The Special Synod on Family Life

pope and romeo and juliet

Something significant is going on in the Vatican this week. A series of conversations has started about how the Roman Catholic Church deals with issues that arise in family life. It is hugely significant because such conversations simply don’t happen very often. Another interesting thing is that it started off with a questionnaire that was sent out to Roman Catholics allowing them the chance to respond to a set of questions with the idea that their responses would inform the bishops who have gone to Rome to have the conversation.

There will always be people who say, “How can it be that a bunch of supposedly celibate men make decisions about family life?” and there’s no escaping from that question in this day and age. However, the idea of consulting the whole church through a questionnaire was revolutionary.

The questionnaire itself was something of a mixed bag. It felt as though various tectonic plates within the Roman Catholic church were grinding together throughout its production. On the one hand it was an attempt to allow lay catholics to comment on their own situation but on the other, the dominant theme was that church teaching doesn’t change, so how can we present it in a better way to the world. It has been clear in the last week that there are enormous forces at work within the Roman Catholic church which are not all moving in the same direction. Some very highly placed leaders in the church have been disagreeing publicly about the way forward, particularly over whether divorced people should be able to receive communion in church.

With these forces at work, what we don’t know is whether there will be an earthquake or not.

This all has huge significance for non-Roman Catholics too. The reason for this is that the RC Church is such an incredible size in the world and the way it describes personal morality is very often a benchmark and indeed something which people presume all the churches sign up to.

I see a lot of Roman Catholics in St Mary’s. Sometimes they are simply visiting out of interest, for example during Open Church times or Doors Open Day. This week, we had a large funeral and lots of Roman Catholics were present both when the coffin was brought into church and at the funeral itself. During these kinds of times lots of conversations open up about some of the areas which the synod in Rome may tackle.

The reason that the Synod on the Family affects all Christians, not merely Roman Catholics is that we are related – marriages, baptisms, deaths all bring me into contact with Roman Catholics on a regular basis. We are in a sense, all family when it comes to the issues under discussion.

A typical conversation goes like this:

RC Visitor – “…but this looks just like a chapel.”

Self – “Yes, and if you came on Sunday you would recognise the service immediately”.

RC Visitor – “Yes, I know, I went to a requiem recently and it was just the same. It was exactly the same – well apart from the music which was much better. It was the same though and I couldn’t believe it.”

Self – “Yes, I know.”

RC Visitor – “So what are the differences then if there’s no difference in the worship?”

Self – “Well there’s a few differences in how we teach people about social issues”

RC Visitor – “Well what do you tell people about how they are to behave”.

Self – “Well, I don’t think we do that. We give people the chance to make their own minds up about things.”

RC Visitor – “Well do you give communion to people who are divorced?”

Self – “Yes, of course we do.”

RC Visitor – “Well that’s what took my sister away from the church, when the priest told her he would like to give her communion but he wasn’t allowed”

Self – “Yes it is a hard discipline.”

RC Visitor – “Can divorced people get married here?”

Self – “Yes, so long as I get the permission of the Bishop. ”

RC Visitor – “Oh, right. Can I give your number to my sister?

Self – “Yes, here’s my card”.

RC Visitor “And do you say abortion is OK too?”

Self – “No, I don’t say abortion is OK but I do think that sometimes it can be the only option and I think women are best placed to make that decision for themselves”

RC Visitor – “And I suppose you can have gays as priests too?”

Self – “I am a gay priest”.

RC Visitor – “We have gay priests too but they can’t say. It isn’t nice for them”.

Self – “And we have priests who are women too.”

RC Visitor “Oh we don’t have them, just nuns. You don’t have nuns.”

Self – “We have nuns”.

And so it goes.

That isn’t particularly an exaggeration – it is common to discuss all those issues within the space of 10 minutes and I know from other clergy that when they get the chance to talk to Roman Catholic folk, these are some of the very first topics that come up in conversation and some of them at least are the topics coming up in Rome this week.

Our prayers should be with the Roman Catholic bishops in Rome as they attend this special Synod on Family Life. The rules of their church cause some ordinary people great misery and heartache, notwithstanding the very best of intentions.

The picture, by the way, is one I took the other week in Verona. I rather like the Pope looking down in benediction on Romeo and Juliet. Not a bad picture to prompt our prayers this week.


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.