How not to have a synodical discussion

This afternoon I’ve been engaged in a discussion at the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church about same-sex marriage. At least, that’s what it was supposed to be about. Often in the afternoon it felt like a discussion about how to have a discussion. (All of this was being facilitated by Hugh Donald of A Place for Hope initiative of the Church of Scotland NB correction from earlier text)

We began by someone challenging the process by speaking against the motion to suspend the standing orders and go into a different mode of meeting. That challenge didn’t fly, but a quarter of the synod members didn’t want to go into small groups. That’s quite a high proportion of dissatisfied customers to begin with.

We were then invited to listen to a conversation amongst some people who were part of a previous conversation at Pitlochry that had been limited to invited people only. Already we were into the territory of people feeling excluded from a process – at my table there were two of us who would have liked to have been at Pitlochry but who had found ourselves excluded from it.

The conversation that we were invited to watch went on for a bit and they all agreed that Pitlochry had been wonderful and transformative. (Guess what that feels like if you’ve been excluded!) However it was difficult to hear much about what they had talked about at Pitlochry.

But the worst thing from my point of view is that this conversation that we were invited to witness had no participant who was ordained and gay.

It was the antithesis of the principle that you don’t speak about people without including them in the conversation. There were plenty of ordained people  who happen to be gay in the room too – just not invited to be part of that conversation.

Then we went into table groups where we were expected to talk about gay people’s personal lives without having any warning of what the questions would be and without any reference to the fact that straight people have a sexuality too. (The questions very clearly made gay people the problem the church was trying to solve).

For some reason, the people who went to Pitlochry who had a great time there who have come back saying how much wonderful listening was going on are finding it terribly difficult to listen to those who were not there or who have any criticism of the process.

At the end of all this, bumping into some of my gay friends in the room, I saw one brushing back tears (and I knew they were fury tears not just ordinary upset tears), another was still fizzing about the questions and was heading off to have a go at one of the bishops about how manipulative it had been, another with his head in his hands saying “how long can this go on” and another patiently trying to explain to straight liberal so-called allies why being asked to wait another year (yet again) did not feel like a step forward.

Rounding off this session of the Cascade process, the Primus spoke of how well it was being conducted and how well it was going.

He does not walk in my shoes.


  1. At my table, when we started to discuss the first question, the one about how we personally had come to hold the views we have about same-sex relationships, everyone looked at me (gobby and out), and I said, “I’m gay,” and they kept looking at me, and I said, “I’m not going to say anything else personal until someone else has.”

  2. Rosemary Hannah says

    Oh God Beth and I bet they did not, either. How awful. I am so so so sorry. All I can ask is that you believe some straight(ish) gay liberals are NOT part of all this, and do and will continue to speak up about it. I am only sorry so much of the weight of this falls on people you are gay and out.

  3. What a sad way to conduct business 🙁 I despair of our bishops (I’m CofE) and those who prevaricate and pretend that this is an issue of little consequence, when it’s impacting the lives of faithful Clergy and Laity who are not seeking special privileges, just wishing to be recognised and welcomed in the same way as their fellow Christians, who happen to be straight.

    The don’t see the harm that they’re doing to those who their actions impact on, and the many like myself, who while straight, long for the day when we can say that we’re truly ALL ONE IN CHRIST without any exclusions whatsoever.
    And that will allow the message that we send out in mission to be genuine and real, not one stilted by the prejudices and fears of those who can’t or won’t feel the wind of the Spirit blowing through the Church.

    Same sex marriage is Marriage, pure and simple. It doesn’t downgrade my marriage, it allows those who’ve been excluded by archaic and blind legal provisions to enjoy the same status and equality as their fellow citizens.

  4. Elizabeth Anderson says

    This is so disheartening to hear. I don’t think I was expecting much from Synod after the horrendous process leading up to it but this is still awfully discouraging. I’m so sorry.

  5. Thank you for this post, for your honesty about this awful process.

    It has fed into some broader thoughts about anger and marginalisation, which I’ve blogged about here:

    Keep going. Keep speaking out. Keep refusing to be silenced. I and many others will be praying for you, and for something good to come out of this dreadful process, however improbable that seems.

  6. Some times over the last month, on hearing of the Cascade process, I’ve tried to think if there might be something good about it.

    Having heard much of it from the live audio feed this afternoon, I can safely say there isn’t. It wins a prize for the most vacuous inane mutual-back-slapping discussion I’ve heard this year. I’m so glad they came back from Pitlochry gushing with a case of the warm fuzzies – now how about sharing the substance of what they actually discussed? Oh, we’re meant to trust them in their secretive meetings, well that must be OK then.

    The huge danger is that this small introverted clique with its words and inaction will divert attention from the real problems of justice, ethics and relevance. These things need debating in proper synodic form and until that canon is changed, the job has not be done.

  7. I’m still feeling physically sick about this afternoon, and half ashamed that I didn’t somehow manage to share what came into my life over 40 years ago when God marched in with all these difficult realisations about justice, equality, truth and peace. They’ve been getting me into trouble ever since, but I feel trouble might have been a more satisfactory outcome than the creeping niceness that threatens to smother us all.

  8. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

  9. I do hope that David Porter (ABC’s reconciliation person) reads this. (He’s I/C building the CofE’s discussion process and there is plenty to learn from this. Thanks, Kelvin.)

    • David Porter was a key person in this process in Scotland, having been one of the participants in the Pitlochry conversation and someone who advised on how it should be done.

  10. Robin says

    > (All of this was being facilitated by Hugh Donald of Core Solutions – a mediation and facilitation company.)

    I’ve had experience of this ‘mediation and facilitation’ approach (not by this company, I should make clear) and found it disastrous. Judging by an analogous situation I experienced, sending the Chosen to Pitlochry and shutting out the rest must have been a recipe for division, creating cliques and dividing people into “ins” and “outs”. Why wasn’t there just an open discussion on the floor of Synod, the opportunity for everyone who wanted one to have a full say, and then have a vote on a substantive proposition?

    • It wasn’t for lack of trying, nor was it largely for the members of Synod being unwilling.

    • Well, the Standing Committee took the view that the synod shouldn’t have an open debate about this. The synod itself voted by a clear majority to have an open debate about at least some of this stuff, but not by enough of a majority. (It needs 2/3rds of people present voting).

      My view is that this proved that Standing Committee (of which I was a member at the time) made the wrong call.

      It is also my view that at least some of the things that went wrong with the process on Friday afternoon would not have gone wrong or maybe would not have been perceived to have been so wrong if an open, whole synod debate had been allowed.

      I take the view that effectively, the Standing Committee severely undermined and damaged the Cascade Process by trying to keep it all nipped in.

      Knowing who was most upset by it all, it will be a very difficult process to run in this diocese, for example.

      None of this is to say that everyone had a bad time. There were obviously positive conversations going on all around the room. But that isn’t the point – there was much that was really quite wrong too.

      • Robin says

        On Thursday I was at the 12:30 Eucharist at St Columba’s and it wasn’t until I was having lunch in the pub afterwards that I learned it was the day Synod began. How wonderful it felt to be in that happy situation!

  11. Rosemary Hannah says

    The thing is – this is very plainly an attempt at manipulation, but manipulation works best when it is not plain one is being manipulated. The sense of being deliberately used gets my back up, even when it is at second or third hand like this. I always want to know to where I am being herded, why and by whom.

  12. Ender's Shadow says

    It’s vital at this point that you ensure that at the next meeting of synod a clear motion expressing your dissatisfaction is on the agenda, and that you propose ‘next business’ on every item if it isn’t, hopefully including the authorisation for bishops’ expenses. The Primus clearly hasn’t got a clue – he must have it made very clear to him that he’s making an idiot of himself.

  13. ‘Twas ever so!
    I am a priest of the Australian Anglican Church, in the relatively conservative (what used to be ) Anglo-Catholic Diocese of Adelaide.
    I blogged a bit about some “safe space” conversations our Diocesan Synod held a couple of years ago ( It was one of the most mishandled experiences I have ever had.
    I have never seen the conservative evangelicals come out in such force.
    One session after a traditional evangelical position was put, and then a liberal catholic place enunciated, was supposed to be a “pastoral response” from a psychologist priest who could not help but state his view that homosexual practice was unbiblical. [This rather limited his capacity to be able to pastorally respond!]
    To then witness the Precentor of the Cathedral rip into him was a wonder to behold. How can a loving Church condemn people to hell so easily? And so ignore the real injustices of our society…poverty, refugees, homelessness, racial prejudice…….to name but a view of the sinister things that permeate Australian society.
    My own personal victory came from the sense that at least one of the curates of the Diocesan evangelical mega-parish seemed to twig that poverty was more serious ….much more serious…than who has sex with whom!
    I was left feeling that those of us who have a catholic view that means that God loves everybody….even if we are not conservative, straight, gay, black or white…you name it; are fighting an uphill battle against a legalistic Protestantism that is more interested in keeping the middle class intact.
    WWJD…..I am totally convinced that J would not be at middle class preach Fest in the Adelaide Hills!

    I personally think the Australian Church is sh&t scared of debating homosexuality. Its bishops have become Laodiceans (Rev 3:14-15).

    My great sadness after these “safe space” discussions was that someone said to me of a person who had been in a small (20+!!!!) discussion group who clearly identified herself as a gay woman….”Oh we haven’t seen her in Church for 3 or 4 weeks”

    God help the Church. Because the Church can’t help itself

  14. I think it is important to say that in the course of the last few days, I experienced nothing but graciousness from evangelical colleagues and from those who may disagree with me over human sexuality. That has always been the case for me. There are those who paint a different picture in Scotland of people who can’t or won’t talk to one another, but that isn’t a church I recognise and I have a feeling that there’s some projection going on.

    My own view is that our failure to move forward on this question in Scotland has more to do with leadership problems within our church than to do with people being beastly to one another.

    It is generally liberals who say that they are supportive of gay people but who then work against LGBT inclusion who are the ones leading to delays at the moment. (Some of the worst offenders happen to be bishops). Evangelical friends and colleagues in the church couldn’t be kinder to me and we’ve got more in common than that which divides us.

    • Kimberly says

      These are the words that need to be heard and reckoned with.

      I have the utmost respect for most of the evangelical clergy I knew in Scotland, despite having quite different theological views. The problem is not between catholic and evangelical, nor even liberal and conservative, but between transparency and manipulation.

    • This.

      For the last three days I have found myself continually standing up to agree with evangelical friends on not only this but most items of business on the Synod agenda, and *on* this it is not evangelicals or conservatives or people who hold substantively different views to me who are causing the hold up. Many of them are as frustrated as I am by the inability of the leadership to actually talk. The stagnation is being caused by people, and unfortunately by people in positions of authority, who claim to be inclusive and often claim to agree with me but who are actively creating roadblocks to both conversation and progress.

    • I am not meaning to slander all evangelicals, but there is a polarisation in Australia which tends to not exist in other parts of the Communion. There are two types of evangelicals in Australia…the dominant Diocese of Sydney is obsessed with the issue, is a major force behind GAFCON etc. I heard from a priest who has just moved into that Diocese that he can only have permission to officiate because he has been divorced. (It’s not clear to me whether this caveat is placed on all divorced clergy or just those who have remarried, but I suspect the former). That Diocese of course also does not ordain women to the priesthood.
      They seem to be hugely ‘successful’…but appeal to a cross section of society that is often absent in the wider church. Upwardly mobile young professionals.

      It is a huge contrast to the Uniting Church (which is a union of the former Congregational, Methodist, & most Presbyterians) which by and large has embraced the social justice agenda. And (not without controversy it needs to be said) has a number of parishes staffed by openly LGB people…I think we are all still struggling with the ontology of adding T!

      • Trans people can often be treated as the shadow figures of those bright and shiny we people who strive to have as gleaming smiles and glittering social acceptance as the hets next door, conveniently forgetting that all queer identities transform gender in some way and that trans people have been and continue to be signs of contradiction and a stumbling block to those good citizens and pious church-goers who faintly support human rights as long as those being persecuted behave nicely and are grateful for such nice condescension.

        • I think this is (sadly) true. And I wonder what the next group will be that has not entered our consciousness yet…as the transgender people hadn’t really 20 years ago.

  15. Kelvin, I can’t begin to say how sorry (and furious) I am that yet again our church that we hold dear has failed to move forward in any way to right a terrible wrong that has been inflicted on so many of us through no fault of our own. I pray fervently that in the interim between now and Synod 2015 there will be a cleansing blast of the Holy Spirit through the cosy fuzziness.

  16. Anne Jones says

    How can a church that gets so much so right , get some things so horribly wrong?

  17. Jeremy Auld says

    Despite being (albeit reluctantly) one of those on the platform on Friday afternoon, I agree with much that has been said here – especially about the lack of transparency in relation to the selection of those being invited to attend Cascade in Pitlochry and the make-up of the group on the platform. To have had no-one ordained and gay up there was wrong – I had been given to understand that we would indeed be hearing from a gay priest in the course of the presentation. But what I found most difficult to swallow was that the democratic process was crushed. It was quite clear that a substantial majority of synod wanted to have a proper and open debate on the Rule 10 motion proposed by Beth to allow the necessary canonical changes to be made to allow same sex marriage. To have such a high bar requiring a two-thirds majority even to allow the motion to be debated, seems to me to be undemocratic. That needs to be changed so that the requirement is a simple majority. Secondly, to allow the proposer a mere 2 minutes and to allow no-one else to speak in support (or against as the case may be) was not enough. As a result, I remain unconvinced that people even knew what it was they were voting for (no criticism of Beth who spoke brilliantly but simply of the process) – because I simply cannot understand otherwise why anyone would vote against allowing such an important motion even to be debated. It is a vote against the democratic process that Synod is supposed to represent. Standing committee should, of course, have put such a motion on the agenda in the first place which would have avoided some of this unnecessary pain. But I think there is a real process issue here which has prevented the true voice of the church being heard because I think the Church has changed. The overwhelming tenor of the discussions of which I was a part at Cascade were wholly in favour of full equality and the necessary changes being made to the canons of the church.

    • Thanks Jeremy

      That’s a really helpful comment and shows that this isn’t a dispute between those who went to Pitlochry and those who didn’t.

      The dispute we have in the church is primarily between those who want to move to accepting same-sex marriage right now, with appropriate processes for allowing people to opt out, just as they can for straight weddings they don’t want to take, and the decreasing number who want to keep putting off any changes.

    • Kimberly says

      This is helpful to hear. Thank you.

    • Another thing to remember about the Rule 10 procedure is that it requires 14 names – now synod has just become smaller – it used to require 14 names from 150 or so members, now it requires 14 names from 120 or so members. Thus, it is getting harder to put a Rule 10 in the first place.

      It should perhaps be a proportion of synod members.

      I believe in England, one can get something discussed with just 25 synod members standing in their place.

    • Augur Pearce says

      Speaking as an outsider (but as somebody into constitutions of all sorts, who has therefore read the relevant canon, synod resolutions and rule), it seems to me the problem lies in the power given to the Standing Committee. 2 bishops, 3 Board conveners, 2 elected clerics and 3 elected laypeople seem to have complete power to block debate of any topic simply by choosing to leave it off the agenda, unless a 2/3 vote of the Synod can be mustered to overrule them. This includes debate of a proposal to change the rule that gives them such power.

  18. How wonderful it would have been for Synod to be able to hear this quality of contribution. I wonder how many of the Standing Committee are reading it…

    • Well yes – it is rather ironic that there’s been more debate here (and in other places online) than was allowed at the synod. But then I think it is a rule of modern life that if you stifle debate it just moves online.

      Only one person got to address the synod on the substantive questions and the way forward and that was the Primus. No-one was able to respond to it or to ask questions for clarification. This may be why there were members of all three houses (yes, bishops too) coming up to me and asking me what his statement meant.

      I presume that the fact that bishops were asking what it meant was indicative of the fact that they didn’t have prior warning of what he was going to say, even though it was being released for the church’s website and appeared to be a statement from him in his role as primus rather than diocesan bishop.

      • Yes – I’ve been wondering when exactly he drafted it. Was it his intention all along, or was he reacting to events?

        • Matthew Pemble says


          He had a draft but was scribbling all over it and then modifying it on, iirc, his iPad while we were having our table discussion after the podium discussion.

  19. Suzanne Bryden says

    As an outsider looking in, a former Church goer who no longer attends but wishes I could, I subscribed to your blog because I was searching for something. I find the blog interesting, often helpful and the ensuing discussions stimulating given the contributors. As someone in this position therefore, I wanted to let you all know that it is precisely the type of bureaucracy and hierarchical artificiality described in this entry which is keeping me and thousands like me away from the Church.
    Standing orders? Committees? Debates? Meetings within meetings? Jesus (or at least the one I believe in) did not require, impose, utilise or dare I say, want any of this. He excluded no-one, accepted all. The church in all its self imposed divisions and denominations seems to have quite forgotten this and in doing so, is forgetting those of us who simply wish to worship Him.

    • Suzanne I think it takes all kinds of make a church. I’m a refugee from the RCs so I’m glad there is even debate about this. I also think Jo Freeman’s famous article The Tyranny of Structurelessness, and the work of Robert Pirsig, have a lot to say about institutions in terms of their dynamics – that small movements can run on the charisma of their founder but need stable support to grow however that your kind of prophetic challenge of ‘Ad Fontes!’ (back to the source of inspiration) is not only most welcome but utterly necessary for the rejuvenation of the community. Come try St Marys. We’re all very different, and that makes all the difference.

  20. Richard says

    Thank you for such an informative thread of discussion. I was struck by the comments of Augur Pearce and Jeremy Auld regarding the constitutional aspect of synod. I found the following commentary rather interesting as it provides a comprehensive, albeit dated, analysis of secular court interference with church constitutions and decisions by way of judicial review.

    Footnote 4 on p322 referring to the cases of Watson v Garvin and Sapp v Callaway is interesting. The commentary states that the courts have, albeit limited, jurisdiction to review the extent to which a church can dictate its members’ views on social “problems” of the day.

    I’m not advocating any such action as it would seem like pressing the red button, but I wonder if valid judicial interference might be possible to review the SEC official position re gay rights where it is patently wrong and in opposition to the views of secular society. The level of pain and inequality resulting from the SEC stance insisting on adherence to second class citizenship without democratic debate is harrowing and incomprehensible, whether viewed through temporal or spiritual spectacles.

    In the meantime, the years roll by and each year the official line is “mañana”.

    • I don’t think there is any prospect of judicial interference in the Scottish Episcopal Church in this regard and woudn’t welcome it even if it were possible. The church has to make up its mind about things itself.

      In my view, what was shown at the recent Scottish synod with regard to this matter is that firstly, the Standing Committee appears to many to have been foolish to block debate when there was a clear majority for debate. Secondly, even some of those on the Pitlochry Process design group were freely accepting that notwithstanding the good experience they had at Pitlochry, it had not translated to the General Synod. Thirdly, no-one really understands why the Primus was the only person who was able to address the synod on this topic, no-one really understands what he said and I don’t think it is clear at all with what authority he was speaking.

      Everyone I spoke to said that they believed that it would become possible for same-sex marriages to take place in the Scottish Episcopal Church within a few years. Many also said that they had hoped that the process for getting there would not be as divisive and damaging as the Pitlochry process has already proved to be.

  21. Meh, look south and rejoice, loved ones (please stay with us). We here have just embarked on ‘facilitated conversations’ initiated by bishops, first in the house of bishops, then in diocese under their supervision with people invited at the diocesan bishop’s discretion, paying due attention to the opinion of (presumably also the bishop) of the African and Asian dioceses we are twinned with, the results of which will be collated and decided on by our bishops.

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