The governance of the Church of England is not everyone’s interest but the recent meeting of the General Synod in York was special for two reasons. First, it was my first full-length session in my new role as Prolocutor of Canterbury. This was symbolised in taking part in the wonderful York Minster service we have on the Sunday morning, with us all in our special robes (and the Vice-Chair of the House of Laity in a marvellous hat!), processing in to the Minster, sitting by the Archbishops, and assisting in the distribution of Holy Communion. It was a happy and memorable occasion.
But of far greater significance to the future of the Church of England was the Shared Conversations on Human Sexuality, which had been in the planning for at least two years, and took place over 48 intense hours at the end of the Synod.
Very few people will be unaware that the Church of England is in a difficult place on the subject of homosexuality. Sweeping and swift changes in culture over a generation has resulted in a move whereby the Church of England’s official position (marriage between one man and one woman for life is the only context for sexual expression) and the experience and reality of LGBT* people in society and among the clergy (including myself) are in tension. There is a growing desire to see a more inclusive, honest and progressive acceptance of LGBT people in all levels of the ministry of the Church of England, and for some a desire to see the Church being allowed to conduct same-sex marriages, while at the same time many remain unconvinced or hostile to any revision of the Church’s teaching or practice. To be blunt, we are threatened with a real and difficult split. We need to find ways of talking to each other than at each other.
So Archbishop Justin, bringing his own background in reconciliation ministry to bear, and following a series of regional conversations on this issue, invited the Synod to participate in a 48-hour conversation, led by a highly-qualified team of professional mediators and facilitators, under the leadership of Revd. David Porter, a Baptist Minister and Justin’s new Chief of Staff, who was closely involved in the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. During that period, we were invited – in private and away from the cameras and outside pressure-groups – to talk together about this very personal subject. We did that in small groups of three or four and in larger, facilitated groups of about 20. At the same time, we heard scholarly theological and biblical presentations about the traditional and the progressive positions on the subject; we heard young voices who are LGBT and who desire to follow Christ, and we listened to senior Christian, within and beyond the Church of England, who are attracted to people of the same sex and who seek to live that out in a variety of ways – celibacy, in a civil partnership, quietly or publicly – all as an expression of their commitment to follow Jesus Christ faithfully. Finally, we explored ways ahead, without any formal ‘outcomes’ being proposed, leaving the next stage to the Bishops of the Church of England to bring their response to the wider church later in the year.
It was an intense experience, as you can imagine. We heard moving stories of faithful Christians living out a vocation as disciples in a variety of ways, some of whom simply found it hard to accept the position, views or the lifestyle of others. Some expressed the views that those who took a different line were not being faithful to God, or were undermining the credibility of the Church of England. A tiny handful expressed the view that it was impossible for LGBT people to live their lives in a Christian manner outside of being celibate. One or two even said that people like me are not Christians at all. Some said they would undoubtedly leave the church if change was made to the official position because any such change fatally undermined the place of the bible in the church.
However, it was also hopeful, because at last we were talking to each other rather than at each other. Many on all sides expressed the view that the Church needs to spend more time addressing its difficult issues relationally rather than in a quasi-parliamentary debating chamber. For myself, I left positively, because I genuinely think that change is on the way, however incremental. I think that the Church’s current practice of “don’t-ask-don’t tell”, which is intended to be a compromise but is in fact an enormously dishonest position, will be changed.
But, whether change is small or great, we now need to pray for courage for our bishops to find a way through this most challenging of issues for the church. For many the issue goes way beyond the presenting issue of homosexuality and says something about what sort of church we belong to. That has been a question that has dogged the Church of England ever since the Elizabethan Settlement of the 16th Century, when warring factions of both Catholics and Protestants sought to find a way of living together despite passionately difficult convictions. That’s why this is not easy: it’s about what makes the Church of England what it is.