Bishop Robert writes after the dust has settled on this week's major debate in General Synod;
The debate on the House of Bishops report on human sexuality was widely regarded as the ‘main event’ of General Synod. Press reports that the ‘church is now in crisis’ or that the ‘leadership of the church has been humiliated’ don’t reflect how it felt to me. Let me tell you what happened from my perspective.
At the opening session, there were eloquent calls for the debate to be allocated more time, and I was impressed that the Synod organisers went to some considerable lengths to find space to double the amount of time available to it.
The subject was approached by way of small groups each chaired by a diocesan bishop. The groups were invited to look at a case study. Mine concerned a Church of England priest who had got into hot water by officiating at a same-sex marriage in a Church of Sweden church. It was good to see that the Church had noticed the complexities of the issue for our Porvoo relationships. The atmosphere in my small group was warm and friendly, albeit with plenty of frank discussion. One lady had written to me saying she wasn’t going to attend. She turned up anyway and told me she was pleased to have done so. I was glad: I feel it is so much better when people take part, however difficult they may be finding the discussions.
Following the small groups we trooped into the main debating chamber. The synod hall was packed. The St Anselm community ‘continuing praying presence’ bathed the debate in prayer, and I’m sure that made a difference. We were very fortunate that the debate was chaired by our diocesan Registrar, Aiden Hargreaves-Smith. He had prepared carefully, and it showed. He selected contributors with a full range of perspectives. Contributions were passionate, illuminating and heartfelt. It was obvious as the debate got underway that lots of people (from different perspectives) had problems with the House of Bishops report.
We were concerned with a ‘take note’ debate – which is really about testing the mood of the Synod – so, the individual contributions were as important as the voting at the end. I was keenly aware that, beyond the hundreds of us in the chamber, there were very many in the Church of England, in the wider Anglican Communion and in our sister churches who were interested and concerned. Voting was by houses. All but one of the bishops voted in favour, and the one against turned out to be someone who had accidentally pressed the wrong button on the voting device, much to his embarrassment! The house of laity voted in favour and the house of clergy voted against.
It is perhaps important to note that this debate was only another stage in a discussion process. It did give Synod the opportunity to get all the issues and feelings ‘on the table’. We knew already that there is deep disagreement here (there is even disagreement as to what it is we are disagreeing about!) and the debate certainly confirmed that. I hope people felt the bishops were listening carefully. At least, only three bishops spoke, which shows a measure of self-restraint.
At the end of the debate the chairman received a standing ovation. The mood in the synod was, I thought, positive and supportive. The synod continued the next day with business as usual. I was modestly proud that our church can hold a debate like this, on such an important and emotive subject, without relationships being fatally damaged by the process. What happens next? The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written a joint letter to all members of the General Synod setting out some next steps. They are establishing a Pastoral Oversight Group led by the Bishop of Newcastle to help dioceses with pastoral actions in regard to human sexuality. They will be formulating proposals for a large scale teaching document. And they will be proposing to the Business Committee of the General Synod a further debate in general terms on marriage and human sexuality.
Thank you so much to all who prayed for this debate. Do keep praying as we wrestle with this subject. And keep in mind always that we are dealing here with the lives and relationships of our Christian brothers and sisters, our own family members, our friends.