By Zachary Guiliano
The first day of General Synod was dominated by three matters: routine business, addresses on evangelism, and the church’s recently released “guidance for the affirmation of baptismal faith in the context of gender transition.”
The Synod engaged in its usual, staid debates about setting its current agenda and future dates, with a little fire and light on the question of how best to attract a more diverse set of General Synod members by age and socioeconomic background. But it was especially enlivened by three addresses on evangelism, in advance of more substantive discussion to take place later this week.
Two Anglican Communion guests stepped up first to discuss evangelism and discipleship in their local contexts: the Most Rev. Prem Chand Singh, moderator of the Church of North India, and the Rt. Rev. Paul Korir, Bishop of Kapsabet, speaking on behalf of the Most Rev. Ole Jackson Sapit, Archbishop of Kenya.
Both guests expressed their thanks to the Church of England and spoke of how they were “indebted to the missionaries” who brought the Christian faith to their homelands. “The Church in Africa … is growing and thriving,” Korir said. “The Spirit of God is moving, but we acknowledge the source. And so we come to you with reverence and gratitude. Your people came to Africa; they came to Kenya when Africa was considered a dark continent. … If you had not come, we would be nowhere.”
Singh emphasized the significant challenges of persecution and discrimination in India, highlighting episodes of violence and a shifting political situation, affected by a renewed Hindu nationalism. Yet he emphasized that “we thank God” even in such situations, and that the Church of North India continues to preach, seeking the transformation of all “in the love of Jesus Christ.”
Korir spoke of the Kenyan church’s work with children and young people, as well as its renewed work among men. In the wake of the Mothers’ Union’s success, it has formed KAMA, the Kenyan Anglican Men’s Association, sometimes dubbed “the Mothers’ Union of Men.”
He spoke of the challenges of priestly ministry, in which one priest is assigned to 20 parishes, and he highlighted the centrality of lay ministry in Kenya: “Lay readership is very, very pronounced,” as readers often lead Matins on Sundays and engage in primary pastoral care.
The Archbishop of Canterbury continued the strong emphasis on evangelism in his presidential address, and spoke about the importance of the next Lambeth Conference. His address was inflected by reference to 1 Peter, the book that the conference will focus on, and he returned again and again to its evangelistic themes.
“Out of the cosmic change of … incorporation into God’s people,” he said, “comes the utterly down-to-earth need to witness faithfully, to live well and above all ‘now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth, so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart’ (1 Pet. 1:22).”
The themes of love and truth recurred in his speech: “Even if there were not hundreds of other examples in scripture this one verse puts paid to the absurdity that truth and love are somehow alternatives, that we can be in favour of one but not the other.
“To separate them is like separating breathing from the beating of the heart. The absence of either stops the other and brings death.”
He closed his address by focusing on signs of vitality in the Church of England, including the growth in the number of ordinands, creative efforts spearheaded by dioceses, and church planting. Of the latter, he said that “over 2,500” church plants are “planned before 2030.” Such a focus would be in line with several optimistic documents to be discussed later by General Synod, concerning the shifts required in the church for it to focus from decline to growth.
After general business and these longer addresses, a large portion of General Synod’s time on this first day was given to answering questions, nearly one third of which referred to the recent and controverted transgender guidance.
From the beginning of the day, members of Synod expected the discussion to be contentious, and Jayne Ozanne, an LGBT activist and member from Oxford, questioned whether they fell afoul of the Synod’s recently agreed Code of Conduct, as they could cause “deep hurt” and harm to transgender persons.
“The tone of some of these questions leaves much to be desired, as does the accuracy of some of their claims,” she said, adding that they included “fake news purported as fact.”
During the question time, Emma Forward of the Diocese of Exeter asked Bishop Christopher Cocksworth (Coventry) a supplementary question about whether the House of Bishops would “continue to defend” the right of Synod members to ask questions freely, against Ozanne’s claims “that they are against the General Synod Code of Conduct.”
Cocksworth affirmed that the bishops would.
Many questions sought to clarify the bishops’ intentions in issuing the guidance, the process by which it was developed, and the permanence or provisionality of its suggestions.
Some confusion in the bishops’ answers arose about the intention behind the service and whether it was making any theological claims.
Prudence Dailey (Oxford) asked, “for the sake of absolute clarity,” whether the House of Bishops “intended … that the service of affirmation of baptismal vows should be used to mark gender transition.” The Bishop of Hereford, Richard Frith, said that it was “not intended at all.”
Some lack of clarity on this point continued, however, with the Bishop of Willesden later saying that the service was primarily developed to meet the needs of people who had “already been in this situation” before joining the church, rather than those transitioning within a congregation. “We’re not at the moment making any more theological assumptions about where we go after that. That’s something that the [Living in Love and Faith] project is seeking to address.”
Dailey asked a supplementary question on whether “in addition to the pastoral concerns which they quite rightly considered,” the bishops had considered the significant “philosophical considerations” raised by these pastoral situations.
Cocksworth said the pastoral, philosophical, and theological questions raised by the guidance would be addressed by the Living in Love and Faith Project: “That is giving exactly the sort of theological and philosophical attention to the matters you raise now.”
Cocksworth did not directly answer the Rev. Ian Paul (Southwell and Nottingham), who asked him why the House of Bishops had not waited until the end of the project to issue some kind of guidance.
Clive Scowen (London) asked Bishop Pete Broadbent: “In what sense did the guidance not pre-empt the work of the Living in Love and Faith group on gender identity and transition?”
“Because Synod passed, having had a fairly substantial debate, a specific request to make provision and there may well be issues that need to be addressed, as I’ve already indicated in my previous answers through Living in Love and Faith,” Broadbent said. “All we’re doing at the moment is that those who have clearly stated and present before us as trans are to be welcomed in church. The way in which we do that is by using the provisions of this liturgy.”
Broadbent, when asked if it was likely that the House of Bishops would not withdraw the guidance, responded: “I think you can infer that.”