General Synod debate -some comments

It has been very hard, if not impossible, to avoid being absorbed with the current news coming out of America. Of special interest for this blog is the way that American society is in danger of being undermined by an ultra-right wing Christian agenda. We have seen a great deal of irrationality and often a complete disregard for truth in the statements of both politicians and their representatives. The way that the thinking and rationality of ordinary people is being sapped and undermined by widespread disregard for truth will have consequences for many years to come. No doubt when things in the States have become a little more settled, I will have more to say on one or other of the many issues that have been raised over the past weeks. But today I want to turn away from the nightmare that is America 2017 to our own country and the recent vote by General Synod on the same sex marriage issue. A vote on the issue took place on Wednesday last. The vote not to receive the document was a rebuke to a carefully worded but anodyne statement by the Bishops of the Church of England on the topic. There has been widespread commentary on this document which was produced after a three-year consultation. It contains the Bishops’ attempt to summarise and extract a positive message from so-called Shared Conversations. The main criticism of the document seems to centre round the fact that it satisfies no one. The LGBT community feel that their situation is not fully understood or heard. Opponents of same sex marriage do feel that the Bishops have given too much away. The latter group have repeated their oft heard complaint that they do not hear ‘biblical teaching’ strongly reaffirmed.

I have pointed out in previous blog posts the way in which the issue of gay marriage has come to be a defining one for many conservative Christians. The strong affirmation of conservative opposition to any kind of gay sex will be based on a claim that it transgresses the ‘plain’ words of Scripture. This claim is by no means self-evident but there is no opportunity to look at the arguments here. Of more interest is to point out the fact that this issue has only recently come into prominence. 50 years ago, the topic was barely discussed. It is however important to record that the Church, especially in the person of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, was ahead of the rest of society in advocating tolerance. The 1967 legislation which decriminalised homosexuality was supported by Christians who believed that it was wrong for the law to persecute homosexuals. Now the situation is in reverse. Same-sex marriage has been legally permissible for the past two to three years but still a strong minority of Christians want to pretend that this societal change is intolerable and offensive to their beliefs. A similar situation exists in the States. Homosexual couples are permitted to marry but large numbers of conservative Christians passionately resent this change.

The position I take in this blog is to recognise that there are strong opinions on this issue. But I also make a plea that both sides of the divide need to be heard. The fact that I do not take the conservative position but argue (like the bishops) for a balanced view does not make me welcome in the conservative camp. On this, as on many other opinions, the one who is not 100% on the conservative side is deemed to be part of the opposition. To be fair to the bishops, they had hoped that the sponsoring of Shared Conversations might create a climate where some kind of mutual acceptance might flourish. This was never going to be as conservative opinion has shown absolutely no inclination to move on this issue. Meanwhile the valid insights and experience of lesbian, gay and transsexual people was being shut out of any true dialogue by this conservative intransigence. Flexibility and compromise on the gay question is just not going to happen among the conservatives. If anything, the firming up of conservative opinion against ‘liberal’ causes has become stronger. The recent election in the States will have emboldened many right-leaning Christians that they are dominant in the cultural wars. President Trump’s Mexican wall may be a kind of dreadful metaphor for the way that division, intolerance and intransigence may be the order of the day in both politics and religion for years to come.

The fixed position that conservative biblical Christians appear to be taking in this discussion comes out of a need to establish a firm identity, to know who they are. Identity, sense of self and belonging are all given to the one who believes what many others believe. Conservative Christians in their membership of a huge protestant network across the world have a strong sense of who they are. This takes them a long way from considering any kind of individual journey which might involve them questioning or thinking through a position on their own. We come back to the image that I tried to explore a few blog posts ago. Some Christians only feel secure when they live in an environment which is strongly defined and firmly defended. If the corporate identity in any way comes under attack, they will resist determinedly. They are grateful for the walls behind which they hide. But these have been built by others; their own personal contribution to the building work is zero. For them Christianity is not about a personal journey or individual creativity; it is about being welcomed behind strong defensive walls which give them the illusion of being safe both in this life and in the one to come.

In any normal gathering of individuals it should be possible to tolerate differing perspectives and understandings. The Church has a problem because it does not seem able to work like this. The conservative wing has, apparently, no readiness to accept anything beyond their beliefs; simultaneously they also challenge the right of others to be different from them. They see truth in militant terms. Their truth has to fight and conquer all other versions. This is the alarming version of truth that we see in contemporary America at present. There we see a political vision which is unable to enter into any dialogue or be challenged by other points of view. This ability to discuss and debate in a constructive way is something that is tremendously precious in a democratic society. We do not want either in politics or in church life to be moving to a system where there is only one version of truth which has been defined by the party in power. Political dominance that refuses dialogue leads to coercion, bullying and the eventual destruction of civility and democracy.

It will be interesting to see where the Anglican church will head after this vote. Although I have much sympathy with the efforts of the bishops, I rejoice that the ‘taking note’ has been defeated. Politically the church has to stand up to those who will not allow the mutual flourishing of different perspectives to co-exist. I would like to think that there is a majority on both sides of the debate who are prepared to stand up to all bullies and those who stand for hectoring intolerance. American political life is going through a similar crisis at present. The Anglican church, the church of moderation and tolerance, needs to resist all attempts to destroy free debate and openness to the insights and ideas of others. There is a lot at stake in the next two or three years.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

11 thoughts on “General Synod debate -some comments

  1. Yes, it’s good. But what a pity that the church has appointed another Bishop who doesn’t believe in women’s ministry. In the same Church Times as your letter about Iwerne, Stephen, the Dean of Hereford said it was ok to appoint this guy. It isn’t. We should not be ordaining men who don’t accept women’s ordination. Why is gay rights the only thing that gays and their supporters are interested in? Why are so many gays so prejudiced against women? I was refused a mortgage because I am female. I bet no gay was ever refused a mortgage on those grounds. Inclusive church? My eye! I am now feeling very jaundiced.

  2. Part of the problem is that gays etc have had such a hard time getting their voices heard. It is, I fear, the conservatives especially in America that have made the issue so prominent. Most of us don’t want the rhetoric on either side to sound so shrill. But there may be a is a question of over-emphasis on both sides. I know exactly what you mean when you get close to someone campaigning on one side or the other. They seem interested in nothing else. There are so many other pressing issues, one wants to say. I had to speak about it this week before the topic disappears into the long grass.

  3. Thanks Stephen, stimulating as always. However, “The fixed position that conservative biblical Christians appear to be taking in this discussion comes out of a need to establish a firm identity…” Really? I think this assertion is debatable. Secondly, I don’t find the comparison with what is going on in America helpful.
    Tricky stuff!

  4. I can see what you are saying E/A.
    ‘Movers and shakers’ on all sides. If it were possible to get a perfect balance on this, would anyone want it? Most of this is generated by “What I want!”And, because of that stuff the question must still be asked; when will a dustman, road sweeper, or unskilled factory worker be, even so much invited, into the synods discussions?
    “Getting voices heard” ? It seems to be a case of, ‘My will not Thine’

    1. The dustmen would get a vote on who their Synod representative was if they went to the Annual meeting in their church. That seems fair, to be honest. But of course, the people who get involved in the politics of any organisation are shall we say, a particular type. Everyone else is too busy living life.

  5. David, We’re back to,’Is the bible the Word of God?’ Stephen would select scriptures to say,No.”
    The Church of Rome at least has some legitimacy to interpret and teach,
    because it places ‘Divine tradition’ alongside scripture.Powerful lobby groups and intellectual elites are a long way away from; “God has chosen the things that this world counts as nothing”‘The music goes round and round’. By now we all know who I think ‘The Nothing’ are.


    1. Thanks Chris. I feel sad that believing in the life-long loving relationship of a man and a woman, which I think is the basis for society and encouraged by the Bible and which we used to call marriage, is now seen by some as anti those who are attracted to the same sex.

    2. Strictly, Jesus is the Word! Muslims revere the Koran in the way that we don’t revere the Bible. We don’t worship a book! But I would go with the quote in Timothy that says Scripture is God breathed. So it’s a bit special, and not just “a” book.

  6. Yes David, After 42 years struggle, most of that time in the company of Evangelicals, simple faith is now unfashionable. It has a mysterious bite,
    and seems to have no regrets, I am reminded of Siegfried Sassoon’s; “The hell were youth and laughter go”… The world is my asylum, ‘I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours!’ …….

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