Double amber - proceed with extreme caution – unconditional love ahead

The railway line approaching Waterloo station swings through a series of curves between Vauxhall and Waterloo. This is because of the need to avoid, when first built, such existing obstacles as the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and the grounds of Lambeth Palace. A century later the Southern Railway introduced a new system of colour light signals, four rather than three aspect signals, unlike traffic lights. They had green, amber and red like traffic lights, but an additional amber light giving a double amber signal – proceed but with extreme caution.

I want to respond to the letter issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York yesterday with a double amber signal – proceed with extreme caution, friends – unconditional love always lies ahead.

The debate on Wednesday was utterly wonderful and transformative and the Archbishops’ letter is very responsive to the vote and the energy of the debate. The vote not to take note was what LGBTI people and those who support us had campaigned for with such vigour. It has forced the Archbishops to engage in a serious re-think. Their letter already reveals a remarkable change of tone and proposals for new way forward. I really value and appreciate their changed attitude.

The Archbishops recognise the need for “a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church . . . based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.” Fabulous!

But I have some words of caution, echoing the caution already expressed by some on the OneBodyOneFaith Facebook group.

The archbishops first ask “for every Diocesan Bishop to meet with their General Synod members for an extended conversation in order to establish clearly the desires of every member of Synod for the way forward.” This is a good first step, but:

The majority of the members of General Synod voted to take note of the paper on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (GS 2055). The margin in the House of Clergy was slim – seven votes produced the shock result. Building a majority that will vote in favour of proposed changes that need Synod approval presents a challenge.

In the House of Laity, there wasn’t a majority to question the bishops by voting against the take note motion. The majority agreed with the bishops and followed their lead.

Diocesan bishops and General Synod members

What happens when Diocesan Bishops meet with their General Synod members will depend on the degree to which each bishop and member has registered the message we wanted to communicate in the same way as the Archbishops have.

I’m very unsure whether the clergy and lay members as well as each bishop has the courage to press for change and know how to set about creating real change and which direction of travel to head towards. We know what we want, we have a clear destination in mind. The courage, the how and the direction will be much less easy for others to find. The process is seriously flawed and bishops and archbishops aren’t always very good at attending to process.

Some Diocesan Synods have several open LGBTI lay and clergy members. Other will have none at all. Therefore in the meetings proposed by the Archbishops LGBTI voices and experience will not be directly heard. This is a serious flaw at the start of the new process.

I cautioned three years ago, when the Shared Conversations process was being formulated, that LGBTI people needed to be included in the formation process and the monitoring of the process. Promises were made but none were kept. Double amber warning again. Ensuring direct LGBTI inclusion from the start may present a challenge, but it ought to be an inescapable basic of the new process.

I caution again – beware of the bishops and archbishops! I absolutely trust their awareness that the future has to be different in practice and not just in tone. I also absolutely know that to change their inner world view and allegiance to the institutional mindset makes it very difficult for bishops (and many lay and clergy members of General Synod) to adjust to this brave new world.

Large-scale teaching document

The Archbishops, with others, will also be “formulating proposals for the May House of Bishops for a large-scale teaching document around the subject of human sexuality.” Those who wrote the paper on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations will still be involved. There will be a deep theological and hermeneutical attachment to the mindset that produced the paper and the legal basis on which equal marriage is opposed. That mindset won’t be absent from the new, large-scale work.

Local support

At the local, diocesan level, bishops and Synod members will need a huge amount of support and prayer and re-education from and by us if we are to help them achieve the change we seek and so successfully campaigned for over the last three weeks.

Changing consciousness, body and soul

The work will be difficult because we are asking for a huge change in tone and culture. To see what is really going on ‘out there in the world’ in the chaotic conglomerate of culture, religious and secular, in which we swim, requires acute awareness and the ability to discern or recover, by deep searching and sifting, the spiritual elements and wisdom of the divine which create inner reorientation. The shift in consciousness required is huge.

People are being asked to engage the intelligence of their hearts as much as their heads to discern what is possible for the well-being of all of God’s people. The answers to the questions being posed are not in the mental realm but the spiritual. The answers are felt bodily, once our senses and heart are attuned. I might call this revelation which occurs when we are able to attend to the core of our being, the heart and soul centre. The heart is the centre of our true intelligence and thinking which operates without this centre tends to the binary and exclusionary and defensive. Conditioned by culture, we have great difficulty apprehending and understanding the wisdom of the whole, holy, divine presence.

Of course the meetings with bishops and general synod members and the proposals for a teaching document will be conducted in a context of prayer and silence, as were the meetings of the College and House of Bishops and the Reflections Group. But the next steps need to be undertaken, ideally, by people living deeply into silence and subtle spirit of the holy one, into open, generous, heart-centred praying. Everyone involved will need courage, deep spiritual discernment of truth and reality, generosity to others, and a willingness to move beyond literalism, biblical fundamentalism, and a locked-in tradition.

The church always needs prophets and radical teachers and contemplatives, without which it fossilizes. These are the people who, sighting the double amber signal ahead, are able to guide the process wisely and safely forward, avoiding the danger of pleasure gardens and archbishops’ metaphorical palaces.