Synod Attracts Protests

By Zachary Guiliano

About three dozen protesters — bearing signs that said Anglicans! Stop opposing marriage equality and Synod must listen to African LGBTIs — greeted members of General Synod as they arrived at Church House for the morning session Feb. 15.

Tracey Byrne, chief executive of the newly amalgamated group OneBodyOneFaith, organized the protest, deemed a “vigil,” with the support of the Peter Tatchell Foundation and Out and Proud African LGBTI.

It was quiet and dignified — no screaming, no arguments with those entering Church House, no outlandish dress or behavior. Few people wanted to speak. More than half of the protesters were black, a key optic for the predominantly white Church of England. Despite the small size of the protest, more media photographed it than have attended any other moment in this meeting of Synod. Other C of E notables, like the Rev. Giles Fraser, dropped in to have their photos taken with signs.

Tracey Byrne spoke to TLC about the purpose of the protest in relation to the bishops’ report on marriage.

“We are sending a really clear sign that people are not okay with this,” Byrne said. “People are not happy with what the bishops are doing or what they are not doing. And we need to see some change. It’s okay talking about a change of tone, but what we need to see is there are some concrete steps, and if the bishops are not in the position collectively to identify what those things are, then we are very happy to talk to them about what that needs to look like.”

OneBodyOneFaith’s proposal to the Synod, “A time to build,” calls for the “explicit acceptance of the integrity of theological diversity over matters of sexuality,” the creation of a Sexuality and Relationships Working Group, “a significant level of LGBTI+ representation” on various church boards and bodies, a “national lead for LGBTI+ matters based at Church House,” “the publication and recommendation of an official liturgy for the blessing of same-sex couples after a Civil Partnership or Civil Marriage,” and the removal of canonical impediments to married same-sex clergy.

Byrne added that some kind of protest at this Synod or others “was always in the cards,” adding that she and others had engaged in the Shared Conversations “in good faith.”

“Because the report was so disappointing and so lacking in any real sense of direction, we felt that we had to come out today and be here and be very visible because we need to see some change.”

When asked how the protest might affect the debate later at Synod, she said: “Who knows? Symbolic, prophetic things are not something you can measure the effectiveness of, but it was just very important for us in principle that people had the opportunity to say Not in my name. This isn’t okay.”

Byrne has cooperated with various members of Synod who are “working together to ensure they speak with one voice … regarding the frustrations of those who are LGBTI.” She described a dozen of these Synod members as “higher-profile,” without mentioning specific names.

The morning session of Synod was slow and amicable, but it approved a few key pieces of legislation: a motion that calls for a new suffragan see for the Diocese of Leicester, a motion for appointing Mark Sheard to the Archbishops’ Council, and a motion engaging with the government’s review of the maximum stake for fixed-odds betting terminals, largely considered a social scourge.

The latter motion drew marked support from the Synod. It was the subject of a counted vote (310 in favor of motion, 0 against, 0 abstentions). The announcement of this result provoked significant applause.

Since the Synod finished its appointed work early, the previous day’s adjourned debate on vesture and burial services resumed. Nearly everyone spoke in favor of the amending canon, which would permit local ministers more flexibility in determining appropriate vesture in church services.

“Beware, says Jesus, when all speak well,” said the Rev. Gavin Kirk (London), in whose name the motion stood. “It’s almost unprecedented.”

After the Rev. Philip Plyming said informal clothing provided more “freedom of movement” for services that required them, a little humor entered the discussion, in the form of friendly jousting between Fr. Kirk and the Dean of Southwark regarding which style of chasuble allowed maximum freedom of movement.

Fr. Kirk: “The most freedom of movement is in fact available with a fiddleback chasuble, not such as are seen, as I understand, in the Cathedral Church of Southwark.”

The motion was approved.

The Synod reconvened after a brief break so that the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt. Rev. Graham James, and the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt. Rev. Pete Broadbent, could introduce the bishops’ report on marriage and the process for the afternoon’s “group work,” which involves examining case studies related especially to pastoral practice.

Bishop James began by observing that the Church has been discussing same-sex relationships “for almost the whole of the 41 years of my ordained ministry.”

“As a curate in the late 1970s I recall leading a deanery synod discussion on the Gloucester Report on homosexual relationships,” James said. “No one else was willing to do it. Little did I think that almost 40 years later I’d be standing before the General Synod presenting another report on the same subject. It is a very provisional report, as it says of itself. Like others which have gone before it, it has not received a rapturous reception in all quarters, and I regret any pain or anger it may have caused.”

He reviewed the history of the Church of England’s engagement with the topic, saying it has found itself on both sides of public opinion as being too liberal or too conservative. He noted some developments in the Anglican Communion, especially the commitment of the Lambeth Conference in 1978 and 1988 to “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality which would take seriously both the teaching of scripture and the results of scientific and medical research.”

“The possibility, even by then, of a dispassionate study of same-sex relationships was a vain hope,” James said.

A number of Synod members had expressed their concern that group work would include examination of case studies. While noting his loyalty to “the Catholic tradition of our church and to the doctrine of the universal Church as we have received it,” Bishop James said that “the House of Bishops found case studies valuable. They based our conversations in the lived experience of the Church.”

He added:

A pastoral response is invited and our response reveals how our theological formation shapes it. Indeed, we may discover that our pastoral response begins to reshape our theological convictions. There is always a dialogue between doctrine and pastoral practice. …

Among the things the case studies revealed to the bishops was the breadth of pastoral responses which lay within the present disciplines of the church. Sometimes it is our own pastoral imagination which is lacking rather than pastoral possibilities. That’s what led to the use of the phrase “maximum freedom” in relation to the interpretation of existing law and guidance.

At this stage, only Synod members know what is contained in the pastoral case studies to be discussed in private group work. Indeed, as Bishop Pete Broadbent noted, it was unclear how many Synod members would choose not to participate in the group work or whether the Synod would “take note” of the report and thus have time for debate.

Moreover, both bishops said this discussion was merely a starting point, without a clear goal in mind, save it being clear to the bishops that no change in marriage doctrine is envisioned. They expected to draw a great number of “lesbian and gay people, theologians, parish clergy and others” into the formation of their new teaching document on marriage and their code of practice.

Earlier at the vigil outside, the Rev. Colin Coward, a longtime leader of Changing Attitude, briefly held a sign printed by OneBodyOneFaith that quoted Isaiah 6:9-10: “For this people’s heart has grown dull and their ears are hard of hearing and they have shut their eyes so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.”

Synod’s debate later today, and possibly in months or years to come, may prove the prophetic yet ambiguous character of that statement.

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