by the Revd Dr Charlie Bell, Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge and curate at St John the Divine, Kennington
The next few years in General Synod are going to be challenging ones.
There are a number of substantial issues to address, all of relatively equal importance and all of which are going to affect the life of our church and the life of its members in significant ways.
I have written previously about the obfuscation and political manoeuvrings of the elections, but the reality is that – however unedifying and unimpressive some of the contests were – we are where we are, and we will have a lot of people on synod, with a lot of differing ideas, and with those ideas a lot of possible heat to be generated.
I am relieved not to be one of them, but nonetheless, having watched the last few months of politicking, several things have stood out.
The first thing new members of synod are going to need to do is to recognise that most – if not all – of their fellow members, and indeed wider members of the Church of England, (including those who make noise in the wider the church), are doing so not out of some kind of hatred for the church or in an attempt to self-aggrandise, but rather because they genuinely believe what they are saying and doing to be in the best interests of the church. We might vehemently – at times, angrily and in great frustration – disagree in the Church of England, but we must not lose sight of the fact that each of us comes to the table because we fervently, earnestly, and honestly believe what we are saying. If we don’t, then we are easily found out – but this is, thank God, rare.
The first watchword of the new synod must, then, be “conscience”.
That is, a recognition that others are not out to destroy the church, but rather acting in a way that is answerable to God, and that comes from a place of serious intent. We may indeed believe others are wrong – fundamentally so, and on issues that are close to the heart of God and His people – but we must learn to stop the slurry of accusation that we are so good at producing. Here, I once again draw attention to the Pastoral Principles – sensible, helpful and necessary in the current high temperatures in the Church of England – which are at the core of this virtue. If we cannot recognise each other as Christians – Christians who long after God and for the good of His church – then we have failed in our fundamental duty of belonging to the Body of Christ.
From this recognition must come a commitment to listening to, and responding to, the actual words that others speak and the position that they wish to outline and believe in. There must be no more pejorative talk of ‘lobbies’ or “attempts to wreck the doctrine of the church”. This might sound impressive in a political speech, but it is simply not true. Likewise, it is also not good enough to have one voice in private and one in public. What we say, and do, matters – and until we recognise one another’s integrities – rather than showing determination to besmirch and misrepresent each other – then we are on a road to nowhere.
Those who want same-sex marriage are not trying to destroy the church – they are trying to enrich it. Those who want to forbid it are holding to their own view and interpretation of scripture in good conscience, however painful that might feel to faithful LGBTQI Christians. We don’t have to agree, and we don’t have to tiptoe around each other – but we owe it to each other to respond honestly, openly and without caricature or twisting the truth when we meet each other’s arguments.
The second key theme is going to be “compromise”.
Nobody likes it – if we are honest, we all prefer to ‘win’ outright. Yet that is not what the next five years is going to look like for any ‘side’. There are good reasons to want to ‘win’ – for those who oppose same-sex marriage, it is because of the threat of ‘blessing sin’ and of the threat to the current doctrine of the church. To those who affirm LBGTQI people, it is because every LGBTQI person that grows up repressing their sexuality in the name of Jesus Christ can lead to severe mental health consequences and is a tragedy – a needless one. It it also because of the fact that many see the current teaching of the Church of England as fundamentally narrowing the boundless love and grace of God.
We are quite simply not going to agree on this, but we need to either decide to walk away, or to compromise. For me, compromise and conscience are two sides of the same coin.
In a recent article, Ian Paul – arguing for the non-affirming position – asserted that everyone agrees a compromise is impossible. I beg to differ – not least on the factual accuracy of the statement. Many, many people – of different theologies – are desperate to seek a compromise. The challenge is what that compromise might look like.
For those, like me, who believe it is high time for the church to bless faithful gay couples, compromise is absolutely part of the way forward. I have no desire whatsoever to tell those who disagree with me that they are not Christians, however wrong I think they are, and I have no desire whatsoever to exclude them from the Church – not that I would have any authority to do so in any case. Instead, I want to find ways to genuinely walk together in which both our integrities are recognised, and in which both integrities are honoured.
For me, this would mean turning back to the importance of conscience. It is abundantly clear that we do not all agree, and we will not come to one mind on this. It is also clear that those who are affirming and those who are not both love the church, are Christians, and ultimately love the Lord Jesus. If we are to take the Lord’s command to love one another He loved us seriously, then we must surely see a way forward based on the mutual recognition of our differences and yet willingness to enable one another and call on the Holy Spirit to reveal all things.
This is the makings of a compromise – one that enforces neither belief or practice in this area, but that allows us to look each other in the face and say, ‘you are beloved of God, we disagree, but we will fulfil His command to love one another’. I long to belong to a church where we are open in our disagreements, and not so fearful that we won’t admit this disagreement to those who walk through our doors. It is through such openness that our fears of compromise might be ameliorated too – those who fear doctrinal catastrophe can be clear that affirming LBGTQI relationships is not the only position in the Church of England; likewise, those who fear for the safety of young people growing up in non-affirming communities can point those vulnerable youngsters to places where other points of view are expressed.
For the ultra-purists, this will never work – but their strength is immensely over-estimated. It is quite simply not true that a compromise is not possible, desirable, or sought. Our decision is either to sacrifice our unity as beloved children of God on the altar of prideful purity, or to embrace unity in openness, diversity of belief and practice, and in a recognition that we might, just, be wrong.
Compromise in conscience is possible – it is up to us to stop being the stumbling block in its way.