What has happened?
It is only two weeks since a leak from the House of Bishops concerning their proposals following the discernment period of the LLF process prompted instant and vehement reactions that spread further when it was followed the next day by a press release giving more details officially. It was not until Friday 20th that the documentation was released (formally known as GS 2289) with an accompanying press conference. Many bishops expressed their support for the proposals and in subsequent media coverage the Archbishop of York’s appearances on Radio 4’s Today and Sunday programmes were particularly significant contributions.
I have been trying to understand and evaluate the bishops’ letter and proposals in the context of returning from the privilege of again spending time with the Communion Partners in North America. These bishops, clergy and laity have remained within The Episcopal Church in the US and The Anglican Church of Canada although they hold to Anglican Communion teaching on sexuality and the vision of life in communion embodied in The Windsor Report and the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant. Their situation as a relatively small minority in their churches is not easy but it was a great encouragement to see how God continues to bless their faithful witness in what are very challenging circumstances as they seek to navigate and negotiate a degree of differentiated existence through what TEC calls Communion Across Difference.
Since the leak, and especially since GS 2289 appeared, I have been in numerous conversations, particularly with evangelical friends, where the CEEC meeting last week was particularly intense. Our considered assessment of the bishops’ response is captured in the communique. At the weekend I spent a morning with a small group of students and it was encouraging to see them, to varying degrees aware of the political storm and theological issues at stake, able to continue in calm conversation and careful, reasoned reflection across their differences over same-sex marriage as they reflected on the response from the bishops to LLF and their hopes for the future.
Why we need to pause
Despite that sign of hope, on the whole the LLF flame has appeared over the last fortnight to be in danger of being extinguished. That was always a serious possibility as soon as its more discursive, reflective educational approach moved into a more focussed, deliberative political phase. The real risk now is that it will be totally snuffed out at General Synod next week if we proceed as planned. I am therefore convinced that if the Synod is genuinely, in the opening words of the motion, committed to “learning and deep listening to God and to each other” and desires “with God’s help to journey together while acknowledging the different deeply held convictions within the church” then it would be best not to vote on a motion on the proposals at the February Synod. Instead it would be better to reflect further on the bishops’ proposals there and leave a synodical decision until July. Stepping back and pausing in this way is, I believe, what is best for the LLF process, our corporate discernment, and our unity and may be the only way of preventing serious harm to them, even destroying them.
I realise that there are various possible objections to taking such a route including that:
- it may simply give time for more entrenchment and political manoeuvres,
- “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly”,
- it will be viewed by some as lacking nerve and seeking to kick the can further down the road,
- there may perhaps be procedural difficulties of which I am unaware.
It may also of course be the case that Synod strongly wishes to express its mind on 8th Feb. I think, however, that a powerful argument can be made for such a relatively short but potentially significant extension to the discernment process being the most prudent course of action given where we are. This is for at least the following six reasons:
- Due to various multiple factors beyond the control of the House, the formulation, transmission and reception of its discernment has been less than ideal:
- the loss of the first meeting of the College in September
- the speed of the finalisation of the documentation
- the leak and the initial framing of the proposals by the media
- the use of a press release in response to that which then, along with other remarks at the press conference and subsequently, further shaped how the documents have been received and how different parts of the church have rapidly responded
- The novel elements within the proposals and some of their nuances were always going to be hard to convey. These communication challenges have made it almost impossible for the proposals even to be understood properly let alone carefully assessed. This has triggered what was always a high risk: that the bishops’ discernment would simply be judged against existing, well-worn theological paradigms and political positions and be found wanting (and I think the degree to which this has been so has been even higher than expected). The evidence for this is that I have yet to see a predominantly positive assessment of the materials other than from bishops and instead there have been multiple questions of clarification and interrogation (as evident in the number submitted by Synod members) and highly critical public statements with many feeling, as I currently do, “compelled to resist” or, alternatively, wrestling with whether or not to accept the “crumbs from the table”.
- As a result (with the notable exception of my weekend students) the atmosphere I have experienced has become much less amenable to reasonable and prayerful discernment. The still fragile elements of cultural change which LLF has thankfully brought about do not appear to me strong enough at the moment to bear the weight of reverting to a confrontational debate and hasty Synodical decision. Emotions are still too high and many are reverting to tribe and trench.
- Reception of any new proposals in the life of the church properly takes time and I believe Synod members and the wider church (both here in England and further afield) need more time to have any chance to fulfil, in relation to GS 2289, such central LLF aims as deeper understanding, mutual listening, and prayerful reflection and discernment. We have spent over 5 years in learning and reflection after GS 2055 fell and encouraged church members to spend 5 weeks on a course. Now it appears - as we move to the crucial phase of deliberation that LLF resources held back from shaping and addressing – these timeframes have been reduced to less than 3 months for the bishops and less than 3 weeks for Synod members. I cannot see how – particularly given the points above – this can be right.
- The problem of needing more time to listen to one another and to God, to understand, and to come to an informed and settled mind is even greater because of the substance of the bishops’ response:
- many of the key elements in the proposals from the bishops introduce new themes and questions which were not explored within LLF. Notable here are those relating to (a) the relationship of holy matrimony to different forms of civil legal status and (b) the distinctions drawn between prayers of and for blessing and blessing people but not relationships or ways of life. Legal advice on the former has only been released in the last few days, the “more detailed exploration” of “our deeper understanding of the theology of blessing” said to be “available on the Living in Love and Faith website” (p6) is not obviously available.
- some key elements within the LLF book and course are not addressed in the bishops’ proposals. These include (a) our theological disagreements over how we understand inclusion, (b) the pattern of holiness to which we are called in Christ, and (c) how we evaluate the theological and ecclesiological significance of our disagreements in this area and then respond faithfully as a church to them. Some of these may be addressed in the pastoral statement, so deferring decision until that is available seems reasonable.
- there is much confusion as to the ways in which and extent to which what is being proposed develops or departs from previous episcopal and synodical statements and lack of clarity as to the theological rationale for this. For example, how these proposals relate to the 1987 General Synod motion, Lambeth 1.10, the teaching document on marriage, previous pastoral statements, GS 2055, and the Feb 2007 GS motion on how “to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion”.
- At the moment there appear to be two likely outcomes of pressing for a vote in just over a week: either a repeat of GS2055 and a defeat or a victory but one which could be very narrow (52/48?) and/or alienate overwhelmingly a significant proportion of Synod members, those they represent, and much of the Anglican Communion, leading to significant consequences.
Rather than enter that new post-decision phase in under two weeks, which will bring further pressing challenges and questions and likely worsen the environment for the work that still needs to be done, is it really not possible to pause a little longer where we now are and take stock?
Professor Oliver O'Donovan wrote a significant review for the Covenant website of the LLF book when it came out which is worth revisiting now just over two years later. In particular, its final paragraph, though rather sharp in places, seems particularly relevant at this crucial time, perhaps even prophetic, and captures a central element in my own concerns:
The bishops, meanwhile, must be encouraged to give the reception the time it needs, and not to be in too much of a hurry to “lead the Church of England into making whatever decisions are needful for our common life,” as they express themselves rather busily in their concluding note. The atmosphere of “needful decisions” is not one that will help the careful pondering and mutual appreciation that LLF has sought to model. The commission has worked with admirable patience. The church is being asked to learn new skills of mutual patience. It would be a tragedy if the whole attempt foundered on impatience in the House of Bishops.
What could then happen?
This need not mean withdrawing the paper but instead Synod using its time next week differently with more focus perhaps on continuing to work within the LLF spirit and addressing matters such as:
- clarifying the proposals and answering questions,
- enabling group work and collating feedback on the most contentious clauses of the motion and points such as those in 5i and 5iii above so that the bishops can reflect further and respond to Synod’s concerns by July
- perhaps some form of indicative voting to signal preferences and/or strength of conviction (I understand something like this was done among the bishops)
It may be that a debate format could also help but I think that to shift back to such a confrontational setting-out of positions should only follow a serious sustained attempt at LLF-style conversational exploration of the substantive proposals and any debate should not lead immediately to a decisive vote.
The period to July could then be used to take things forward and prepare the ground for a decision-making process there in various ways:
- Providing more resources on key areas such as those set out above in 5. These might be, or draw upon, the working papers supplied to bishops. This would be in line with LLF principles such as transparency and assisting theological reflection and the pastoral principles such as addressing ignorance, speaking into silence, paying attention to power.
- Expanding the proposed process for pastoral statement revision to include reviewing Synod members’ feedback on GS 2289.
- Receiving face-to-face feedback (as the Next Steps Group did in August/Sept) from key networks
- Enabling facilitated conversations between these networks and within each diocese’s GS reps. These would focus on both GS 2289 and plans for the new pastoral statement
- Engaging, if needed, both Parliament and Communion (through ACC in Ghana in February and communication with Primates).
On looking to God
On Sunday, feeling rather low about where things currently stand, I was encouraged both by the words of Nehemiah in our Bible reading – “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10) – and a reminder of the words we repeated regularly at St James the Less throughout the pandemic. They have sustained me regularly through these discussions, since summer 2005 and my first visit over to the group that is now the Communion Partners. Words that are also used in the final session of the course: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are fixed on you” (2 Chron 20:12).
Here is a pointer to what we need above all: sustained prayer for our bishops and Synod members that they may fix their eyes on God and know his joy and strength in these difficult, challenging times.