Thirty years ago, in November 1987, a Private Members Motion on human sexuality was debated by the General Synod. It appeared in the context of the House of Bishops doing their own work on the subject (the never officially published 1989 Osborne Report) and was introduced by a prominent, media-savvy clergyman. The final motion has since been referred to as the Higton Motion even though in its final form it was amended from his original text. It still represents the last substantive statement by General Synod on the subject of sexual ethics and the formal teaching of the church reaffirmed by the bishops in January of this year in GS 2055. It arose after a period of nine years in which, following the Gloucester Report, there had been a lack of clarity about the church’s teaching. The final motion was overwhelmingly carried by 403 votes to 8.
Last weekend at General Synod, in addition to a report on the planned work of House of Bishops on human sexuality, there were two motions relating to the subject. One of these was, like Higton, a Private Members Motion, introduced by a prominent media-savvy lay woman, which may in future be referred to as the Ozanne Motion even though in its final form it was amended and wholly rewritten from her original text. This did not address sexual ethics or the formal teaching of the church but “Conversion Therapy”. The other motion, from Blackburn Diocese on “Welcoming Transgender People”, did not alter teaching but it did call for new liturgy. Both were overwhelmingly carried by about 4 to 1 with very similar voting figures for both on the final vote. The percentage figures below give the % voting for the amendment as a % of all registered votes including abstentions and of all those voting either for or against:
|Votes||Conversion Therapy Motion||Blackburn Motion|
|Bishops||36-1-0 [97.3%; 97.3%]||30-2-2 [88.2%; 93.8%]|
|Clergy||135-25-13 [78%; 84.4%]||127-28-16 [74.3%; 81.9%]|
|Laity||127-48-13 [67.6%; 72.6%]||127-48-8 [65.8%; 72.6%]|
|Whole Synod||298-74-26 [74.9%; 80.1%]||284-78-26 [73.2%; 78.5%]|
What happened at Synod?
A separate paper provides a detailed account of the two debates, the effects of the amendments and analysis of the voting. The two debates can be watched in full online (here and here). In summary, the Ozanne motion’s original wording was wholly replaced by an amendment referring to a different statement on conversion therapy and adding in a reference to gender identities and an amendment calling for a government ban on conversion therapies. Two other amendments, one substantial (from Sean Doherty) and one seeking to replace an element lost from the original Ozanne motion (from Christina Baron), were both defeated. A major amendment to the Blackburn motion (from Nick Land) was lost and so the motion was carried as proposed.
What are we to make of it?
Since Synod it has been fascinating to hear and read such diametrically opposed accounts of the two debates. While these largely reflect whether those writing supported or opposed the outcomes on the sexuality debates, they also point to much more serious questions and divergent assessments about the nature and quality of the debates. Tim Hind welcomed a new ethos and reported that “most whom I have spoken to during and after the synod were of the opinion that this was one of the best synods they have been to” and David Walker, Bishop of Manchester who chaired the Conversion Therapy debate reported “a new and distinctly more welcoming tone” and “building bridges across difference, because that is precisely how God himself chooses to deal with us”. In contrast, Ian Paul has raised major concerns and questions asking if Synod is competent, Rob Munro described it as a ‘watershed’, and Susie Leafe offered a damning account of the proceedings across the Synod as a whole.
What follows explores three areas, drawing further comparison with the Higton debate of three decades ago.
It would appear that two significant cultural factors led to the outcome of the two votes. First, many seemed to hold that support for the two motions was essential as part of the House of Bishops’ welcome determination (in their report to the February Synod) to establish a fresh “tone and culture” and “to identify specific opportunities for the Church of England to express its welcome and support for lesbian and gay people and those who experience same-sex attraction”. Secondly, the sense of support for the motions in wider culture and the consequent hostility that would be faced by being seen to reject them is also likely to have been a major factor. Contributions to both debates gave much credibility to this claim that the need to keep in step with wider culture was significant and it has been raised as a serious concern by many.
The failure to address these matters as the church and simply to be led by forces in wider society is, however, not new. It is important to ask whether this has always been a problem with Synodical votes in this area. It is easy to forget that the Higton motion, though a clear restatement of traditional Christian teaching, was also largely in tune with the very different cultural context of its time. It was passed at the early height of the AIDS crisis (1986 saw the “Don’t Die of Ignorance” campaign), with widespread concerns about male homosexual promiscuity. It was also at the time that Parliament was considering not bans on conversion therapy but the infamous Section 28 (enacted in May 1988) which stated that local authorities "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". In the year of the Higton motion, the British Social Attitudes Survey showed its highest levels of disapproval of homosexuality - 74% of the population agreeing that homosexual activity was "always or mostly wrong", and only 11% believing it to be never wrong. In contrast, the most recent BSA Survey has just shown that now 64% of the population believe that homosexual relationships are not wrong at all and only 19% believe they are “always” or “mostly” wrong. Among those identifying as Anglicans those who think same-sex relationships are not wrong at all has risen from just 9% in 1985 to 55% in 2016.
If the church is to be faithful it cannot simply mirror culture whether that of the late 1980s or that of 2017. If we are to avoid simply being tossed back and forth by the waves of our surrounding culture then there is the need for theological discernment. It was the apparent lack of interest in this at the Synod which is most concerning.
It is noteworthy that neither of the two controversial motions as proposed or agreed contained any theological content at all. Here there is a sharp contrast with the Higton debate and motion which was clearly theological (referring to “the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships in a response to, and expression of, God's love for each one of us”, “sins”, “repentance”, “falls short”, “holiness”) although there were also strong emotions expressed, many of which would now be categorised as simply homophobic.
Perhaps reflecting that omission, the two debates were widely experienced as theology-lite at best, a criticism also made of the briefing papers sent to Synod members by Martin Davie, a former theological advisor to the House of Bishops. In both debates there was an attempt to address this by means of an amendment which sought to provide some theological substance and to enable further theological reflection on the areas being addressed. Both were put forward by people with significant expertise – a same-sex attracted Christian ethicist and a psychiatrist – and although both proposers were evangelicals the amendments avoided articulating a contentious view on the theological and ethical issues around sexuality.
Both amendments were clearly defeated in all three houses with again very similar votes. Despite this, it is interesting to note that, with the exception of Bishops on the Doherty amendment, over a third of every House, voted for what was seen as a more “conservative” amendment to an “inclusive” motion even though the motion was primarily and not explicitly touching on doctrine or altering liturgy. This suggests that, despite the sense of a shift in Synod, any vote seeking to change doctrine or liturgy in relation to human sexuality and thus requiring a 2/3 majority in every House still faces a major challenge. The percentage figures below give the % voting for the amendment as a % of all registered votes including abstentions and of all those voting either for or against:
|Bishops||10-26-2 [26.3%; 27.8%]||11-19-2 [34.3%; 36.7%]|
|Clergy||64-110-2 [36.4%; 36.8%]||64-103-4 [37.4%; 38.3%]|
|Laity||88-97-6 [46.1%; 47.6%]||75-108-3 [40.3%; 41%]|
|Whole Synod||162-233-10 [40%; 41%]||150-230-9 [38.6%; 39.5%]|
It has been said that the motions are not of great significance as they do not alter church teaching. While on a surface level this is true, as the amendments made clear, the motions do raise important theological questions. They therefore needed to be considered with reference to biblical and church teaching about what it means to be, and to flourish as, humans made in God’s image. It is, for example, interesting to ask what theological understanding of humankind as male and female underpins Synod’s collective judgment that to seek to change same-sex attraction is unethical and should be legally banned but the church should produce a liturgy to mark a biological man becoming legally a woman (or vice versa). Is this in any way coherent or consistent with a reading of the biblical witness or traditional Christian theological anthropology?
The voting pattern of the bishops on both the amendments and the final motions have been a further cause of concern among many evangelicals. The Higton Motion was amended by the Bishop of Chester (one of the leading evangelical bishops at that time when self-identifying evangelical bishops were a much rarer episcopal breed than they are now). For these debates not only did the bishops collectively offer no clear lead, few spoke, and those who did added little of theological substance.
In neither debate were there even a dozen bishops willing to back the more theologically substantive amendments. The proportion of the episcopal house supporting them was markedly lower than in the other two houses. Furthermore, in the final vote, the bishops were even more overwhelmingly supportive than clergy and laity, perhaps out of a sense of collegiality or deference to the interventions from the Archbishop of York or concern that a vote against or even an abstention would be interpreted simply as being anti-LGBT. A more detailed analysis of the voting figures shows significant differences in voting patterns between conservative bishops and conservative clergy and laity (supporters of the Doherty and Land amendments) which raise a number of interesting and challenging questions.
The fact the motions were not considered theologically should be a cause of alarm among bishops, given their calling. The genuine concern of many is that, having been rebuffed in their GS 2055 report to the last Synod, the bishops felt unable to bring theological weight into the Synodical process. We are now in a situation where, just as many clergy and laity opposed to GS 2055 were unhappy at the fact that their supporters on the episcopal bench voted for it in order to maintain public unity, so many evangelical clergy and laity who supported the two amendments at this Synod are now unhappy that their supporters on the episcopal bench overwhelmingly voted for the final motions.
A significant contributory factor to the figures cited earlier - showing self-identified Anglicans following a similar trajectory to our culture in the three decades since the Higton motion was passed (and doing so on pre-marital sex as well as homosexuality) - is undoubtedly a longstanding abdication of bishops clearly teaching “the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it” in relation to marriage and sexuality. A crucial question is therefore how the bishops will frame their new Teaching Document to face the challenges this represents. Will they still respond by, in the words of GS 2055, reaffirming “the Church of England’s existing doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships” that sexual relations are “properly conducted only within heterosexual marriage” and so enable the church “to expound it with confidence as the Church’s teaching” or will they prefer simply to map our agreements and disagreements in order to facilitate ongoing discussion or even to enable a change in teaching?
Symbolic and Seismic Shifts in Synods?
Jayne Ozanne posted on Facebook that what had happened in Synod was “a seismic shift – inclusion is now mainstream!”. Whether or not that is the case and if so what is meant by “inclusion”, or, in the Archbishops’ words, “radical new Christian inclusion in the Church”, remains to be seen. We simply do not know the consequences if her hopes as to where this will lead prove accurate. However, there are signs that if they are realised then this could presage a fundamental realignment in Anglicanism including in England.
On the same day as Jayne’s FB post, Sean Doherty, the proposer of the failed amendment to her motion, posted “Here are two words I have not heard at #synod this weekend: Anglican Communion”. While not strictly true (it was briefly mentioned in relation to the Teaching Document) it does appear the Communion was largely forgotten. That is even more surprising, bordering on denial, given another Synod that took place only a few weeks before – that of ACNA. Although not part of the Anglican Communion, many leaders of Anglican Communion provinces were present and, even more significantly, they consecrated, against the wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury, an English clergyman, Andy Lines, to serve as a missionary bishop within the British Isles. The symbolic, perhaps seismic, significance of this has it seems yet to sink in. It means we now face the prospect of a growing number of churches in England which, although clearly not part of the Church of England, self-identify as Anglican and have a very credible claim to such a designation as they are served by a bishop recognised by a large number (perhaps even the majority) of Anglicans worldwide. If the CofE continues to appear to be shaped more by its surrounding culture than theology and particularly if its bishops fail to clearly teach the sexual ethic supported by the wider Communion and summed up in the Higton motion then it may be that the ACNA Synod will come to be seen as representing an even more seismic shift than that which some hope and others fear occurred at General Synod.