General Synod: What Would Compromise Look Like?

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.

This entry was posted in General Synod, Good Disagreement, Human Sexuality, Living in Love & Faith, Neil Patterson. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to General Synod: What Would Compromise Look Like?

  1. Ian Stubbs says:

    Our aim is not a pragmatic Church but a Church that listens and responds to the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Six years ago a leading American evangelical pastor and academic, Tony Campolo:, released this statement.

    As a young man I surrendered my life to Jesus and trusted in Him for my salvation, and I have been a staunch evangelical ever since. I rely on the doctrines of the Apostles Creed. I believe the Bible to have been written by men inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. I place my highest priority on the words of Jesus, emphasizing the 25th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus makes clear that on Judgment Day the defining question will be how each of us responded to those he calls “the least of these”.

    From this foundation I have done my best to preach the Gospel, care for the poor and oppressed, and earnestly motivate others to do the same. Because of my open concern for social justice, in recent years I have been asked the same question over and over again: Are you ready to fully accept into the Church those gay Christian couples who have made a lifetime commitment to one another?

    While I have always tried to communicate grace and understanding to people on both sides of the issue, my answer to that question has always been somewhat ambiguous. One reason for that ambiguity was that I felt I could do more good for my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters by serving as a bridge person, encouraging the rest of the Church to reach out in love and truly get to know them. The other reason was that, like so many other Christians, I was deeply uncertain about what was right.

    It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.

    For me, the most important part of that process was answering a more fundamental question: What is the point of marriage in the first place? For some Christians, in a tradition that traces back to St. Augustine, the sole purpose of marriage is procreation, which obviously negates the legitimacy of same-sex unions. Others of us, however, recognize a more spiritual dimension of marriage, which is of supreme importance. We believe that God intends married partners to help actualize in each other the “fruits of the spirit,” which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, often citing the Apostle Paul’s comparison of marriage to Christ’s sanctifying relationship with the Church. This doesn’t mean that unmarried people cannot achieve the highest levels of spiritual actualization – our Savior himself was single, after all – but only that the institution of marriage should always be primarily about spiritual growth.

    In my own life, my wife Peggy has been easily the greatest encourager of my relationship with Jesus. She has been my prayer partner and, more than anyone else, she has discerned my shortcomings and helped me try to overcome them. Her loving example, constant support, and wise counsel have enabled me to accomplish Kingdom work that I would have not even attempted without her, and I trust she would say the same about my role in her life. Each of us has been God’s gift to the other and our marriage has been a mutually edifying relationship.

    One reason I am changing my position on this issue is that, through Peggy, I have come to know so many gay Christian couples whose relationships work in much the same way as our own. Our friendships with these couples have helped me understand how important it is for the exclusion and disapproval of their unions by the Christian community to end. We in the Church should actively support such families. Furthermore, we should be doing all we can to reach, comfort and include all those precious children of God who have been wrongly led to believe that they are mistakes or just not good enough for God, simply because they are not straight.

    As a social scientist, I have concluded that sexual orientation is almost never a choice and I have seen how damaging it can be to try to “cure” someone from being gay. As a Christian, my responsibility is not to condemn or reject gay people, but rather to love and embrace them, and to endeavor to draw them into the fellowship of the Church. When we sing the old invitation hymn, “Just As I Am”, I want us to mean it, and I want my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to know it is true for them too.

    Rest assured that I have already heard – and in some cases made – every kind of biblical argument against gay marriage, including those of Dr. Ronald Sider, my esteemed friend and colleague at Eastern University. Obviously, people of good will can and do read the scriptures very differently when it comes to controversial issues, and I am painfully aware that there are ways I could be wrong about this one.

    However, I am old enough to remember when we in the Church made strong biblical cases for keeping women out of teaching roles in the Church, and when divorced and remarried people often were excluded from fellowship altogether on the basis of scripture. Not long before that, some Christians even made biblical cases supporting slavery. Many of those people were sincere believers, but most of us now agree that they were wrong. I am afraid we are making the same kind of mistake again, which is why I am speaking out.

    I hope what I have written here will help my fellow Christians to lovingly welcome all of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters into the Church.

  2. Denis Tully says:

    Thank you Neil for your article. I stood for General Synod (and was elected) proposing that a way forward is that parishes be allowed to make decisions around gender, sexuality and relationships based on ‘prayerful and theological conscience’. It seems to me that your article goes a way towards this idea but I acknowledge such a conclusion will not be satisfactory to everyone and be painful for everyone but the pain will be shared. I know not what the practical implications might be but it would still allow parishes commit to radical welcome as they see it.

    • Ian Paul says:

      Denis, are you seriously suggesting that neighbouring parishes should end up having completely different theologies of marriage and sexuality?

      And therefore should have quite opposite relationships with the Book of Common Prayer, which currently defines our doctrine?

      I think that would be a very odd Church to be part of! We would no longer be episcopal, but congregationalist!

  3. Ian Paul says:

    Neil, this is certainly an option to explore. But the Hereford motion asks for a provision that ‘does not change the doctrine of the Church of England’. The current doctrine is that marriage is between one man and one woman, and is the only place for sexual intimacy. Sex outside of this context is to be met with a call to repentance.

    Wouldn’t that mean that a liturgical rite in relation to same-sex marriage would need to call the participants to repent of their relationship, since ‘marriage’ assumes the relationship is sexual?

    And wouldn’t a liturgical rite in relation to CPs need to make it explicit that this was a celibate relationship?

    Do you think that would be pastorally usable…? I think I am unclear as to how ‘Hereford’ offers a compromise?

  4. Fr Neil, many years ago I thought of a compromise too, and of a traditionalist one. One millennium ago, in the Balkans, Christians of different rites, both Eastern and Western, put in the place the adelphopoiesis, but its sacramentality would not be discussed, although it used to create the same-gender office equivalent to the mixed-gender “crowning”.

    Nevertheless, in the CofE, the time for compromise is overripe. Instead, good Christology is to be taught: a human being is a human being is a human being. Marriage and ordination and the sacraments in general are NOT about how many kidneys the recipient has, or which hair- or skin-colour, or about how many testicles or ovaries the recipient has. That is the only discussion we should have. On the other hand, many Churches in full communion with the CofE have embraced marriage and ordination equality: the Episcopal Churches of the USA and Scotland, the Old-Catholic Churches of Netherlands and Switzerland, the Church of Sweden, the Church of Iceland, of Denmark etc. The clock is not going backwards. Those who reject marriage equality in the CofE will be harshly judged by the posterity.

Any thoughts?