by the Revd Neil Patterson, Director of Vocations & Ordinands in the Diocese of Hereford and Vice-Chair of the General Synod Gender & Sexuality Group
A number of commentators, including Simon Butler, Helen King and Charlie Bell, have taken the polarised membership of the new General Synod as good evidence that only a path of listening and compromise is likely to yield progress in the intractable sexuality debate. I want to go a little farther, and sketch out one possible line of movement, and comment on how it would represent compromise for both sides.
You will not be surprised that my starting point is the so-called ‘Hereford Motion,’ passed by our Diocesan Synod in 2017, and parked on the agenda of General Synod, which calls on the Bishops to authorise a form of service for same-sex couples, whilst making it clear it would be wholly optional. The basic concept had been talked about in all sorts of places, and I am glad to make clear here that it was not my idea to produce a diocesan synod motion (thank you, Kay Garlick, former Chair of the Business Committee!) nor did I propose it (thank you, Matthew Burns, Team Vicar of Leominster!). But I did produce the wording, so feel a certain responsibility for the motion.
Why would this be compromise for progressives? In my experience we have varying approaches to campaigning and may see different points of principle as more critical, but most of us believe in the equality of opposite- and same-sex relationships as places for Christian discipleship. And so the only really logical conclusion is to welcome equal marriage, with the admission of same-sex couples on the same basis, whether or not your theology makes it a sacrament (mine doesn’t). So to accept a position in which same-sex couples (even if married in law) were only offered a limited liturgy would inevitably seem to put us in a second-class place.
And this has bites on the ground. One of the strongest examples to me has been that of a couple of musician friends, partners for over 20 years, first civilly partnered and now married. Both have been church organists (one still). They will over the years have played at hundreds of opposite-sex marriages, cheerfully welcoming brides and grooms (whose previous and subsequent connection to the church may have been zero) to exercise their right to marry in church. Under the Hereford Motion proposal, they would at least to have been able to enjoy a public liturgical celebration. But no banns, no register, no invocation of Cana of Galilee. That is a compromise, and it hurts.
But we can recognise how conservatives too would have to compromise to live with this situation. At present there is of course considerable diversity of opinion, and to some extent practice, across the Church of England. But it is still credible for conservatives to say that the official positron is that traditional marriage is the only norm for relationships. And none of us should doubt that for some, this is as basic as other key doctrines of the faith. If we were to make the Trinity optional, or declare readings from the works of Aristotle to be Scripture, I too would wonder whether this was really a Christian church.
And it has a local impact, as I have discussed with conservative parish clergy. If approached by a same-sex couple seeking to celebrate their marriage, they can currently say politely that the Church of England doesn’t do that (and the website will confirm it). If we have an official service, the couple will know that the refusal is down to their, or their parish’s, conscientious beliefs. They will have been ‘outed’ as conservative on sexuality, and the couple may simply dismiss them as homophobic. In my experience even the most conservative Christians want to be welcoming, but are wrestling in their hearts with what they believe to be obedience to God. That hurts too.
And all of us, on whichever side, may be fearful that a decision of this sort will mean local division of every sort. Will the PCC approve use of the service? Will Julie resign if they do? Will Greg resign if they don’t? What about the church school Inclusion and Diversity Policy? It will not be easy, and it may dislodge us from customary middle-class English evasion.
The question of public liturgies is of course only one element of the debate. But I set it out as an example of how the way forward may well involve no-one getting what they want, or even what they believe to be the most holy and true solution. That seems to be the way, without exception, the Church of England does things. And ideally there is usually an element of the settlement that can be interpreted by different sides to suit their own theologies, and I feel that’s not a bad thing.
There is another reason, sharpened this week by the news of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent and seemingly fruitless meeting with the Archbishop and other senior churchmen in Ghana, where a proposed new law will criminalise LGBT+ people severely. Whatever our fears, I firmly believe it very unlikely that any of us in the Church of England, conservative or liberal, LGBT+ or otherwise, face imprisonment for our identity or beliefs. The joint statement by leaders of all the Synod groups in response to this threat of terrifying injustice may, sadly, be making little impact in Ghana. But perhaps it is a sign that we are closer together than we realise, and can find a way forward.
Revd Neil Patterson is writing here in a personal capacity.