General Synod and Same-Sex Relationships

The General Synod of the Church of England met this February, with the subject of same sex relationships dominating the agenda.  This was the culmination of the five year Living in Love and Faith process, in which the church was invited to study, listen and reflect on the nature of human relationships, identity and sexuality.  The outcome was a set of proposals by the House of Bishops which have issued an apology to LGBTQI+ people, declared God’s love and acceptance of every person, commended further learning together, and most critically committed to issuing new pastoral guidance, commended prayers for the affirmation of same sex relationships and agreed to review the prayers in five years time.

From the outside the proposals look like a small step forward, and still fall far short of the civil provisions for LGBTQIA+ people to live their lives equally.  But from inside the church this is a big step in the right direction.  Official liturgies will be commended which will provide affirmation of same sex relationships, the first time such affirmation has been forthcoming in an official capacity.  Just as important, the pastoral guidance from the House of Bishops will be re-written, dropping the much maligned Issues in Human Sexuality for something more appropriate for the 21st Century.  The content of the new guidance has yet to be written, but it is believed that it will allow clergy to enter into same-sex civil marriages and still hold a licence to minister.  This will make a significant change to the culture of the church, with services affirming LGBTQIA+ relationships and clergy openly in same sex marriages modelling inclusion with the official support of the church.  I hope that this will help to soften attitudes and pave the way for further change in the future.  So while what has been agreed is not the final point of the journey, it is a significant step.

The outcome of this vote, and the good I hope will stem from it, is in no small part due to the work of Inclusive Church.  IC lead a coalition of inclusive church groups in organising for the General Synod elections in 2021.  Candidates were supported, voters informed, and 131 members were elected to the new Synod on the inclusion ticket.  That campaign, with the grassroots support from the Inclusive Church network, laid the foundation of the vote in Synod.  Not only did it elect good numbers to serve on Synod, it also brought them in together and enabled them to work with each other and be organised.  The vote for the proposals brought by the House of Bishops was supported by 57%, opposed by 41% with 2% abstaining.  At least half of the vote in favour will have come from Inclusive Church supported candidates.  Inclusive Church also contributed during the week of Synod by supporting a fringe meeting at St Martin-in-the-Fields which brought together different inclusive groups from across the Synod.  Many members attending at St Martins felt it was a real time of coming together and seeing what the church could be, and it gave many hope for the long week ahead.

Having been inside the Assembly Hall in Church House for the debate, which lasted eight hours, I can confirm just how exhausting the experience was.  Over twenty amendments were brought to try and change the bishop’s proposals, most of them conservative, and all but one failed to be passed.  Voting was very close, sometimes by a margin of one or two votes in one of the Houses (some Synod votes take place by Houses – Bishops, Clergy and Laity, and need to pass in all three).  It confirmed to us that the necessary 2/3rds majority which would have been needed to fully implement same sex marriage was not present in the current Synod, but being able to secure the change that we did was still a real achievement.

The next step will be seeing what pastoral guidance and final liturgies are brought by the bishops, which should be seen at the next meeting of the Synod in July.  I expect there will continue to be pushback from conservatives, but in the light of the February vote, there can be no turning back.  It will be important for all of us to keep communicating with our local bishops to encourage them to continue on the path they have chosen.  If you are in the Church of England, please consider writing to your bishop and ask that they deliver what the Synod has asked for: liturgical provision for same sex relationships and pastoral guidance that offers greater equality.  It will also be important for Inclusive Church members to consider joining their local Deanery Synod when these bodies are up for election this Spring.  Deanery Synods provide the electorate for the General Synod, so any casual vacancies arising in the next three years will need inclusive voters.  By maintaining and improving the inclusive representation on General Synod we can ensure that momentum is kept up.

Nic Tall is a General Synod member for Bath and Wells and ran the IC and partners campaign for inclusive Synod members in 2021.