Have the Bishops of the Church of England been given a bloody nose? On the surface that seems to be the case with the rejection by the General Synod of the Take Note Motion on the House of Bishops’ Report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships. Yet though some will see this as special pleading, I think that this debate and its outcome represent the character of Anglican episcopacy as episcopacy in synod. As such this scenario is exactly the sort of listening leadership which we need if we are to make any progress on issues of this complexity and sensitivity. It is exactly the sort of communal conversation synodical ecclesiology embodies. If anything the debate last night indicated that the listening embodied in the Report was insufficient rather than contesting the principle of Bishops discerning the way ahead in synod.
However, as many have commented, the nature of the vote does not give a clear steer about the way ahead. The vote by Houses was lost in the House of Clergy yet overall the Report received more votes in favour of taking note. So how should one interpret this?
It suggests to me that although the motion was lost the direction of travel advocated by the Report was agreed by the majority of the General Synod and I suspect that many of the clergy who voted against the motion were not advocates of the status quo. The majority view of the Synod therefore is that we need to explore a more creative way ahead for faithful human relationships rather than remaining where we are or simply offering maximum freedom within the present settlement. To do this will involve a major re-engagement with and renewal of Anglican anthropology. I believe that this will involve looking at how we read and interpret Scripture in time and place, how we read Scripture ecclesially through Christ and the ongoing impact of his story embodied in the Church and world, and how we ensure that this is an open conversation with particular attention to voices of those who challenge the tradition as well as to the insights of contemporary and ancient wisdom. I think it must look much more creatively at companionship and friendship and clarify how they relate to biologically reproductive relationships particularly in the light of our acceptance of contraception and IVF. Without such a deepening of our conversation we will continue to talk past each other and walk apart.
As someone formed in Uganda, the United Kingdom and South Africa I feel the tension which such an enterprise will evoke because these Anglicans are my relatives in Christ. I have been exposed to and formed by their stories and have some understanding of how and why many African Christians respond to sexuality debates in the way they do. On the other hand, whilst I cannot enter into the pain and frustration of the LGBTI community who are also my relatives in Christ, I have met committed and virtuous LGBTI Christians and read their sensitive and thoughtful theological and biblical reflections. These have challenged and revised my own limited understanding of the issues they raise. Whilst I remain convinced that the institution of marriage within Anglican thought has an intrinsic relationship to responsible reproduction, I do feel that our tradition has the resources to bless other relationships of love, longevity and depth. We do this already with religious communities. My hope is that a more inclusive and capacious conversation with LGBTI and Anglican Communion representation alongside English Anglicans can enable a way forward to emerge. This is what I am committing to.