I was down in London briefly earlier this week and caught something of the flavour of what is going on in the Church of England. It is quite difficult for people to get their heads around and quite a lot of the reporting of what happened has been poor. The Telegraph newspaper, for example trumpeted that the Church of England had voted for gay marriage and suggested that a bishop mistakenly pushing the wrong voting button might be to blame for it all going ahead. In fact, they were not voting about gay marriage and the misplaced episcopal finger didn’t make any difference to the result at all.
To understand what was really going on, you have to realise that the debate and the vote which everyone was talking about was a proxy discussion and a proxy vote for something else. Well no, it isn’t even that simple. What was going on was a number of proxy battles all happening simultaneously and all becoming focused on an apparently innocuous vote on whether to take note or not of a paper that had been written by the Church of England bishops and which they were obviously desperate for the Synod to take note of. Whatever anyone might say, taking note of a paper is a form of endorsement and not taking not of a paper is a form of rejection.
However, the paper itself and its rejection can’t be understood without some understanding of the conflicts and issues that were being argued about through it.
It wasn’t about Liberals vs Conservatives
The first and most important thing to note is that this wasn’t a straightforward split between liberals and conservatives. Most people who are anti-gay were voting for the bishops’ report to be noted by the synod because it seemed to say definitively that same-sex couples couldn’t marry and perhaps will never be able to marry in the Church of England. But not all anti-gay people voted that way. A few of the most anti-gay voices actually voted against the paper because it seemed to them too permissive for the bishops to argue for the “maximum freedom” possible within the current definitions, structures and laws of the Church of England. Similarly, most who want progress on LGBT inclusion were voting not to take note of the report but there were some who voted in favour of taking note of it because they thought the bishops had produced the best they could at the time. Indeed, I suspect that some gay members of the synod may have voted for the paper to be accepted.
The debate itself showed that this isn’t about liberals vs conservatives any more in any case. There were speeches which surprised many from Evangelical and “New Wine” folk within the synod who were in favour of more LGBT inclusion. Once upon a time those voices just wouldn’t have been heard.
This is not about liberals vs conservatives. It is about those who favour more LGBTI inclusion and those who prefer either the status quo or even worse, more discipline being enacted against LGBTI people in the church. These categories cut across other parties in the General Synod of the Church of England. This makes things hard to understand.
It was about Hypocrisy rather than Homosexuality
The presenting issue on Wednesday within the Church of England was a not a sudden outbreak of homosexuality. The presenting issue was that a significant number of people saw the behaviour of bishops in that church as being deeply hypocritical. And hypocrisy is a sin. Indeed, in the brave new world, hypocrisy is a Very Big Sin Indeed. This recognition of hypocrisy amongst the bishops has led to a serious and significant breakdown of trust within the C of E. People who are normally prepared to buy the line: “Trust us, we’re bishops” were simply not prepared to do so this week.
The truth is, people are not prepared to trust bishops who claim to be in favour of LGBTI inclusion who are prepared to propose and vote for a report that very obviously isn’t. There were no dissenting voices in the Church of England House of Bishops when that report was proposed. Not one. And this is despite the fact that it was very obviously written in language which was offensive to LGBTI people.
We even had the unedifying spectacle of one of the bishops advocating a report which denied the possibility of blessing gay couples saying “God Bless you” to a gay couple on twitter when he realised that they were offended. It was crass and insensitive and clearly insincere as he voted for the paper anyway.
How can you apologise for a paper and still vote for it?
People think that those who say to gay people “We’re really on your side you know” in private, whilst promoting a homophobic discourse and homophobic policies in public, are lying hypocrites. That isn’t pleasant to observe but it was how very many people that I met in London were describing their bishops. That represents an enormous loss of trust. And the truth is, the bishops had lost that trust long before the vote was taken. Even if the vote had taken note of the report, the bishops would have lost a very great deal along the way. Bishops cannot be effective leaders of mission if people think they are lying hypocrites. That is simply the way things are. And make no mistake – people did think that and were expressing it very openly and very clearly.
It started to look like Bishops vs The People/The Mob/The Dissenters/The Plebs
The whole situation started to look like a classic revolt of the underlings against their overlords. Indeed, it has continued to be represented in that way by people from other traditions who simply can’t understand a polity in which the clergy can tell their bishops what to do.
For the first time in a long time, I became aware that those advocating for more LGBTI inclusion could scent that it was possible to win arguments and win votes in the General Synod. This is a hugely significant thing to happen and something I warmly welcome.
I spent Tuesday evening at the launch of OneFaithOneBody – a new organisation comprised of Changing Attitude (the English brand of Changing Attitude, for the avoidance of doubt) and the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. I publicly called last year for such organisations to come together in a united way to fight the anti-gay forces of the church instead of fighting one another. I saw exactly that thing happen before my eyes this week. I don’t particularly warm to the new identity, but I do warm strongly to the united sense of purpose that was very much evident.
We may be seeing the end of Indaba
It is possible that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the pseudo-African extra-synodical processes which have been imposed upon various Anglican Churches over the last few years. The Shared Conversations in England were not something I endorsed. I do praise everyone who speaks generously and kindly with those who have different views from themselves and who learn from the experience. However, the indabaization of church process has seen a series of processes which have excluded some voices, taken decision-making away from synodical bodies and delayed any progress towards equality. It is inevitable that the Shared Conversation process would run into trouble in England (as elsewhere) eventually because organisations which advocate for the inclusion of LGBTI people were by definition excluded from the design of the processes themselves.
The Shared Conversations in England provided many places where gentle learning took place by good people. However as a process of decision making and discernment, they suddenly look very expensive indeed and a huge mistake. If anyone could have foreseen that spending that amount of money (£300 000) towards something that would result in such a significant loss of trust and authority in Episcopal ministry they would never have got off the ground.
What Kind of Leadership Does the Church Require?
The fundamental question raised in the Anglican Communion is not about gay people – it is about bishops. The question is, what kind of leadership does the church require? And the answer that many people appeared to be giving was “leadership that doesn’t look like this”.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written a letter outlining a way forward. There’s a change of tone – the words are all fluffy and inclusive and fine. However, once again they are proposing an extra-synodical process of listening – asking the bishops to meet with their dioceses’ synodical representatives. No LGBTI people have been consulted about this proposal and out LGBTI people will by definition be under-represented in it as they are under-represented within the synod. On the one hand it seems reasonable – on the other it seems as though neither archbishop is capable of conceiving of the issues as anything other than a squabble about those pesky gays that only bishops can solve.
The truth is, those most directly affected in all this are those who can best come up with solutions.
The solution that the C of E came up with in relation to the ordination of bishops who happen to be women was not one I favoured. But no-one ever got near a solution in the years in which organisations like WATCH (Women and the Church) were excluded from coming up with solutions.
The bishops should be queuing up at the doors of OneBodyOneFaith and Inclusive Church (and indeed those organisations opposed to LGBTI inclusion too) and asking them directly how to solve this. Instead, the whole thing is bishop centred still. Bishop-centred solutions will not work and are likely to lead to an even greater loss of trust in episcopal ministry.
Things that would help right now
There are things that bishops in England could do which could help. These include:
- Learning what homophobia is (see the Crown Prosecution Service definition for starters) and admitting that it exists within the church.
- Learning that the best people to say when homophobia is present are the people affected by homophobia and not bishops.
- Asking equality organisations within the church and from outside the church for help.
- Expressing true collegiality by allowing bishops in favour of LGBTI inclusion to be able to be advocates for it. The truth is, we don’t know how people in synods would vote if there were bishops behaving like articulate, grown up advocates for LGBTI inclusion. It is time we found out.
- Remembering never to design a process about the pesky gays without the pesky gays being invited to help design it.
- Learning more about the experience and discourse of Bisexual, Trans and Intersex people who didn’t get much of a look in this week in any conversation.
- Starting to consider how to offer compensation for people bullied in the church in the past because of their sexuality or partnership status.
- Declaring that maximum freedom within the current formularies of the Church of England includes reaffirming Article 32 of the 39 Articles and thus allowing civil marriage to clergy in same sex partnerships. Article 32 reads: “Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.”