Revd Jo Winn-Smith on General Synod
Trustee, Revd Jo-Winn Smith, reports on the Church of England General Synod – 13th – 15th November 2023
General Synod does not normally meet in November, apart from at the beginning of the quinquennium, though dates are always set aside for emergency business. When the House of Bishops were unable to progress sufficiently with implementing the February decision to proceed with the Prayers of Love and Faith, this set of meetings was confirmed.
For many of us, Synod started a day early, with the special service ‘From Lament to Hope’ held at St Martin in the Fields the evening before (available on their website here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjcWMz4uBbk ). This was a beautiful service with moving testimony from both familiar faces and newer, younger members of the community. It really felt like there was a new sense of self-confidence and belief in the tide turning, whilst also, rightly, recognising the need to lament the past and ongoing hurts. Giles Goddard, Rachael Mann, Clare Herbert and Taylor Wilton-Morgan all spoke powerfully. Our co-chair, Jarel Robinson-Brown, represented OBOF at the service.
The first day of Synod was quite strange, as we all knew the main business of the set of sessions wasn’t until the next day, so there was a certain low-level uneasiness hanging over things. We started with a brief period of worship, followed by the presidential address, shared by the two archbishops. ++Justin spoke to peace in Israel and Palestine, and there was a moving pre-filmed contribution from the archbishop of Jerusalem. ++Stephen then spoke briefly on LLF. Robert Hammond then presented the Business Committee’s report, which included warmly welcomed comments about debate chairs being encouraged not to call on the same old people again and again! We then went into the first round of Synod questions, of which 93 were on LLF. Questions is a strange event, with each question number being called to which if no one quickly responds ‘supplementary!’ the speaker moves on to the next item. The usual niggles were raised and we learnt nothing new. Following that session we had the suspension of normal business so that the bishops could present on LLF. After Bishop Sarah Mullaly had introduced the item, the bishops of Worcester, Guildford, Southwark and Winchester all spoke. Their reflections were of the flavours one might expect, though with a common theme of unity and a degree of unanimity that belied the no-doubt at times fractious nature of the House of Bishops meetings they had experienced. Then we elected a new chair to the Pensions Board and the first day of business was done. The General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group had its fringe meeting, and there was a sense of genuine solidarity and encouragement in the meeting. The recent rise of the Inclusive Evangelicals group (you can find them on Facebook) seems indicative of the continuing growth in our movement, and that the centre ground has shifted and conservative evangelicals no longer control the evangelical narrative.
Day two, started with a measured and sensible discussion of the Abuse (Redress) Measure. There are clearly aspects of it, particularly regarding PCCs’ financial liabilities, that need further careful consideration, but overall it was welcomed and passed onto the revision stage. Another session on Synod Questions followed, then to lunch. The afternoon started with a brief discussion on payment to the Churches Conservation Trust (the National Trust, as it were, of closed churches with Grade 1 or 2* ratings). Then to Amendments to Standing Orders – not as dull as it sounds, for some conservative members tried to insert some wrecking amendments, to try to make all LLF liturgical business subject to onerous requirements, e.g. all aspects requiring 2/3rds majorities, and these were firmly quashed, but required all members remaining on their toes and not slipping off for a quick coffee and chat outside the debating chamber.
Finally, then, to LLF. Available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIOiONCGr54 and Wednesday morning here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=de9PobE7wnI and Wednesday afternoon here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1a7X8cDSaUo . For those who are interested, my speech is at the end of this article.
This would be a very long paper to summarise all the points here, but there were many excellent speeches. As usual, there were also some deeply unpleasant and vitriolic ones, which I also appreciate some conservatives having said they too thought them unhelpful. Suffice to say, the motion passed but amended to allow a trial period, under Canon B5a, whereby standalone services of PLF can take place. For many this was the red line to pass the overall motion. As Mandy Ford noted in her speech, the original motion just allowing the prayers in normal, regular services would have been a retrograde step to what bishops, in their discretion, have already allowed.
What then, of the future? We have this period of reception and during it, diocesan synods will be surveyed on their attitudes to the prayers. Ensuring there is good representation on these synods (elected via deanery synods for laity) is important. It is hoped that even if synod would not by default in its current state support the prayers moving into permanent, rather than optional, liturgy via Canon B2, if there is both sufficient support for them from the dioceses and acceptable ‘pastoral reassurance’ for the conservatives, they could pass. Indeed, there is a fine line to be discerned of the sadness over a high level of reassurance (for which read ‘differentiation’, some form of separate episcopal provision – but how formal?), that needs to be balanced with how it might allow conservatives to even shift and eventually allow same-sex marriage in the longer term (because they would be sufficiently hived off). Suffice to say, there is much more still to come in the prevening years, but this November can be viewed positively. Despite the original papers from the House of Bishops seeming to back track on the hopes and expectations of February, the eventual motion passed is heading in the right direction. We must continue to pray for the pastoral guidance to take positive steps for the right of conscience for LGBT+ clergy and their relationships, and that ideally, graciously, our conservative siblings might receive some degree of reassurance that does not involve de facto schism. But these are questions for future days. I am thankful for what we achieved this time round. Thank you for your support and prayers.
My speech (approximately 3:38 on the video), on Jayne Ozanne’s amendment: ‘At the end insert ", and ask the House of Bishops to consider whether sexual activity outside of marriage is a first-order creedal issue and publish that opinion.".’ (I slightly ran out of time at the end – full version here!)
We have heard speeches decrying ‘changeable feelings’ over ‘unchanging doctrine’, it’s been implied doctrine is unchanging, yet the church only started getting involved in weddings in the medieval era, it wasn’t until the 1756 Hardwicke Act that how marriages were contracted was regularized, and the Married Women's Property Act 1882 had an huge impact of making women closer to being equal parties to a heterosexual marriage. The church’s understanding of marriage has evolved.
Meanwhile, denigrating feelings risks falling into the ancient heresy of Dualism. Following the Greek philosophers, Docetists, Gnostics and others pushed the notion that mind and spirit were rationale, unchanging and superior, as opposed to feelings which were considered base, unsteady and sinful. No, the Bishop of Chichester is right, we are integrated holistic beings of body mind and soul. Christ’s incarnation affirms this, as Gregory of Nazianzus said, ‘what is not assumed is not healed’.
And when people have spoken of their feelings in this debate, this has been equivalent to what courts would call impact statements. In the administration of justice, we recognise the importance of hearing from the victims, those affected by decisions.
In theological terms, we ally this with spiritual fruit. And we grieve the holy spirit when we malign those who long and thirst for righteousness, which Christ called blessed in the Beatitudes.
As a qualified therapist and registered member of the BACP (British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy), my ordination training masters research included surveying the impact of civil partnerships and marriage on LGBTQIA+ people. Friends, the evidence showed it significantly improved well-being, mental health and human flourishing. Human flourishing, friends, that which Christ promised his followers (John 15:15).
I find it utterly bemusing that there are accusations of ‘giving in to the spirit of the age’, when same-sex couples are begging for the highest standard of marriage, wanting to live up to the aspiration of all married couples, of the highest values of commitment, monogamy, exclusivity, faithfulness, loving in sickness and in health, self-giving love.
St Paul resisted his contemporary culture of patriarchal pater familias who could have sex with whatever was his property, be it wife, slave (male or female) or prostitute. St Paul resisted the culture of pagan orgies and prostitution. He resisted the culture of pederasty, but also encouraged the importance of faithful covenant, of marriage as the place for those who want to express their love sexually (1 Cor 7:9).
In our contemporary culture there is widespread pornography, sexualisation of the young, a culture of hook ups, sleeping around, do what you feel, as long as there’s consent. Meanwhile faithful same-sex attracted Christians want the discipline and commitment of covenanted relationships and God’s love for them affirmed.
We are the Church of England, reformed and catholic, and became so following the Reformation, the rallying call of which was sola fidei, justification by faith. Christ’s sacrifice, as the lamb of God, is once and for all, in which God reconciles humanity to himself, which he achieves through the incarnation, and, therefore, it is by God’s grace that we are saved. We need to reassert this fundamental – this is the good news we are being distracted from proclaiming with all these debates. The blessings in the beatitudes do not say blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled, except for those who are LGBTQIA+. Faith in God’s gracious salvation is sufficient, and believers are known by the fruits of the spirit in their lives.
Let the primacy of the core credal doctrines be reasserted and the primacy of God’s beautiful, awesome and humbling grace be promoted, and clarity given to marriage as important, a school for virtue and exhibition of the fruits of the spirit, but not a salvation issue. I support this amendment.