Motions on Sexuality: General Synod February 2007

On Wednesday 28 February 2007, General Synod debates two Private Members' Motions (PMMs) on matters relating to sexuality. What follows is based on a briefing paper written for the Evangelical Group of the General Synod (EGGS) and reproduced with permission along with additional comments added on the proposed amendments.

The two PMMs both begin with a series of statements as the basis for the Synod acting in certain ways. It is the opening statements in both cases that raise a number of questions and lead to a particular interpretation being put upon the subsequent wording.

Mary Gilbert's motion on Lesbian and Gay Christians

The text of the preamble here is ambiguous although the background note makes clear that the intent is significantly to alter the church's stance.

That this Synod acknowledge the diversity of opinion about homosexuality within the Church of England and that these divergent opinions come from honest and legitimate attempts to read the scriptures with integrity, understand the nature of homosexual orientation, and respect the patterns of holy living to which lesbian and gay Christians aspire; and, bearing in mind this diversity,

That there is diversity of opinion within the CofE cannot be dispute and is already acknowledged eg in Some Issues in Human Sexuality. The question is how one interprets this - is the diversity legitimate and over matters of indifference or a sign of departure from biblical teaching and the fundamental moral teaching of the Church? - and what conclusions are drawn from it.

The causes of this diversity are here stated in a manner that raises a number of questions. The nature of these divergent opinions is never defined and so it is very difficult to state that they 'come from honest and legitimate attempts' to do the three things claimed here. Furthermore, while one must engage with a presumption of charity in the face of diversity, I am fairly sure I've sometimes listened to Christians who hold 'traditional' views out of ignorance and bigotry and some who reject those views with little or no regard for the teaching of Scripture.

It is also important to recognise that it is quite possible to hold that someone is (honestly) attempting to read Scripture with integrity but that the reading they offer is illegitimate. Indeed, Synod in 1987 and the wider Anglican Communion in 1998 made clear where they saw the boundary between a legitimate and illegitimate reading of Scripture to lie and the failure of the motion to acknowledge this is a major flaw especially as the background note seeks to undermine the majority reading and establish opposed readings as equally legitimate.

It is also significant that the motion speaks of attempting to respect 'the patterns of holy living to which lesbian and gay Christians aspire'. Here again there is no substantive account of these and the use of the plural - patterns - and the status given to respecting aspirations represents a failure to address one of the central issues that cannot be avoided in any responsible Synodical statement about and for lesbian and gay Christians: what are the forms of holy living the church is to commend to lesbian and gay Christians? There are a variety of patterns of living - actual and aspired to - among lesbian and gay Christians (ranging across a spectrum including healing in order to marry; life-long avowed celibacy; chastity in singleness; a permanent, faithful stable relationship; friendship(s) which may include sexual intimacy) and very few would wish to describe all of these as in all cases 'holy'.

The consequences which follow (although they do not logically follow - they are strictly a non sequitur) should apart from the ambiguity created by the preamble and some of the terminology used, be relatively uncontroversial. The difficulty is not so much in what they say but in what they left unsaid and what - particularly given the content of the background note - is clearly intended by those proposing this motion.

(a) agree that a homosexual orientation in itself is no bar to a faithful Christian life;

(a) The language of 'orientation' raises certain important questions (both psychological and theological) which appear to be ignored here but it is important that the church makes clear that what is generally understood as a homosexual orientation - the experience of same-sex attraction - (like a heterosexual orientation) 'in itself is no bar to a faithful Christian life'.

(b) invite parish and cathedral congregations to welcome and affirm lesbian and gay Christians, lay and ordained, valuing their contribution at every level of the Church; and

(b) It is also vital that all Christians are welcomed and affirmed and their gifts valued in all churches. Here the attitudes in many churches to gay and lesbian Christians falls far short of the gospel. That welcome, however, is not to deny a possible place for godly discipline in relation to all Christians. Sadly, the language of 'welcome and affirm' represents politically loaded language as it is used in some Christian circles to speak of a full acceptance of sexually active homosexual relationships (hence Stanley Grenz's helpful book on homosexuality entitled Welcoming but not Affirming). The background note makes clear that supporting this motion as it stands will probably be interpreted in this way.

(c) urge every parish to ensure a climate of sufficient acceptance and safety to enable the experience of lesbian and gay people to be heard, as successive Lambeth Conferences in 1978 (resolution 10), 1988 (resolution 64), and 1998 (resolution I.10) have requested.'

(c) The creation of 'sufficient acceptance and safety' for lesbian and gay people to speak and be heard is a vital part of the listening process and needs to be nurtured and encouraged at all levels of the church. Much work needs to be done to implement not just the Lambeth resolutions noted here but also the Primates' statement at Dromantine that "We also wish to make it quite clear that in our discussion and assessment of the moral appropriateness of specific human behaviours, we continue unreservedly to be committed to the pastoral support and care of homosexual people. The victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us. We assure homosexual people that they are children of God, loved and valued by him, and deserving of the best we can give of pastoral care and friendship"

Paul Perkin's motion on Civil Partnerships

This is based on the Bishop of Rochester's statement on Civil Partnerships of January 2006.

Concern (a) is clearly valid.

'That this Synod, deeply concerned that

(a) in an understandable desire to remedy injustice and remove unjust discrimination, the Government's Civil Partnership Act undermines the distinctiveness and fundamental importance to society of the relationship of marriage;

Although not marriage, civil partnerships are defined in a manner that mirrors almost all aspects of marriage law, are to be treated as equivalent to marriage in British law and are generally viewed as 'gay marriages'. As such the Act undermines the 'distinctiveness and fundamental importance to society of the relationship of marriage'.

Concern (b) is, however, more debatable.

(b) the House of Bishops' Pastoral Statement, while reiterating the Church's basic teaching on marriage, has produced a recipe for confusion by not stating clearly that civil partnerships entered into under the CP Act would be inconsistent with Christian teaching;

A case needs to be made that 'civil partnerships entered into under the CP Act would be inconsistent with Christian teaching'. Two people entering a civil partnership are not obviously necessarily acting contrary to Christian teaching in so doing as they are not committing themselves to act immorally (CPs need not be sexually active) nor necessarily intending to establish their own relationship as a 'same-sex marriage'. Although a case could be made for absolute incompatibility, the stronger case would be that CPs are an unwise civil status for Christians (as the bishops imply in para 22 where they state "Because of the ambiguities surrounding the character and public nature of civil partnerships, the House of Bishops would advise clergy to weigh carefully the perceptions and assumptions which would inevitably accompany a decision to register such a relationship")

Concern (c) raises the fundamental concern of discipline addressed in the substantive motion.

(c) that the House of Bishops' Pastoral Statement has given to bishops the task of ensuring that clergy who enter into these partnerships adhere to church teaching in the area of sexuality without giving the bishops the clear means to do so; and

It is debatable whether the Pastoral Statement could itself provide clear means to ensure its teaching was enforced. The bishops are bound to follow legal procedures such as the Clergy Discipline Measure which are already established but whose application to these situations remains unclear. One way to proceed may be to follow the pattern in relation to remarriage after divorce and amend Canon C4 so that (just as re-marriage during the lifetime of a former spouse is an impediment to ordination unless this impediment is removed by the issuing of a specific faculty) being in a Civil Partnership would be an impediment to ordination unless a specific faculty was granted. This, however, would be a long process and not resolve issues surrounding already ordained clergy entering civil partnerships.

Concern (d) misrepresents the letter.

(d) that by declaring that lay people who enter into such partnerships should not be asked about the nature of their relationship, in the context of preparation for baptism and confirmation, as well as for the purposes of receiving Holy Communion, the Bishops' Pastoral Statement has compromised pastoral discipline at the local level:

The letter does not state that lay people 'should not be asked about the nature of their relationship' but rather that 'lay people who have registered civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and communion' (para 23). It is quite possible to ask about a relationship without asking to be given assurances about it. Certainly Christian teaching about sex and marriage can be clearly and fully explained. It is unclear what alternative 'pastoral discipline' is being proposed here and how such desire for assurances about a person's life would apply to other situations of suspected immorality on the part of candidates. It must also be recognised that these areas are all regulated by canons (where the enforcing of explicit concrete moral conditions for baptism appear to be ruled out) and that the extent to which the Statement goes beyond or undermines these is unclear. If the Statement says (as it could on one reading) that someone openly in a sexually active civil partnership must not on these grounds be refused admission to confirmation or communion then this would appear to undermine canon B16 (that allows clergy with the consent of their bishop to bar from communion someone in 'grave and open sin without repentance') and canon C24 (which speaks of the need to be satisfied of a candidate's 'fitness' for confirmation) given the Church's teaching. There is the danger that the bishops could be understood to be offering a form of 'cheap grace' in which certain known and open sin is not considered a danger to Christian growth to be met with a call to repentance.

Despite some problems in the preamble, the first part of the substantive motion is difficult to oppose. It remains very general and its specific implications for civil partnerships unstated.

That this Synod...declare its support for bishops, clergy and other ministers who continue to minister the godly discipline required by the scriptures and the canons and request the House of Bishops to set up a study of the ways in which that discipline is being applied and the implications thereof for future pastoral guidance and bring a report to Synod by the July 2007 Group of Sessions.'

Given the uncertainties and concerns about current disciplinary practice in these areas, there could be merit in the sort of study called for here. In relation to lay Christians, however, its form remains unclear (there have only been just over 15,000 CPs and it is unclear how many have in the last year sought baptism, confirmation or communion) and its timescale is perhaps unrealistic. With reports of 50 or more clergy entering CPs a study of discipline here is more manageable and worthwhile.

House of Bishops' Amendments

Mary Gilbert's motion

The Bishop of Gloucester to move:

'Leave out all the words after "this Synod" and insert the words:

"a. commend continuing efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion;

b. recognise that such efforts would not be advanced by doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions - 1978:10; 1988:64; 1998:I.10; and

c. affirm that homosexual orientation is itself no bar to a faithful Christian life or to full participation in lay and ordained ministry in the Church"

This clearly eliminates the parts of the original motion critiqued above and seeks to maintain the current position of the Church of England while making a clear statement against any discrimination on the grounds of homosexual orientation. It makes explicit the Church of England's 'commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions' and as such is a welcome strengthening of the original. However, it casts this commitment not in terms of their truthfulness but in terms of their role in preventing 'the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship...' It seems, in other words, to be for their pragmatic value that we are committed to them. 'Doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment...' is to be avoided simply because 'continuing efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship' would 'not be advanced' if we gave this impression. The motion therefore leaves open the possibility that if such qualification of commitment were not to risk further division then it might be right. The danger is therefore that the motion shifts the church's stance away from its foundation in Scripture (as in the 1987 General Synod motion and I.10) so that it is based more on how actions in this area are perceived and their impact on church unity rather than founding them on convictions about the truth.

Paul Perkin's Motion

The Bishop of Liverpool to move:

'Leave out all words after 'this Synod' and insert the words

"a. acknowledge the diversity of views within the Church of England on whether Parliament might better have addressed the injustices affecting persons of the same sex wishing to share a common life had it done so in a way that avoided creating a legal framework with many similarities to marriage;

b. recognise the House of Bishops' Pastoral Statement as a balanced and sensitive attempt faithfully to apply the Church's teaching to civil partnerships; and

c. note the intention of the House to keep the matter under review."

This acknowledges that the CPA created 'a legal framework with many similarities to marriage' but rather than enabling Synod to comment on this significant new social reality it simply asks for acknowledgment of 'the diversity of views within the Church of England' on whether Parliament could have done better. Its description of the Pastoral Statement fails to address the many serious criticisms (from different perspectives) that have been raised (see for example my Friends, Spouses or Partners? The Civil Partnership Act and Christian Witness) and while it acknowledges 'the intention of the House to keep the matter under review' the details of this review process are lacking and the important question of the implementation of church discipline (contained within the letter and promised to the Global South by the Archbishop of Canterbury) is totally removed from the motion.

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