Episcopally Led and Synodically Managed

by Dr Meg Warner, Theologian, Lecturer and Member of General Synod

Meg Warner

In the most moving session of the recent meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England (York, 7-11 July) a survivor of church-related sexual abuse spoke about her experience of reporting the abuse, about the support organisation to which she had turned for care and advice (see details below), and about her more recent work with that same support organisation, helping others who have been sexually abused by clergy. Her presentation was engaging, challenging, and harrowing.

In his introduction to the debate that followed the Bishop of Bath of Wells noted that the final report of IICSA on the handling of sexual abuse claims in a number of institutions including the Church of England was not due to be delivered until 2020. Nevertheless, he said, improving the experience of those survivors of church-related sexual abuse who were brave enough to report their abuse was so urgent that synod ought not to wait, but should begin to take action immediately.

The synod went on to vote overwhelmingly in favour of the motion before it, endorsing priorities for action and calling on the House of Bishops and Archbishops’ Council ‘to ensure that the plan of action is implemented as a matter of priority’.

Here was a good example of synod in action. The bishops and the business committee brought a matter before synod, synod listened and voted.

This debate, however, and particularly the Bishop of Bath Wells’ comments about the 2020 IICSA report,  threw into sharp relief the decision of Business Committee (no doubt supported by the House of Bishops) that the topic of human sexuality will not be included in the agenda of synod before the Episcopal Teaching Document (recently titled ‘Living in Love and Faith: Christian Teaching and Learning about Human Identity, Sexuality and Marriage’) is published in – wait for it – 2020.

This decision was made despite the fact that more than one Private Members Motion on the subject has attracted the requisite number of signatures to be presented to the synod for debate. It was made despite the fact that provisional synod dates for November that have been in synod members’ diaries for months have been declared unnecessary. It was made despite the fact that the House of Bishops has decided to take no action on the clear request of synod in July 2017 that they sponsor the development of liturgy for welcoming trans people. It was also made despite the fact that this current synod will be prorogued following the July 2020 synod and a new synod, many members of which will not have participated in this synod’s shared conversations, will be formed in November.

LGBTI+ Christians are hurting, and the response of the church has often, if anything, added to their injury. It is absolutely the case that the need of survivors of clergy sexual abuse is urgent, but the need of LGBTI+ Christians is urgent too. By 2020 many more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and otherwise queer Christians, many of them young, will have left the Church of England. Some of them will have self-harmed or committed suicide because their church tells them that their identity is unacceptable to God.

Nevertheless, the business committee will not bring this matter before synod before 2020. The synod will have no further opportunity to listen, and nor will it be seen to be listening.

The House of Bishops and the business committee have either not learned the lesson of the synod’s snub of the House of Bishops in its rejection of February 2017’s take-note debate, or they have learned it only too well, and reasoned that it is not safe to allow the synod to get its hand on this particular subject.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that synod is being very, very carefully managed, so as not to allow it to get too close to controversial issues. These are being deftly kicked into the long grass or, as one synod member put it during the business agenda debate at the beginning of synod, kicked like a can along a road. Either way, synod is not being let loose on them.

General Synod, at its best, is a dynamic and responsible decision maker. We saw that in this synod with a spirited debate on the relative merits of engagement with and disinvestment from energy companies. The Diocese of Oxford had campaigned widely prior to synod, and won much support for its proposed amendment in favour of disinvestment. Synod, however, heard an extraordinary and compelling account of the success of the NIBs and the Ethical Investment Advisory Group in their engagement strategy, so that even before the conclusion of the unusually strong speeches it became apparent to most that many synod members had changed their minds and that the amendment would fail, as it did decisively.

In the investment debate, and even more so in the safeguarding debate, we saw the power of stories to change hearts and minds, especially where the lives of vulnerable people are at stake. The stories of LGBTI+ people will not be heard again by this synod. More’s the pity.

This entry was posted in Human Sexuality, IICSA, Meg Warner, Sexual abuse. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Episcopally Led and Synodically Managed

  1. Ender's Shadow says:

    Ultimately the crisis of the CofE is that it no longer has the slightest idea what it believes or a basis on which to come to a clear conclusion on the subject. As a result the liberals on the gay issue are an untidy coalition of those who regard this as a matter of human rights, admitting that the Bible doesn’t legitimate gay sexual activity, and those who contort the bible to the point where it says what they want it to. They are faced by traditionalists who appeal to the historic interpretation of the bible and to the Vincentian principle (what has been believed everywhere, by everyone and from the beginning) to hold to the view of the vast majority of the Anglican communion.

    We can either resolve the fight messily* – with a substantial group abandoning the CofE, – or we can take a more radical approach; the CofE stops pretending it has the slightest idea what it believes, and leaves parishes to raise their own finances to pay for whatever ministry they can afford. Of course parishes can form federations of like minded churches to support each other, but the idea of being expected to contribute to the wider work of the diocese simply because it is the diocese, should be abandoned. Note that this is merely a return to the situation prior to 1945 or so, when parishes were self financing – or rather had endowments that kept their priests alive.


    • Phil Gardner says:

      The first paragraph of Ender’s Shadow’s response is so biased and inaccurate that it is hard to know where to begin. I will confine myself to my own position: I am a member of the Church of England, and I believe it is right, Christian and biblical to affirm LGBT people, including LGBT Christians, and to accept that loving relationships between same-sex couples are just as good and worthy of respect as loving relationships between opposite-sex couples. I am not, as it happens, a liberal. I’m not keen on labels but if I have to choose one I would call myself a biblical radical: that is, I take the Bible seriously and recognize that it needs to be interpreted as a whole, taking account of all the biblical scholarship and theological exploration with which the church has always been blessed. If one does so it is not hard to see that there is a convincing case for LGBT inclusion and affirmation, just as the early church found with regard to uncircumcised Gentiles coming to faith. To base doctrine or pastoral care on proof-texts taken out of their cultural context is not truly faithful to the Bible or to the Lord Jesus. As for his sneering reference to human rights, I would remind Mr Shadow that most of those who drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the Second World War were Christians whose faith formed the basis of their work.


  2. Pingback: Opinion – 14 July 2018 – Thinking Anglicans

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