Inevitably, in the aftermath of the recent meeting of the General Synod, I’ve been having conversations with friends about the passing by significant majorities in all three houses of the motions, first on the dangers of conversion therapy and second on welcoming and affirming transgender people. It was a moment of radical transformation, I believe, but I never find it easy to process the import and implications of Synod debates and votes.
I have been helped by reading the reflection of a Synod member opposed to the outcome. Rob Munro is a member of EGGS, the Evangelical Group on General Synod, and he posted a reflection on the debates and decisions of General Synod on the Church Society website. From this, I can see why the Synod motions and votes mark such a significant change for those in favour of the full and equal inclusion of LGBTI people in the Church of England.
Rob describes the outcome of the debates as a watershed moment. I really hope this is true, because if it is a real watershed, it’s been a long time in the making.
Are being radical and Christian antithetical?
Rob says the defeat of the amendment tabled by Sean Doherty of Living Out to the motion proposing a ban on conversion therapy demonstrated that the radical held sway over the Christian.
For me, the teaching and practice of Jesus is inherently radical and following the pattern of Jesus as a Christian is to make a radical, transformative commitment. But Rob and I understand the content of the words radical and Christian in very different ways. For me, if radicals have become so influential, this can only be good for the life and mission and energy of the church and for the place of LGBTI people in the church.
For Rob, the debate about welcoming transsexuals in church marked a significant milestone because in the final vote, a 2/3 majority was achieved in each of the three houses, bishops, clergy and laity because this is the bar that has to be passed for any change in doctrine to be approved.
Rob says that the Evangelical Group on General Synod gave clear and strong support for the main amendments to each motion in each of the two debates, but both were clearly lost. But EGGS did not give clear and strong support. EGGS is composed of a diversity of those identifying as evangelical and members of EGGS, including the “key strong public figures” Jayne Ozanne and Simon Butler, promoted the more radical motions and resisted the EGGS recommended amendments. EGGS is a house divided among itself – and so has the pro-LGBTI community been at times. The impression of a gradual evangelical ascendency in synod was shown to be far weaker than people realised.
I found it helpful to read Rob’s list of the challenges faced by the conservative members of EGGS:
- Evangelical concerns about biblical sexuality are no longer held by the “middle ground” of synod
- The new norm for synodical debate on controversial matters is the telling of stories - especially personal and painful ones
- There is little or no theological reflection
- There is very little contribution from the bishops
- References to the Bible and to non-politically correct research are received awkwardly and mocked on Twitter
- Inclusion, everyone is welcome, is the story now being presented in Synod
- Despite the Archbishops calling for a “radical Christian inclusion”, this was not discernible in the debates
- An unqualified agenda of inclusion is now mainstream
- LGBTI lobbyists were only a vocal minority ten years ago
- Those adhering to received biblical understandings are “made to feel” like the minority
- Radicals have confidence that their stories now resonate with people
- Conservatives speak with fear that they will be misheard or misunderstood
- Disagreement on sexuality issues for theological reasons will be heard as a phobia
- Episcopal paralysis after being defeated in February’s take note debate left bishops staying quiet with the exception of the more vocal liberal bishops
Rob’s list showed me just how much of a transformation has taken place following the February loss of the House of Bishops’ take note motion. The middle ground has found courage, personal experience is valued, bishops are subdued, inauthentic research is seen for what it is, welcome and radical Christian inclusion are now mainstream, LGBTI people and supporters have found a strong voice, literalist, incoherent biblical interpretation is challenged, extreme conservatives are heard, understood and ignored, phobias are identified as such and we have some bishops able to break out of their cocoon.
As a member of the OneBodyOneFaith Facebook group noted, having read the Osborne report recently, that report proposed changes that Synod and the House of Bishops are only now coming to terms with and voting on thirty years later. And the same arguments and reactionary elements which forced the bishops to suppress the Osborne report are still active today. I spent the weekend re-reading books written forty years ago by Bishops John Robinson and Stephen Verney. I was somewhat astonished to discover how wonderfully honest, open, visionary and prophetic both men were, and amazed to discover that theological ideas and teachings that were commonplace then are thought to be dangerous today by those opposing freedom and equality for LGBTI people (an women) in the Church of England.
John Robinson’s The Difference in Being a Christian Today and Stephen Verney’s Into the New Age inspired me even more on a second reading this weekend than when I first read them in 1972 and 1976. The time has finally come for the courage and vision being lived in the seventies to become part of the new reformation proclaimed then but never realised.
I’m going to write a more extensive blog on both books next week, but for now, here are some key elements of their bishops’ writing and vision.
Robinson saw that the church faced a critical divide between those who basically accept and welcome the end of the stable state of traditional responses and those who deny or resist it, the radical and the conservative. At the two Synod meetings this year, courage and energy began to overcome the resistance.
He said we must ask boldly whether distinctively Christian existence is likely in future to be characterised by an ‘in our out’ model, by a body of doctrine, a code of behaviour, a pattern of spirituality, a religious organisation, which is peculiar to Christians and marks them off from others. The Church of England may have arrived at a time when it can face this reality but I know that even many of my friends who are radical on gender and sexuality are far more conservative than me when faced with a challenge to the ‘in or out’ model.
Says Robinson, change, like freedom, is the very matrix of renewal, of that ‘planned obsolescence’ in which the gospel consists of the God who says, ‘Behold! I am making all things new!’ The General Synod is an institution where making changes in the direction of ‘all things new’ has become incredibly difficult. Perhaps this in itself is changing.
How to be a human now is the greatest single search that unites our distracted world, he wrote in 1972. If the Christian message is to have any relevance, it will be because it comes to people as an answer to that question. He quotes Bonhoeffer: ‘ To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way . . . but to be human’ – the full, free, mature human being that Christ can make of us.
‘Accept one another as Christ has accepted you’, ‘Accept yourself – for you have been accepted’. This is the ultimacy of grace, says Robinson. There is ultimately nothing to worry about, nothing you have to be defensive about, nothing you can only secure by clinging. The Christian knows what every psychologist testifies, that we learn to love not by being told to love but by being loved.
There is much more in Robinson’s 87 pages of text, and I will post more next week. There have been times over the past two decades when I thought I was living in an insane institution. What happened to the wisdom of the sixties and seventies? I wondered. I hope and pray this is the time for its second coming.
Stephen described the crisis of our time a when the human race is either approaching an evolutionary leap forward in the realm of the spirit or, that being swept towards catastrophe. The elements of the catastrophe he identified as: overpopulation, famine, pollution, nuclear war, the gap between rich and poor, violence the growth of great cities, and neurotic breakdown as people crowd closer together without the privacy and living space needed to preserve our sanity. Forty years later, we are dealing with additional challenges, in addition to those he identified.
The evolutionary leap, he said, demands that we become more aware of our true selves, more responsible towards each other, and more willing to cooperate with the creative centre of divine love.
We need to be open to a way of looking at things which is not theo-centric, anthropocentric, or cosmo-centric, but wholistic. ‘God is that being whose centre is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.’ We experience at-one-ment.
The ‘true self’ is centred in the divine love and the possibilities of living in the new consciousness. The true self is three dimensional, a true relatedness: to oneself, to the other person and to the deeper reality. The true self is more concerned with being – the ego with ‘having’.
Jesus’ challenged people to repent – let a new consciousness dawn within you, let there be a change of heart and mind and will, so that you come to understand differently, feel differently, desire differently, choose differently.
In one story after another Jesus describes this reorientation of the whole of life, proclaiming an evolutionary leap preceded by dissonance. His behaviour seems anarchic to the authorities, his ideas dangerous nonsense.
Has a watershed been reached? Is this the new age in which we have to live into a real difference to live the Christian gospel? If so, the Church of England and General Synod have far more radical changes to confront, beyond gender and sexuality.