During February, many of you will have read and heard about the General Synod debate on human sexuality (actually homosexuality) and the defeat of the House of Bishops by the Clergy. As a central player in the whole situation, as you may have seen from my appearances on TV and radio news, and some of the unpleasant internet trolling which has taken place afterwards, I thought you may be interested to read a little of my reflections.
Writing and speaking about sexuality is not something I am keen to do very often, because although I am gay myself, I don’t wish to be defined by my sexuality. Being a parish priest is not in my view a platform for campaigning or being a single-issue person, and it would be to abuse my role in this community to make it so.
But having said that, for complex reasons, attitudes towards homosexuality have become a touchstone issue in the Church. For some people, to take a more progressive position through having liturgies for blessing same sex couples or even to have a parish priest who is living with a same-sex partner in a long-term relationship, is tantamount to departing from the plain meaning of scripture and the teaching of the Church. While most of such folk are slowly realising that the Church does need to be more welcoming to LGBT people, any change around these issues would be for them a departure from the historic orthodoxy of the Church of England which requires abstinence from sex for all who are not married to a person of the opposite sex.
For other people, holding equally strong views, they see loving relationships of gay people in their church and they see people with potential to become fine priests (or even bishops) who happen to be in same-sex relationship, or they encounter problems in trying to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to gay people who simply are not interested in the church or faith because they perceive the church to be inhospitable. They take the view that it is a mission imperative to revise the historic position of the Church, not just because no-one is taking any notice of it anymore (heterosexual or homosexual) but also because the world view of the 1st century in which the Scriptures were written is not aimed at the sort of loving relationships they see in LGBT people today. For many of them it is a gospel imperative to revise the church’s approach.
With such a profound division, following extensive facilitated conversations last year, members of the General Synod met in February to consider a report by the House of Bishops which, while recognising the need for what the report called ‘maximum freedom’ nevertheless effectively restated the traditional position, setting its face against same-sex marriage and any formal blessing of same sex relationships by the Church.
The press rather got the wrong end of the stick from my perspective. They saw the whole matter as about same-sex marriage, which it was not. Everyone on both sides recognises that there is not going to be any marrying of same sex couples in Churches for many years to come. What primarily had provoked a very strong reaction against the report – and ultimately the reason why it was defeated – was the way it which is spoke of LGBT people as a problem. Case studies were offered which presented gay people as issues to be handled rather than people to be related to. This was hugely offensive to many of us and bore little resemblance to the way we minister to gay people in our churches.
Alongside the problem of tone, which was to say the least rather condescending, the bishops presented their report as a consensus document where in fact many of us knew that there were plenty of bishops (including some very senior ones!) who were not at all satisfied with what had emerged. But there was no dissent. This seemed disingenuous, presenting a face of unity which really only papered over the cracks.
Eventually what happened was that sufficient clergy in General Synod felt that this report really wasn’t good enough and by a small majority (with the bishops and laity approving the report), it was defeated. Immediately, following this defeat, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a letter (in a decidedly better tone) and the matter will continue to be dealt with by the whole Synod.
This was, I believe, a watershed moment in the life of the Church of England on this thorny and difficult issue. The most significant achievement was not the defeat of the bishops but the insistence, from a wide range of moderate to radical people in the Church, that we cannot speak of gay people as problems any more. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ and their voice needs to be heard, alongside others, in this discussion. I am confident that will now happen.
It was a privilege to play a role in this event and to be able to give a speech (printed below) which was I think key in persuading colleagues to vote the report down. I believe we have changed the Church of England for the better. I stood for my role as Prolocutor in General Synod in part to keep the Church honest on this subject. I don’t believe the bishops were being honest until February and I am delighted, and not a little emotionally relieved, to have helped them realise that, which to their credit I think they have done.
There is still a long way to go. The Church remains divided on this matter. But at last we can begin to be honest about that division and to work out how we work together across that divide.
Canon Simon Butler
Canon Simon Butler’s Speech to the General Synod
15th February 2017
I want to talk about Disagreement. And to do so, I want to reflect on my relationship with a member of this Synod. In fact, it is the synod member who sent me the text I referred to on Monday.
He was the first person I ever told I was gay, 27 years ago. I will always be grateful to him: he listened without without judgement and promised to accompany me on my journey. He gave me a card of a shadowy road lit by sunlight. It remained on my study wall for years.
Our paths separated. His ministry has taken a particular path. He got married and had kids. I met my partner fifteen years ago.
Synod has brought us back together and we find ourselves serving the church in close proximity. I’ve told him something of my life and it has not been hard to see how difficult that is for him. He believes me to be living dishonestly in relation to the doctrine of the church. A red line has been crossed for him.
And of course it’s wounding for me too, working alongside someone who believes that about me. GS2055 took me over a red line too. What that means for future working remains to be seen. It’s too early to tell.
But, despite those red lines being crossed the Church of England forces us to work together. It may not be Good Disagreement. But it is, I believe, just about Workable Disagreement.
So here’s my problem with GS2055. I don’t believe this report gives evidence that the House of Bishops has yet reached that level of disagreement. Have they reached that moment where, in all conscience, the whole situation is intolerable and, either from a conservative or progressive perspective, up with this they will not put? I don’t believe they have – yet – they might have come close, they might believe they have, but they have not yet had to do what my brother in Christ and I are – with enormous difficulty – clearly struggling to live with. Only when fracture comes can new possibilities emerge.
GS2055 believes clergy are called to higher standards of conduct. I want to suggest to our bishops that they have yet to reach those painful higher standards before they can tell us about their capacity for Workable Disagreement, and then help us to do the same. With respect for their individual gifts and callings, I don’t think GS2055 demonstrates a corporate higher standard.
And for that reason, because you have to yet demonstrate your own capacity for Disagreement is possible, I have to vote NOT to take note today.
I thought that would be my last word but, as we worshipped last evening, a text of scripture came to be as a bolt from the blue. Genesis 32:26: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Despite the enormous difficulty it presents, I say to that person who sent me that text and who finds my presence in this place so difficult, “I will not yet you go until you bless me.” And I say to those faithful godly people, like Susie Leafe who has just spoken and who think as he does, “I will not yet you go until you bless me.” And I say to my brothers and sisters in the House of Bishops, even though I cannot vote for your paper today, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And I look forward to the day when every one of you feels you can say the same of me. Thank you.