I do not normally follow in detail the proceedings of the General Synod of the Church of England. But there was something which caught my eye in one of the commentaries made by a conservative evangelical member of that body. Rob Munro, a representative from the Chester diocese and a member of the conservative body, the Church Society wrote a reaction to the recent Synod in York. He was particularly concerned about what he perceived to be the declining influence of the evangelical bloc within the Synod. He suggested that, politically speaking, the centre ground of General Synod has shifted away from the biblical position on topics to do with sexuality etc. In other words, the perspective of the bulk of Synod members no longer identifies with the well-rehearsed conservative positions on these matters. I read this comment alongside another hint that things are changing in General Synod. It seems that when certain well-known conservative individuals stand up to rehearse their predictable positions, they were sometimes being greeted with ‘noises of unhappiness and booing’. This behaviour was deemed to be unhelpful to the conduct of Synod.
I have reflected on these two pieces of information about what might be going on in the Church of England Synod. Obviously, I was not present to hear the ‘noises of unhappiness’. I am however able to reflect on why people might begin to express their feelings in this way. One of the features of the conservative position on issues like same-sex marriage and the ordination of same-sex individuals is that it is completely unchanging. The spokesmen for the conservative groups in Synod will quote the same bible passages and repeat the same arguments over and over again. Obviously, there are differences among the proponents of the conservative evangelical bloc, but the actual individuals who support these views will not want to shift from personal positions they have in some cases held for decades.
How do we react to a person who never varies in their strongly held opinions? The first thing that happens is that we become bored when we have to listen to the same arguments rehearsed again and again. We hear the argument but, because we know exactly what is coming next, our willingness to listen carefully is compromised. Listening to an apologist for the conservative position over same-sex marriage creates the same effect on me as having to listen to listen to Easyjet cabin crew explain safety measure before take-off. The noises of unhappiness and booing during the speech of such a Synod spokesman as Andrea Minchiello Williams may be simply the sounds of boredom rather than disagreement. The hearers have heard identical arguments being rehearsed so many times before that their reaction is now to feel bored and dispirited.
The arguments from Scripture over gay ordination and all the other things that divide evangelicals from other Christians do need to be heard and the debate is necessary for the church to conduct. The issue in Synod at York at the beginning of July 2017 was not about the value or otherwise of the conservative position on these things. The problem for the evangelical bloc is whether their arguments on these topics have started to sound like a gramophone record which has got stuck. The same words are being repeated again and again with decreasing impact. This repetition has now created a sense of tedium in the listener so that the core message is no longer easily heard.
I personally will always be suspicious of a version of truth which is presented to me through endless repetition. This is because my understanding of the Christian faith has never worked like this. The things that I was taught at theological college almost 50 years ago are by no means the only truths that I have to offer. If they were I am sure that I would by now be utterly bored in endlessly repeating them. What is true for me is that the Christian faith constantly grows and deepens. There are all the time new insights that I obtain through reading and exposure to fresh experiences. Last week at the conference I was attending, an acquaintance introduced me to a writer that I have never heard of. She had heard me speak about power issues in the church and thought that this writer, Carter Heyward, would help me to clarify my thought on these matters. Reading new ideas, grappling with fresh insights is the way that my faith is not in danger of becoming utterly blighted by stale repetition. As it is, I allow myself to explore across cultures and centuries looking for new ways in which to articulate old and traditional truths.
As I write these words I am reminded of a Sydney Carter song. He writes about travelling from the old to the new. The old, the traditional, is not cancelled or destroyed by the new. It is however constantly transformed and changed. As far as the Christian faith is concerned there is always, as far as I can understand, a constant process of travelling. As we travel we allow new insights, new understandings and impressions to enthral us along the way. Without it we would be easily tempted to be among those who prompted ‘the noises of unhappiness and booing’. Boredom is never meant to be part of our understanding of the Christian faith. We certainly don’t want to be guilty of spreading such staleness and repetitiveness to others. The hints that this version of the Christian faith seems to be on the way out within parts of Anglicanism is to be welcomed. The Church of England and its General Synod is far healthier with less in the way of repetition and tedium.