Looking ahead – where do we go from here?

What the bishops have offered in their response and what the Synod has (with the significant Cornes amendment) supported was described as indicating the direction of travel. In much of the CofE comms, print and social media reporting, and in a video produced and shown to Synod and now posted online, the impression given is of full-steam ahead. This portrays there now being an irreversible move to accept blessing non-marital unions, including same-sex marriages, and perhaps changes to the patterns of life permitted to those in ordained ministry.

If, however, the bishops’ own commitment to uphold the current doctrine of marriage, now supported by Synod, is taken seriously then this creates major challenges to this narrative. It would appear that the bishops face four broad options:

  1. to admit their current proposals fail to meet these conditions and so, if they are to be implemented, there needs to be a change of some form to the doctrine of marriage, or
  2. to clarify and revise the proposals in such a way that what they permit clearly does not indicate a departure from the doctrine. The difficulty here is that this is likely to lead to proposed changes that (as in GS 2055) are so limited that what is offered is something which few (if any) are seeking and is likely, to use words found in past legal advice, to “be considered pastorally unusable in respect of the occasion for which it was intended” or
  3. to recognise that there are deep disagreements within the church, and perhaps among the bishops themselves, as to whether or not what is being proposed passes the doctrinal test and take time to address this further. This would be in the hope that greater clarity and consensus and/or some settlement as to how we live best together across our differences will emerge in a process of reception
  4. to exert episcopal and archepiscopal power in order to drive forward what they have now been understood to promise, while still insisting they have kept to the constraints set down in the amendment even through effectively this means overturning or disregarding past legal advice and clear episcopal teaching as to the doctrine of marriage.

The worrying signs so far are that this fourth option is the one being pursued. Leadership does not here involve listening and responding to the significant and substantive concerns being raised in relation to these proposals and taking seriously the need for a process of reception. Leadership, in this perspective, involves viewing the concerns as the storm caused by people who are upset, a storm that was predicted and needs to be ignored in order to reach the intended destination as quickly as possible. Among the many negative effects if this is what happens is its effect on the respect and trust in the LLF process and, even more seriously, the episcopate of the Church of England. There is strong anecdotal evidence that respect and trust has already been significantly eroded. One bishop reported on their group at General Synod which met before the debate and vote:

In my group, all expressed their fear and confusion about the LLF process; why Synod hadn’t been given more agency in the LLF process and there was a sense of their being silenced and of betrayal by the Bishops, which was reinforced by the Bishops’ ‘leak’.

If, instead of addressing this, the bishops yield to the temptation to plough on with their plans and keep to the tight timetable of completing the process by July, they will not only have appeared to sit loose to their commitment to conform their actions to the church’s doctrine and to pay attention to power.  They will have increased the levels of fear and confusion and deepened the experience of being silenced, disregarded, and betrayed already identified.

All this will, inevitably, make it much more difficult to accomplish their goal of us walking together as far as possible and as closely as possible. To achieve this goal will require, instead, facing up to what for me and others was one of the significant fruits of the LLF process but one which the bishops’ response simply sidesteps or turns a blind eye to: our disagreements arise because of the deeply and sincerely held, divergent and often incompatible, theological convictions within the church on these matters.

In the recent words of the Bishop of Rochester to his Diocesan Synod:

My profoundest instinct as a pastor is to seek for a way forward that could be embraced by all. However, the divided nature of the votes at General Synod, together with the reactions of people with very diverse convictions about these issues, have led me to believe that this is simply not possible. There are fundamentally different conceptions amongst us of what God requires of his people in terms of how we live out our relationships and our sexuality. In the end, each of us has to make a choice about our own understanding of these hugely important and deeply personal issues. As Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, I am having to make a choice on where I stand, painful though that is. My fellow bishops up and down the country will each make their choices – and one thing is certain: that we will not all agree. And then we as God’s people will have to work out how we will relate to one another, care for one another and love each other as followers of Jesus Christ and children of our heavenly Father.

Whatever path we eventually take, consideration is going to have to be made as to what taking it means for the very significant minority who fundamentally disagree with it and want to take a different path.  Few of them are likely to wish simply to “walk apart” but they cannot, in good conscience, simply “walk together” down the chosen path. It may even be the case that, even if not in relation to the prayers, then in relation to the pastoral guidance which more directly addresses the exercise of episcopal ministry, this dilemma of conscientiously following different paths will soon have to be faced among the bishops themselves.

Appeals to unity are right and proper but we cannot ignore the other marks of the church and the sad reality that in every other Christian denomination, (as the CEEC pointed out in their important Gospel, Church and Marriage: Preserving Apostolic Faith and Life), when a church is perceived by a significant minority to be moving away from ‘apostolic’ and ‘catholic’ teaching concerning what it means to be ‘holy’ this will tragically mean it becoming less visibly ‘one’.

If the bishops are serious about being a focus of unity both within their dioceses (most of which as we have seen appear significantly divided) and the Church of England, then they cannot simply carry on “full steam ahead” given the many questions that remain unanswered about why they have chosen this path. Nor is it helpful to suggest there is ultimately a binary choice between either accepting the proposals, however reluctantly, which have the support of a majority, for the sake of unity or being guilty, by resisting them, of causing division and schism. Such an insistence on “unity” framed in these terms will, paradoxically, probably make it more difficult to achieve the highest degree of communion possible and even risks not just the falling apart of not just the Church of England but the total collapse of the Anglican Communion.

Rather, we each need to recognise the sad reality of which the Archbishop of York spoke in his Synod speech – “I am already living, as all of us are, with impaired Eucharistic communion within our church”. And that means, as he would subsequently write, we need, based on recognition of our baptismal communion with one another (and with those who are not Anglicans and in quite separate ecclesial structures of jurisdiction) that has helped ecumenical relations, “to apply the same ecumenical theology to some of our own internal disagreements as members of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion”.

Read it all in Fulcrum