, power-play, poisoning with fear, secret promises, (arch)episcopal grandiosity, and silly letter writing has finally won out. It is now fascinating to see that the sad cabal of bishops who ‘dissented’ ultimately didn’t even want LGBTQIA people to get – nothing at all anyway!

Well, the bishops should not be allowed to get away with it. The ‘affirming bishops’ need to take a stand, publicly, now. LGBTQIA people have spent quite long enough being the sacrificial lambs on the altar of unity – bishops, find some courage and speak for us, and that right soon. And frankly the ‘oh we don’t really know’ bishops need to recognise that that kind of fence-sitting has never been a Christian virtue, and most certainly is not now. We are real people whose lives are being wrecked by your indecision and refusal to look us in the eye. We carry the image and likeness of God in us, and you are marring God’s image when you slam the door in our faces.

We have had enough. We have been taken for granted in Synod, and you should know, bishops, that you are no longer guaranteed inclusive votes based on private assurances. You are called to ‘serve and care’ for your whole flock, and that includes us. You are called to have a ‘special care’ for ‘the outcast and those who are in need’, speaking ‘for those who have no other to speak for them’. It is time to do so – and it is time to end this sham once and for all.

You offered us bread but gave us a stone. You still have time to knead the dough.

This article originally appeared on the ViaMedia.news website on 21 October 2023 and is republished here by kind permission of the author and publisher. The original article is to be found here: https://viamedia.news/2023/10/21/a-sum-total-of-nothing-the-prayers-of-love-and-faith-return-to-synod/.