Reflecting on “That” Report and Debate

by Anthony Archer, a Member of General Synod for the Diocese of St Albans


Anthony Archer has written the following as part of his “report back” to his diocese on the recent General Synod Group of Sessions.  He inevitably focused on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations: A Report from the House of Bishops (GS 2055). 

Following the conclusion of the Shared Conversations in the summer, which General Synod engaged with in a broadly similar way to those in the dioceses who participated in the Regional Shared Conversations, the focus turned to the House of Bishops and how they proposed to take matters forward.  They had heard all the views, in particular those of LGBT Christians, many of whom had made themselves very vulnerable in sharing their story about their experience of the Church.  GS 2055 was published on 27 January and was a shock to many.

I recall occasions at school when teachers tried to offer some praise for a piece of work, but had to point out that I had answered the wrong question.  However you looked at it, few marks, if any, could be given.  It is instructive to explain what a ‘take note debate’ is.  It is a common procedure on Synod whereby a body, in this case the House of Bishops, brings a report for debate.  Usually it is part of a process.  It is, in effect, seeking approval to the general direction of travel of a proposed legislative or policy change, or updating Synod on any matter.  It is a neutral motion which allows Synod to discuss the content and recommendations contained in a report without committing the Synod to the formal acceptance of any matter.  Normally Synod votes to take note of reports of this kind, but on an issue as contested as same sex relationships it was always likely that some Synod members would want to vote not to take note, as being the only way to register their dissent at this stage.

What does GS 2055 say?  In its comparatively short 15 pages, it acknowledged that the bishops’ views covered a very wide spectrum.  No position or approach commanded complete unanimity.  First there was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage as expressed by Canon B30.  Second there was a strong sense that existing resources, guidance and tone needed to be revisited.  No proposals were made to make available a form of pastoral service in the context of same sex relationships, even though a commended form of service could be offered without Synodical approval.

There were in effect four recommendations, although these were not put to Synod in a separate following motion.  These are: (i) establishing a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people; (ii) the issuance of a substantial new teaching document on marriage and relationships; (iii) guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples; and (iv) new guidance about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle.

In essence, this timid package of measures amounts to a restatement of the status quo and continues to regard lesbian and gay people as a ‘problem.’  One slightly extraordinary concept introduced into the report was that of ‘maximum freedom’, defined as ‘interpreting the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church.’  The conservative evangelicals seized on this.

At one and the same time, the House of Bishops affirm that same sex relationships can ‘embody crucial social virtues’ of fidelity and mutuality (in a previous episcopal comment, ‘relationships of stunning quality’) while also stating that moral questions remain.  The House of Bishops seem naively to believe that they can continue to navigate this conundrum, while maintaining the current doctrine of the Church of England.

How was GS 2055 developed?  Of course we don’t know, although it seems clear there was an earlier draft that was rejected.  The House of Bishops’ Reflection Group on Sexuality would have had some key input.  What seems to have happened (having spoken to a good number of bishops from across the dioceses) is that the House of Bishops (and the wider College of Bishops) were so surprised perhaps that they could unite around a single document (or at least exercise collective responsibility for it) that no-one asked how it might be received.

I need to remind readers of this report that I am a LGBT ally and have been actively campaigning for change on this issue.  However, there is no pressure that I am aware of to change Canon B30, hence my pejorative comment that the bishops answered the wrong exam question.  I attended a private meeting on 30 January and a group of us set about deciding how best to confront the bishops for what we believed to be a seriously defective report.

While I expressed the personal view that I thought Synod might ‘take note’, it was clear from an early stage that it would be close and that if anything it would be better for Synod not to ‘take note’ rather than vote narrowly in favour.  As Synod approached the views of members and the wider press and social media comment led us to believe that, on a vote by houses, the clergy were likely to vote the report down.  We proceeded on that basis and actively campaigned for both clergy and laity seriously to consider voting not to take note.

As to the tactics for the debate itself, I agreed to put down what is termed a ‘following motion’.  This would appear on the agenda, but would only get debated if Synod voted to take note and if time allowed.  In case Synod did not take note, I also put down for possible debate at a later Group of Sessions a Private Member’s Motion (PMM) in almost identical terms.  The motion was:

‘That this Synod,

request the House of Bishops to bring for debate by July 2018 a set of forward looking proposals on same-sex relationships (such proposals to be developed by a broadly-based group representing the diversity of views on Synod and in the wider Church) that will command confidence by, 

  1. affirming the positive contribution that LGBTI Christians make in the life of the Church; and
  2. reflecting the differing interpretations of scripture, as demonstrated by the Shared Conversations.’

The PMM quickly attracted support and had received 111 signatures by the close of Synod.  It was a useful device to persuade the Synod business managers to agree that the following motion could be debated on the final morning, but as we now know all following motions (there was another one expressing the traditional view) lapsed.

And so to the debate itself.  Firstly more time was allocated to it.  It had been scheduled to be a 90 minute debate; wholly inadequate.  It was subsequently given 2¼ hours.  160 Synod members put in requests to speak.  In the event 33 spoke.  The debate was of the highest quality.  Members were persuasive and spoke with passion, pastoral sensitivity and, in the most part, with concern for LGBT Christians, both those who are Synod members and those in the wider Church.

One of the most moving speeches was the first one, by Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley, and it is reproduced here:

I am grateful to the bishops for this report, which though flawed, captures the complexity of the journey we are still on. And I will take note.  I was, however, surprised it stopped short of recommending we consider a commended form of pastoral service for blessing gay and lesbian couples in committed partnerships.  And I was disappointed.  Not with the bishops.  With myself.  For I fear my silence may have contributed to their reticence to test the voice of synod on this aspect of our emerging understanding.

I am an evangelical, spiritually formed in a tradition which takes the Bible seriously, and nurtured in churches which had clear views about the only context for sexual intimacy being in a hetero-sexual marriage.  More recently, in my last parish in Islington, and in my current role, I have had the privilege of ministering alongside men and women, lay and ordained, in long term, committed gay relationships.  Gay Christians serving God faithfully and being used by Him powerfully.  This challenged me to wrestle with Scripture and understand certain passages differently in the light of the whole.  My understanding has changed.  The Shared Conversations in July crystallized for me that whilst I cannot at this stage support a change to the canons on marriage, I would support the careful introduction of a pastoral liturgy for blessing of gay couples in committed partnerships. But I have said nothing. And I am sorry.  It felt difficult.  I serve people of all traditions in my role as archdeacon, and life is simpler when you remain vague on controversial issues.  So I stayed in the silent middle.

I am now beginning to understand how much more difficult this issue is for those we spend so much time talking about as ‘a problem to be solved’.  By our actions, or inaction, we are continually undermining their identity, questioning their character and godliness, condemning them as somehow more sinful, limiting and restricting their flourishing, sometimes with tragic consequences.  Pastorally and missionally we are doing untold damage to individuals, and to the church. We are all responsible.

Amidst the many, many words on social media since the report was published, one comment by a gay member of synod particularly struck me. She wrote:

“I’m happy to ‘walk together’ to coin the phrase, but at the moment the way it’s swinging it’s the LGBT members that feel unwelcome.  A lot of us are happy to meet in the middle, and we’re stood here waiting, but many of the ‘other side’ won’t even start walking towards us.”

 I have walked towards those who I used to classify as ‘the other side’, and as I stand in the silent middle, I see many of my open evangelical friends similarly inhabiting this central space.  The problem is, that it has remained the silent middle.  Whilst privately I have assured my gay friends and colleagues that I have listened, will continue to listen, and have let this listening inform and change my theology, publically I have been silent, and that was wrong.  I lacked the courage of my convictions, and I apologise.

At this stage of the process, it is time for the silent middle to become vocal, and to be clear where we stand.  It is time to be clear that many of us who are still evangelicals, still seeking to be biblically orthodox, are now humbly acknowledging our previous reading of scripture was flawed.  Those of us in the silent middle must dare to vocalise our changed understanding, must take the risk of speaking out in support of blessing, and must work with those tasked with taking this process forward, ensuring all voices are heard, and we make changes so that all people are valued, welcomed, affirmed and freed to minister effectively in God’s church.[1]

It was a hugely important speech.  How many other ‘Groarkes’ are there out there, especially those who identify as evangelical?  Some bishops were of course called to speak, with starkly different perspectives.  The Bishop of Blackburn defended the criticism that the bishops had not listened.  The purpose of the report was not to please everyone.  Listening should not be conflated with agreement.  The Bishop of Liverpool honoured the anger and frustration of the LGBT community.  He focused on the concept of ‘maximum freedom’ for his diocese, saying ‘it will happen anyway.’  The Bishop of Gloucester took her share of responsibility for the report. It was not an end of the process.  She would have wanted to have gone further.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in making the final speech (which clearly he had prepared for the eventuality that the report would have a rough ride through Synod) said ‘we will have to try to do better whether we take note or not.  This needs to be about love, joy, celebration of belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s a good basis – it’s a road map.  We will move on.  We need to find a radical new inclusion, not careless of theology, not ignorant of the world around us.  Humans are made in the image of God.’  It set the themes for the statement that the two Archbishops made shortly after the end of the debate.

As to the voting, the House of Bishops voted 44 in favour and none against (one bishop accidentally voted against so the official record is different) and one, the Bishop of Southwark, abstained, but did not register his abstention formally.  The clergy voted 93 in favour, 100 against, with two abstentions (hence the vote being lost in the House of Clergy); and the laity voted 106 in favour, 83 against, with four abstentions.  The St Albans’ representatives (five clergy and five laity) voted collectively three in favour, six against and with one abstention.

So what happens next and what does all this imply for an issue that has been around Synod for more than 30 years, and on which the Church has made almost no discernible progress, unlike the secular State?  Something happened on 15 February, 2017.  It may have been a kairos moment.  The tone suddenly changed.  Synod members, for the first time, ‘got it.’  They more than glimpsed the pain and frustration of LGBT Christians being fed up with being ‘talked about.’  Comments have raged across social media.  ‘The toothpaste will not be going back in the tube!’  ‘Some of the fear which is in all of us will start to lift.’  The Daily Telegraph rather got ahead of itself in a headline, which it later retracted, ‘Synod takes first step towards gay marriage.’  But there is a direction of travel, and it is not backwards.  Those like me who have been arguing for a while now that the ‘status quo is not an option’ have a sense that these are no longer mere words.  ‘Good Disagreement’ that was buried by GS 2055 is back on the table.

[1] © Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley (Diocese of Worcester website)

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1 Response to Reflecting on “That” Report and Debate

  1. Erika Baker says:

    This is a brilliant summary, thank you Anthony.
    The difficulty for me is… that while we were not expecting a change on marriage and while no-one had asked for it, starting the report with the reiteration of the Doctrine of marriage creates a huge problem.
    If we continue to restrict sex to marriage, we cannot, in good conscience, celebrate gay relationships, because we’re always also stating that they go against our belief.
    This is a circle that cannot be squared and it will come back to bite us, just as the current debate about the bishop of Sheffield shows that the sloppy theology of 2014 is coming back to bite us.

    Either same sex relationships are fully valid – even if we don’t call them marriage, or they are second best and sinful, however much we celebrate them.

    We need to start having the debate about sex Miranda Threlfall-Holmes has called for.


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