Dear Friends and Colleagues
Thanks for your prayers for the General Synod as we met this week. It was a good meeting, in the end, with a good but difficult debate on human sexuality at its heart.
Emotions were understandably raw when Synod assembled on Monday and in the initial debate on the agenda (ably led by Oxford’s Sue Booys). More time was requested for Wednesday’s take note debate. There were lots of questions on the Report by the House of Bishops.
Tuesday and the first part of Wednesday were taken up with legislation of various kinds. At the end of Wednesday morning the Bishops of Norwich and Willesden set the scene for the group work on human sexuality.
Bishop Graham James’ address at this point is well worth listening to for an historical perspective on this issue going back over 50 years. People on all sides of the debate found it helpful.
Some LGBT members of General Synod didn’t feel able to share in the group work and gave good and understandable reasons for this. The Synod timetable was adjusted to allow more time for the debate itself. Every small group will have been different. The one I was in was gentle, courteous and diverse and followed the commended process of conversation. Notes were taken to be fed back into the centre. Archbishop Justin took time to meet separately with some of those who did not feel able to be part of the groups.
The main debate began in the Synod chamber at 4.45 and ran through to just after 7.00 pm. Thousands were listening in online and the galleries were full. It was an excellent debate and well worth listening to from the Synod website. The speeches were passionate and powerful. As we expected, there was a wide range of views.
Although it had been a difficult and tense week, my own sense was that the debate itself was the General Synod at its best. I’ve been in difficult debates on several occasions (most noticeably on the legislation of women in the episcopate). This did not feel like those debates. Over 30 people spoke. There was a 3 minute time limit throughout. Jayne Ozanne, Martin Gorick and Sam Alberry all spoke well, from different perspectives. I saw other Oxford members standing seeking to make a contribution. Over 160 people wanted to contribute. The debate was expertly chaired by Aidan Hargreaves.
We came to the vote which is normally a formality in a take note debate. As expected, it was closely contested. The House of Bishops voted 43 in favour and 1 against (the Bishop of Coventry later admitted he had pressed the wrong button by mistake). The House of Laity voted 106 in favour, 86 against with 3 abstentions. The House of Clergy voted 93 in favour and 100 against with 4 abstentions. The take note motion was therefore defeated.
Given the strength of feeling across the Church and the Synod this seemed to me an appropriate outcome. The Bishop of Norwich said afterwards: “I can guarantee that the Bishops will listen carefully and prayerfully to all the contributions made in the debate today”.
Talking with people afterwards, this felt a very significant moment but not that the Church of England is in chaos or turmoil (as the newspaper headlines indicated the following day).
There were various interpretations yesterday of what would happen next. The Archbishops issued a letter yesterday evening which sets out a way forward. The letter is here and I commend it to you for careful study.
The Archbishops begin with a clear statement that “All people are loved and called in Christ. There are no “problems”, there are simply people called to a redeemed humanity in Christ. They call for a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. They have established immediately a new Pastoral Oversight Group led by the Bishop of Newcastle to lead on this issue. The group will be inclusive of differing perspectives.
The Archbishops have asked each Diocesan bishop to meet again with General Synod representatives for an extended conversation following the debate. The House of Bishops will consider in May proposals to move forward with a new teaching document around human sexuality, again involving a group inclusive of different perspectives.
We will be giving some time at our Oxford Diocesan Synod on 18th March to reflection on the General Synod debate and subsequent developments. In the meantime, thank you to all those who have written to me or talked with me about GS2025 (and I am sure other Synod reps would express appreciation for this also).
The Bishops of Norwich and Willesden both expressed regret for the pain caused by the House of Bishops document and I would add my own apology to those who have been hurt and distressed over the last few weeks.
We do not need to wait as a Diocese before seeking to combat homophobia and improving our welcome to LGBTI people in significant ways. I will be seeking to convene some kind of reference group within the Diocese to advise us on ways forward.
The last few weeks have been a sharp and sometimes painful reminder to me of the wide spread of views across the Diocese on these issues. By the grace of God, I hope we will grow through these experiences, honouring and respecting our differences and seeing our diversity as a gift and, ultimately, a strength.
May God continually grant to all of us a deeper sense of unity in Christ and unite us through the Spirit’s grace in one body for his glory.
With love and prayers