The vote in the House of Clergy at the February 2017 Synod against taking note of GS 2055 – the House of Bishops’ report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations – focused the anger of LGBTI+ people in the Church of England about the utterly inadequate response to the Pilling Report and the Shared Conversations the report represented. People assumed that the vote sent the bishops back to the drawing board to think again. If we allow the present, complex, in-house work by the House of Bishops on the Teaching Document to continue unchallenged, the level of anger when it is published in 2020 will be even more intense than in 2017 and the rejection of Episcopal authority will be more determined. Is that the outcome you want, bishops of the Church of England?
I’ve been helped in my assessment of what changed at last weekend’s meeting of General Synod by reading the reflection of Rob Munro, a Synod member and a member of EGGS, the Evangelical Group on General Synod. Rob describes the outcome of the debates as a watershed moment when the radical held sway over the Christian. I spent Synod 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.
A paper has been published in advance of the July meeting of General Synod outlining progress towards the creation of a Pastoral Advisory Group and the development of a ‘substantial’ teaching document on the subject of human sexuality. The paper notes that responses in February underlined the point that the ‘subject’ of human sexuality can never simply be an ‘object’ of consideration because it is about persons in relationship. This paper proceeds to do exactly that, making me feel like an ‘object’ under repeated consideration in the church, a ‘subject’ of interest to be discussed and analysed in a variety of modes because my freedom to be myself is questioned and challenged by others who think I have no right or freedom to live in a sexual relationship. The experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people who have integrated their sexual and gender identity with their deep Christian faith should, in 2017, be at the centre of the exercise – and we are most certainly not.
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 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.
One of my gay Nigerian friends was in conversation with me on Facebook this morning. I told him about General Synod and the bishops’ report. He asked me send him the link to the report, which he read swiftly. My friend was confused by one particular part of the report. I told him it means the bishops have a problem, that bishops in Nigeria have a different theology and live in a different social context, a homophobic context according to our values, and the English bishops don't know what to do about them. My friend replied: “After I returned from the hospital, a friend of mine called me to let me know I will be planning his wedding in South Africa. Then my question was why South Africa - why not Nigeria? Why can't I find love here and get married here and be happy here? This guy is a church guy, he grew up in the church and always dream of getting married in the church, now just because he is gay the church rejected him, saying he is demonic.
I am wondering what the outcome of Wednesday’s take note debate on the House of Bishops’ report is going to be. I’m not thinking so much about the result of the vote and whether or not a majority in at least one of the other two houses vote to refuse to take note. I’m wondering whether a change of direction is possible. I’m going to be present outside Church House on Wednesday. I hope I am going to be amongst a host of friends. Together we can make this a day of transformation, both those on General Synod who will speak in the debate and vote at the end, holding an open, positive, creative energy of the deepest hope and trust, and we who will gather outside, bringing our energy into alignment with theirs.
A stormy conversation has been raging on Changing Attitude’s Facebook group for the past three days. The storm is going to become even more intense in the coming months as first the College of Bishops discuss and then the House of Bishops formulate proposals in response to the Shared Conversations, proposals which will be presented for debate at the meeting of the General Synod in February 2017. How are the Christian LGBTI networks and organisations going to communicate with each other and maintain a coherent strategy during what is going to be a very turbulent period?