by the Revd Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and curate at St John the Divine, Kennington
‘Integrity’ is not, perhaps, the first word we might associate with elections. Those who run for high office will often find all kinds of excuses for not telling the whole truth – there are always higher goals to pursue, or a bigger vision to embrace and they just need to keep the voters sweet to gain the power to make things happen. Of course, this might not be totally honest, but that’s just the way these things go, and in any case, voters will forgive them when they see their grand plans in action. You see, it’s all for the greater good – or that’s what we’re told to believe, at least.
For all that we say that we do things differently, that we practice ‘good disagreement’, and that we live to a “higher standard”, it’s clear that elections in the Church of England are no different. In recent weeks, we have seen election guidance that seems to call on candidates to tell nothing like the full truth – and indeed to avoid topics that might be thought to be too ‘controversial’.
The problem is that these controversial topics are absolutely key to General Synod’s business for the next few years, and it is quite frankly appalling that candidates are being told to avoid discussions of abuse within the Church. There is something very dark indeed about calling discussion of abuse controversial, given all we know about the culture of secrecy that has led to such horrific outcomes for so many children and other vulnerable people over so many years. There is nothing controversial whatsoever about naming and stamping out abuse in the Church, and anyone standing for General Synod should be willing to discuss this topic head on or risk perpetuating the very culture we are trying to eradicate.
Yet this kind of advice gets to the heart of the conversation about what kind of Church we want to be.
There are a number of difficult decisions to be taken in the next few years, and if we are to make these decisions – and elect members of Synod to make them on our behalf – then we need to be doing this with our eyes open and with a serious commitment to speaking the full truth honestly and with candour. It is no longer acceptable to dance around these key topics in Church discourse. Trying to pull the wool over the eyes of voters is not the way to create a healthy structure of church governance.
For too long, the Church of England has been willing to favour convenience and a vague sense of ‘unity’ over honesty, integrity and the full truth. It is certainly true that homosexuality is not the only issue facing the Church of England in the next session of General Synod, yet it is also true that LBGTQI people are not an ‘issue’ either. Refusing to even mention them – to treat them as collateral in the ambition for power – is disgraceful.
The next session of General Synod is not likely to be a walk in the park, and nor should it be, given the complex discussions that are going to need to take place. Yet we should – as electors – be treated with enough respect by those who seek to represent us that we are at least told their explicit position on key elements of Church policy.
It is not enough to ‘sound as if you are a practicing member of the Church of England’ if you want to sit on General Synod – you should be willing to stand up and be counted, be challenged, and surely be open to the possibility of compromise and discussion once elected. Candidates that obfuscate before they even get elected are hardly those that can be trusted to act with integrity once they take their seats. Refusal to mention the key topics facing the next Synod is a choice – and it is a choice to obscure the truth of your position, however winsome your arguments.
If those who hold non-affirming positions on women’s ministry and blessings for same sex couples truly believe that their positions are right and true, then they should have the courage of their convictions to put themselves forward with their colours nailed firmly to the mast. Getting elected by the back door is the sign of a terrified sinking ship and not a healthy, vibrant, courageous Church.
Integrity must be the marker of the next session of General Synod, if we are not to totally lose our way. The Pastoral Principles of the Church of England, which exhort people to speak into silence and call our hypocrisy, are there for a reason, and if we cannot act in accordance with them whilst standing to represent fellow Christians in the governance body of our church, which forms part of Christ’s body, then we have fallen before we even fire the starting gun.
We are in desperate need of a Church that embodies integrity and ultimately honest and open compromise – that allows faithful Christians to live in accordance with their consciences and that deals in honesty rather than fear. We owe it to each other to clearly state what we believe and to be willing to be tried and tested on it – to take on each other’s arguments rather than our easily constructed straw men, and to always see the face of Christ in one another.
We may never agree, and for some the strain will be too much. Nobody doubts the difficulties we face. Those standing to make these decisions on our behalf most certainly need our prayers – but they owe us their honesty in return. The Gospel requires nothing less.