General Synod: Once More Unto the Breach?

by Canon Simon Butler, Member of General Synod and Vicar of St Mary’s, Battersea

In two weeks’ time the new General Synod will be inaugurated. Synodical psephologists are already analysing the results, trying to see where they lead, especially on the question of human sexuality, attitudes to which seem to have been a key factor in determining who has been elected. The Church Times reckons that both progressives and conservatives have done well at the expense of the middle ground and traditional Catholics[1]; Inclusive Church reckons 45-47% of those elected are clear progressives; the Evangelical Group in General Synod (EGGS) also appears to have done well, although it is hard to see how many of ‘their’ candidates will vote in a conservative direction, if only because EGGS encouraged conservative candidates not to be clear about that in their election addresses[2]!

All of this is grist to the mill to experienced Synod watchers: Anthony Archer, sadly not elected again from St Albans, says “I fear Living in Love and Faith (LLF) is dead in the water…there will be no change of any kind during 2021-26[3].”; from a very different perspective, Peter Ould claims that “there is still a substantial orthodox presence in the Church of England…LLF is not a shoe-in for the revisionists and we are likely to see no change…towards accommodating same-sex unions[4].”

Despite divergent hopes, both Archer and Ould agree about one thing: that both ‘sides’ have the numbers to block any attempt by the other to move the church in a more conservative or more progressive direction. And, while strictly numerically that may prove accurate, I find myself wondering whether this is a genuine piece of realpolitik or simply a processing of either hopes dashed or worst fears not being realised?

I think the jury is still out.

First, because Synod is a gathering of disciples open to the Holy Spirit. We often change our minds or adjust our perspective through relationship and listening. Over the next five years, despite the best attempts of campaigning bloggers like Ian Paul and Colin Coward to persuade us that the choice is about two mutually-exclusive, competing ‘orthodoxies’ – what Paul would call “historic biblical orthodoxy[5]” and Coward “radical Christian inclusion…an evolutionary process[6]” – General Synod is made up of people committed to listening to God and one another. For reasons more psychological than theological, the most irreconcilable conservative and progressive campaigners seem to only want a ‘winner takes all’ approach.

That is simply not part of the DNA of the Church of England. We bear with one another, we recognise we need one another, we accept (at our best) that we cannot be ‘A Christian Presence in Every Community[7]’ with only people like us. We say at every Eucharist, “we who are many are one body”. Like it or not, conservatives and progressives are stuck with one another – not chiefly in synodical deadlock, but in a shared obedience to discern together the mind of Christ for the future of the Church. Who knows where that could lead? Could God’s truth be bigger than either/or?

Second, because LLF is alive and well and being engaged with. Peter Ould’s sleight of hand claim that, because lay Synod electors return good numbers of conservatives the Church of England is more conservative than liberals claim and conservatives fear, is no more than an assertion, especially as worried conservatives have been encouraged for some time to pack Deanery Synods with members[8]. Conservative forces are often energised to resist change more by fear than hope when it comes to politics; but, even if the conservative bloc is strong in Synod, the evidence of LLF is that, where it is done properly, it is landing well and that many people are listening and learning, not just to bolster their own view, but to appreciate the views of others. At the very least this must open up the possibility that listening really does change hearts and attitudes and that change remains entirely possible. The possibility of change is what we signed up to in commending Living in Love and Faith.

So even if there are blocking minorities in the General Synod, I agree with Charlie Bell that compromise is still possible[9]. Indeed, I think both theologically and politically it may well be essential for the health of the Church we all claim to love – even if we don’t love all of it as much as we love our bit of it! The problem is of course that both “sides” want to compromise in separate ways – and expect the other side to do so in ways that suit that our “side’s” agenda. We will have to work extremely hard and long to discover the costly path of what Bell helpfully articulates as “compromise and conscience”.

This week, there has been an encouraging first step in response to the dreadful proposals to criminalise LGBTQ+ people in Ghana. As many will know, the Ghanaians have issued a statement supporting a parliamentary Bill[10] which, among other things, will result in draconian action against LGBTQ+ people and their supporters, even potentially their families. These ungodly proposals have attracted widespread criticism, including from Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and many diocesan bishops. Significantly, however, the Officers of the General Synod have combined with the leaders of key Catholic, Evangelical and progressive voices on sexuality to issue a joint statement of support for Archbishop Justin’s intervention. It’s a positive step to see both progressive and conservative voices on sexuality uniting in the face of something that clearly flies in the face of every statement and agreement made by the Primates of the Anglican Communion.

Such solidarity is a small but visible step we have been able to take together; yet, given the much wider challenges the Church of England faces, can conservatives and progressives can find any further common ground? For some, like Peter Ould and Ian Paul, the synodical deadlock is evidence that no change is likely and I firmly expect them to argue that the whole project should be abandoned; I’ve begun to hear that argument rehearsed. But what they fail to appreciate is that, for many progressives, even the evolutionary ones like me rather than the radical ones like Colin Coward, the issues are as fundamental to our discipleship as those of conservatives: for us the Gospel is for all; we often see holiness and discipleship in same-sex relationships, a sign of God’s blessing that the Church should honour. The loving faithfulness I see in such relationships in my congregation is far more exemplary than the tabloid tone we see in some conservative blogging, which see progressives colluding in a “furious assault on the Church”[11].

Whatever the synodical numbers, this matter isn’t going to go away. Unless we can compromise, we will all have to shoulder responsibility for a never-ending argument about sexuality while the Church of England becomes even more distant from the people of our land.

It’s time to start a different conversation. No one holds all the cards. Do we all dig our heels in crying, like Luther, “Here I stand; I can do no other”? Or might we all stop blaming each other for the division we face, and try and reach a settlement? Ironically, with no winner-takes-all possible, the likelihood of a settlement actually increases.

Some will cry “Once more unto the breach, dear friends![12]”, as we return to the synodical fray, but I find myself wondering if we can afford to doubt the possibility of a settlement, remembering Lucio’s words in Measure for Measure, “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt[13].”








[7] The strapline of the Church of England





[12] Henry V, Act III, Scene I

[13] Act I, Scene IV

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12 Responses to General Synod: Once More Unto the Breach?

  1. Helen King says:

    Thank you for these reflections. It may be useful also to note that the “radical Christian inclusion” phrase is not Colin Coward’s, but picking up the wording used by the bishops.
    The question for me is what such a settlement could look like. I blogged on this at where I noted that, in 2004, asked what he thought about gay marriage, Brian McLaren replied to the question, ‘You know what, the thing that breaks my heart is that there’s no way I can answer it without hurting someone on either side.’

    • Helen King says:

      As I charted there, in 2013 McLaren’s son married a man, with McLaren leading a commitment ceremony afterwards.

    • Simon says:

      Thanks Helen. I look forward to getting to know you at Synod! In respect of “radical Christian inclusion” I obviously accept it’s a quote from the Archbishops, but it is Colin’s blogging which takes us towards the idea that we will all evolve into a particularly radical vision of Christian faith that I think I’m interrogating. Whatever you think about the merits, what he articulates in his emerging theological/spiritual development, and powerfully spelled out in the scope of his articles, it cannot be denied that it is a long way from the perspectives of most conservatives (and perhaps many progressives too). It therefore in my view represents one of two polarities that one “side” can portray as representative of the other, just as Ian’s writings can be portrayed as representative of conservative thought. I don’t think either help us in the task of finding compromise.

      • Ian Paul says:

        Simon, we are certainly not the first church to have faced differences on this issue, and we surely cannot be the first to be seeking ‘compromise’. So can you point me to an example of a denomination that has reached the kind of compromise that you envisage working?

  2. Steven Young says:

    There is “solidarity” between progressive and conservatives against the criminalisation of LGBTQI+ people. The fact that this is even worthy of mention as a “positive step” shows how dire a situation we are in and how unsafe this whole situation continues to be for LGBTQI people in the church.

  3. Ian Paul says:

    I think Simon makes an attractive and well-written appeal for a new approach to this issue, one that I would want to enthusiastically support. But how does he go about it?

    First, by writing me off as one extreme, pairing me with Colin Coward as a ‘campaigning blogger’, and thus avoiding the need to engage with the serious arguments I articulate, and encouraging others to disengage.

    He regrets that Anthony Archer was not re-elected—the same Anthony Archer who announced that I was the ‘number one target to get off Synod next time around’. It is rather ironic that he himself wan’t elected!

    Simon then talks of the virtue of listening to one another and engaging, when he continues to block me on Facebook and exclude me from conversations with mutual friends on a whole range of issues.

    He then depicts himself as sitting at the reasonable middle by casting the debate in terms of ‘compromise’. I think he knows perfectly well that for many years—decades even—we have recognised that there are two very different views on the issue of marriage and sexuality, and the debate has long moved away from attempting to reconcile these views and to the central pastoral and theological issue: is the Church’s doctrine of marriage a ‘thing indifferent’ or not?

    Simon’s proposal of ‘compromise’ is actually a way of avoiding that debate, and imposing his own view that this does indeed belong to the ‘adiaphora’.

    So despite calling for honesty, engagement and openness, Simon is here being rather dishonest, manipulative and political. He doesn’t practice what he preaches.

    It is not a very encouraging start to the new Synod.

    • Jonathan Chaplin says:

      Ian (belatedly): suppose we were to accept, for the sake of argument, that the debate is, as you suggest, now about whether the Church’s doctrine of marriage is a ‘thing indifferent’, and no longer about the substance of the doctrine itself. How does that advance the debate? If we continue to disagree deeply about whether it is a thing indifferent, when then? How do we address THAT divide?

      • Ian Paul says:

        It advances the debate in at least being honest about where we are at

        How do we address that divide? I assume you are meaning, ‘How do we come to a settlement or compromise on the different views’? That requires two things I think.

        First, we need to believe that such a settlement is in fact possible. I have asked in a number of places, including in my question to Simon above, if anyone can point me to an example where a church has come to an equitable compromise—and no-one can point me to one, not even Simon. That doesn’t look promising! Can you?

        Secondly, we need to believe that such a settlement is actually desirable. The debate here is not about the details of seven ‘boo’ texts, it is about a central question of theological anthropology: within God’s creation intention, is our bodily difference as humanity, made in the image of God, in the two forms of male and female, determinative of anything? Put simply, scripture says ‘yes’; the argument for SSM says ‘no’. But this question is closely related to scriptural theology, in that is it the immaterial God who expresses his will in the material, and the God who is One, and has life in himself, creates humanity as Two, who do not have life in themselves until the two find union as a reflection of God’s creation intention.

        So the settlement you refer to is about whether or not we accept biblical anthropology, and with it, the implications for theology.

        I don’t see how both positions, which contradict each other, can be accepted by one church. Can you see a way?

  4. Jonathan Chaplin says:

    To reply to Ian:

    1. By ‘THAT’ divide, I specifically meant, ‘whether SSM is a “thing indifferent”‘. That is: how does the church address a basic divide over whether X is or is not a thing indifferent? Are you implying that, if we can somehow agree that X is not such a thing, then it is necessarily a matter on which only one position can be admitted in the church (that it has ‘status confessionis’ or some such), and is thus a church-dividing issue? There are such issues of course: apartheid, which led to a necessary schism in the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. To have recoiled from creating such a schism would have been an act of deep unfaithfulness. Do you think this is such an issue?
    2. As for ‘equitable’ compromises: I’m not quite sure what you would count as ‘equitable’. How about talking instead about a ‘workable’ or ‘feasible’ or even ‘respectful’ compromise that both sides judge they can live with (for now) even though it falls short, perhaps far short, of what they would prefer or deem to be healthy for the church? How about assessing existing options just in the UK to start with: Church in Wales, Church of Scotland, SEC? I’m not particularly commending any of these but I wonder why you think they are ‘unworkable’ in the sense I have just defined that term.
    3. You say the issues is ‘over whether or not we accept biblical anthropology’. But as you must know from decades of experience, your opponents will simply reply: ‘we ACCEPT biblical anthropology but interpret it, or its contemporary implications, in a different way to you’. I share your reading of ‘biblical anthropology’. But I recognise that I live in a church in which a sizable proportion of my fellow Anglicans, while seeking to be faithful to Scripture, draw different ethical and/or pastoral implications from it than you do. I am prepared to see an accommodation to their faithful consciences because I do not see this as a matter of status confessionis and thus not as a church-dividing issue. Are you? If not, I fully respect that position (though I would grieve at the inevitable division to come if so). But do say so clearly.
    4. BTW: of course I realise that there are many on the other side who would assert with the same confidence as you that granting SSM is a non-negotiable issue of justice, that to deny it is intrinsically oppressive and homophobic, that it is a church-dividing issue, and (even) that those who hold your views do not belong in the church. Hardly ‘equitable’ or ‘respectful’. I get that.

    • Ian Paul says:

      1. I am not convinced that SSM is a church dividing issue in its own right. But that is because I think this is just the presenting issue of two much larger questions: do we trust Scripture as our authoritative guide in understanding humanity, sin and salvation? and do we accept biblical anthropology in contrast to the interiorised anthropology of the modern West? Almost all substantial commentators on this question, including leading scholars (who think the church’s historic teaching on marriage is wrong) agree that Scripture is clear and consistent in its rejection of SSS, and that this is linked to Scripture’s anthropology. And whether Scripture is trustworthy and authoritative IS a church dividing issue—of course.

      2. The C of E’s current doctrine of marriage, which it takes from scripture, is that sexual union and intimacy outside of male-female marriage is sinful. I don’t really know what the logic of an ‘accommodation’ or feasible compromise would look like. The most honest is the Methodists, where they acknowledge that they hold two contradictory beliefs. The C of E cannot do that, since it makes law, and law cannot be contradictory. I am all for assessing the other options; they appear to me either to be incoherent, or in fact not equitable settlements. In Wales, evangelicals have already been issued with threats about the need to leave their buildings, and some have done so; Methodism is falling apart as we speak. If you can point me to a denomination which has a coherent position, in which those who hold to historic understandings of marriage are flourishing, and the church is growing, do point them out. And btw, if we are to assess others, we should put our own decisions on hold for say five years to see what happens.

      3. I don’t know what you mean by others who ‘accept biblical anthropology but interpret it differently’. Scripture tells us that our bodily alterity as male and female is central to God’s creation intention, and that this determines our sexual ethics, though it does not determine (in an absolute sense) social roles, but does shape them. To accept SSS as ‘holy’, you need to deny the primacy of the body; I don’t see how you can ‘interpret it differently’. On ‘accommodating others’ I have no interest in driving people out of church (though plenty of people want to drive me out); all I ask is that, whatever our questions, we live and uphold the teaching of the Church. After all, that is what the ordained all commit to doing.

      4. In the end, these questions cannot be settled by a political process; we cannot avoid the question of what Scripture says. So there is really no substitute for engaging with that. In my experience, at a local level, most people have not even begun to engage with that.

      • Paul Woodbury says:

        Ian: it sounds as if you are saying: “how could I accept an approach to scripture which resulted in acceptance of or rejoicing in SSM, because an acceptable approach to scripture would result in thinking the same way as me.”

        Or: the litmus test of someone’s treatment of scripture is how much it agrees with your interpretation, at least where you think scripture is “clear”.

        This may be a mischaracterisation, but if not: hopefully it’s obvious how that leaves no space for respectful compromise, not just on the issue of SSM but any question.

      • Ian Paul says:

        No, not in the slightest. I am not interested in anyone agreeing with ‘my’ interpretation. That’s why I have tried to read all the alternatives and as widely as possible. Just about every reputable scholar, who has no ‘interest’ in denying the historic interpretations of the texts, agrees with that historic interpretation. Try Douglas Campbell, Luke Timothy Johnson, William Loader, John J Collins, Ed Sanders…all agree with the historic reading, and all agree that the Bible is wrong.

        Whether or not we can ‘compromise’ must be determined by whether or not, in Scripture or theology, the texts are ambiguous or this can be judged a ‘thing indifferent’. I don’t think there is much evidence that they are or that it can.

Any thoughts?