Members of the Community of St. Anselm pray for General Synod during the lunch break on Feb. 15.
By Zachary Guiliano
After weeks of tense anticipation, General Synod did not “take note” of the House of Bishops’ report on marriage Feb. 15, by a margin of 7 votes in the House of Clergy.
One procedural result of the vote is clear: Synod will not consider two following motions on Feb. 16. One of these, moved by Anthony Archer (St. Albans), would have sought a promise of “forward-looking proposals on same-sex relationships.” Another, moved by Ed Shaw (Bristol), sought more conservative affirmations, including the Synod’s clear endorsement of the Lambeth Conference’s Resolution I.10 (1998).
The deeper significance of the vote is not so clear.
LGBTI pressure groups, such as the newly amalgamated OneBodyOneFaith, had engaged in letter campaigns before the Synod and a small protest on the day of voting. During the Synod, OneBodyOneFaith members tweeted frequently under the hashtag #NotTakingNote, as had some individual LGBTI members of Synod. After the vote, OneBodyOneFaith tweeted thanks to its “members and allies” and said it looked forward to “a new chapter.”
But votes not to “take note” did not simply come from LGBTI-affirming groups. Susannah Leafe (Truro), director of the conservative evangelical group Reform, confirmed after the vote that she and some other conservatives had decided not to take note, citing a lack of clarity from the bishops on what the report signified, and she spoke against the report during the debate.
Given the number of members registered for this meeting of General Synod, the numbers suggest that 21 members were absent, or refused to vote or record an abstention.
As a tally of the votes reveals, some members of Synod were absent or refused to vote or consider an abstention.
Bishop Graham James (Norwich), Bishop Pete Broadbent (Willesden), and the Archbishop of Canterbury had stressed multiple times during the day that a vote to take note would not constitute an endorsement, as the report was “provisional” and “only the first step.” Nor would a vote not to take note prevent the House of Bishops from preparing a teaching document and pastoral guidelines.
“When reports come to the General Synod they often come at the end of a process and contain recommendations,” Bishop James said immediately before the vote. “This wasn’t that sort to report. The bishops came to this debate committed to listen. Our report did not bring proposals, it brought a framework, and a request for Synod to tell us what they thought. We have listened to those who have spoken and those others who have made contributions to us directly. Our ongoing discussions will be informed by what members of Synod and the wider church have said as a result of this report.”
The tone as the vote concluded was significant as well. The chair, Aiden Hargreaves-Smith (London), noted that “the custom of this Synod” is to react to votes in silence, a custom that held. Afterward, Mark Russell (Sheffield), chief of Church Army, asked to make a point of order, so the Synod could thank the chair for conducting the discussion “with grace, with integrity, with courage” and that it could “wish you a very blessed evening.”
Hargreaves-Smith received a lengthy standing ovation. He then joked about the points: “They are out of order.”
The Synod closed the session with Evening Prayer from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
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The Synod’s passion and diversity of opinion was evident during the lengthy debate: 160 members of Synod had sought time to speak in the debate, but there was time for only a portion of them to do so, even with speeches limited to three minutes.
A number of members welcomed the report, from its promise of a new teaching document to questions regarding what “maximum freedom” in pastoral response to same-sex couples might look like. But the most moving speeches came from LGBTI members, both those seeking change in the church’s teaching and those who are not.
The Rev. Simon Butler, prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, said that he would not take note, but that no matter the result, he would remain in the church, pressing for change. The story of Jacob wrestling with the Lord in Genesis 32 came to him during evening worship on Feb. 14, he said: “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
The Rev. Andrew Foreshew Cain (London) described LGBTI Christians as “beggars” and “your family,” adding: “I am not a case study. We are flesh and blood. We need to be able to be honest.”
LGBTI campaigners said they were not seeking gay marriage but approval for blessings.
Alternatively, the Rev. Sam Alberry (Oxford) told the Synod: “I am same-sex attracted and have been for my entire life. … I choose to describe myself this way because sexuality is not an identity for me.”
He highlighted Jesus’ celibacy and his status as the exemplar of a “fully human” and “fulfilled” life. He was concerned that the church might abandon its marriage doctrine because of unclear episcopal leadership. He asked the bishops, “Do you really believe in it? Is it Good News for the world?”
In the end, the Archbishop of Canterbury stressed in his remarks before the vote that “no one is a problem” to be solved. “We will as the bishops think again and go on thinking,” both about tone and a resolution amid serious disagreement. He added:
[T]o deal with that disagreement, to find ways forward, we need a radical new inclusion … with a basis found in Scripture, in tradition, in reason, in theology, in good healthy flourishing relationships, in a proper 21st-century understanding of being human and being sexual. That will require a remarkable document put together, with the bishops, but put together by the whole Church. …
But we are going to move on and find a radical new inclusion based in love, based in our Christian understanding, neither careless of our theology nor ignorant of the world around us. That is the challenge we face as human beings, not problems, not issues, but humans beings made in the image and likeness of God, called to salvation in the way of Christ.