February’s General Synod is now in our rear-view mirror, and I’ve found that one of the complexities to processing and explaining what exactly happened is trying to understand the significance of Canon Andrew Cornes (Winchester)’s amendment to the original House of Bishops’ motion, now known as Clause G.
If you recall, this amendment asked the Synod to “endorse” the Bishops’ decision not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage (between one man and one woman), and clarified that “the final version of the Prayers of Love and Faith should not be contrary to or indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church of England”.
Notably, this was the only amendment that was approved – requiring a majority in all three Houses to gain such approval. Not unconnected, it was also the only clause that wasn’t resisted by the Bishop of London, who was proposing the original motion.
So what’s going on? How is this amended clause seeming to function? How should we understand the response to it?
A Purge for Episcopal Consciences?
For starters, the key reason this amendment was carried was because it managed to gain a simple majority in the House of Bishops. This was where every other amendment failed. The count was as follows:
Bishops, 22 in favour, 14 against, with four abstentions; Clergy, 100 in favour, 94 against, with three abstentions; Laity, 98 in favour, 96 against, with four abstentions.
As mentioned, this amendment wasn’t resisted by the Bishop of London, which seems to have signalled permission for members of the House of Bishops to vote ‘for themselves’, rather than as a block.
The sceptic might suggest that there was more going on here than first seen.
After all, why did the Bishop of London not resist this amendment? Perhaps it was for theological reasons. Perhaps she sincerely wants to uphold the doctrine of marriage and she believes this amendment will genuinely safeguard that belief.
But could it perhaps have been because she knew that without the amendment in place the overall motion may not have passed? We’ll never know how the House of Bishops would have voted for the overall motion without this amendment. Perhaps it was unlikely to have been voted down in that House, given it was their own proposals. But we can probably assume that some of the twenty-two bishops who voted for the amendment would have joined the four bishops who voted against the overall proposal, had the amendment not been present.
Considering the House of Clergy & Laity, it was always going to be closer to call in regards to whether an unamended motion would have got through. But again, we can assume that having the amendment in place will certainly have reassured some ‘middle ground’ voters in those two houses. For example, it may have helped persuade those voters who had been concerned about the divisiveness of the main motion that it wasn’t actually as divisive as they perhaps thought.
But it may be the Bishop of London was also under some pressure to include this clause from her Episcopal colleagues. With 22 bishops voting for this amendment, it certainly feels like they were keen to publicly demonstrate they valued this clause. We know the College of Bishops has been greatly divided about Living in Love & Faith. We also know they’ve struggled how to propose a way forward.
At least one bishop spoke in favour of the amendment, with the Bishop of Truro saying that without this amendment he wouldn’t have been able to vote in favour of the overall motion. I’m sure there were others within the twenty-two that felt similarly. In the last few days we’ve seen a number of evangelical bishops acknowledge that they were prepared to vote for the amended motion.
But this then prompts the question as to whether such action is noble episcopal contending for the doctrine of marriage, or, as one lay person put it to me, whether the clause is simply an opportunity for bishops to ‘purge their consciences’? To some it will indeed look like a tokenistic gesture, a traditionalist’s shibboleth that further attempts to rationalise the bishops’ double-minded and nonsensical proposals.
After all, the House of Bishops would not have been unaware of the accusations of double-speak inherent in their original proposals. They would not have been unaware of the large numbers of the House of Laity and Clergy still dissatisfied with the amended motion. And they would not have been unaware of the majority of the Anglican Communion remaining sceptical about even an amended motion.
A Foot in the Door?
But is this entirely fair? As some have also argued, if the motion was going to be passed, then it is surely better for it to be passed with this amendment than without it.
Of course, we might argue that the twenty-two ‘orthodox’ bishops who voted for the amendment could also have voted against the overall motion – which would have ensured that it didn’t pass. But this would have looked intrinsically ridiculous, because, after all, it was their House who proposed the motion in the first place.
So shouldn’t we be thankful for the amendment?
Maybe so. Ian Paul has written, “All [the amendment] was asking for was something that had already been promised informally—but it makes all the difference that it is now in writing, and agreed.”
Indeed, it could be imagined as a ‘foot in the door’ going forward. It seems that some bishops are certainly communicating that there is ‘much still to play for’. After all, no prayers have yet been approved. No pastoral guidance has been written or agreed. Now all of the above has to be done through the lens of the amendment – in theory at least.
Again, Ian Paul writes, “Acceptance of this amendment has made formal and explicit that the doctrine of the Church not only does not change, but cannot be seen to have changed—the prayers ‘cannot be indicative of a departure from the doctrine of the Church.’ This constrains not only the content of the prayers themselves, but the context in which they are used and the way they are deployed.”
In other words, “The motion was passed, with a significant addition which explicitly limits the scope for manoeuvre, so the work will continue.”
“This means that, when the Bishops come to make a formal proposal, the only prayers which they could legally permit would be those which were faithful to the doctrine. If they comply with this stricture, it is hard to see which of the draft prayers would survive, without a clear public statement at any service that they MAY NOT be used to bless sexually active relationships.”
Martin Davie, former Theological Adviser to the College of Bishops, has also shown how the current forms of proposed prayers “run contrary to the doctrine” of marriage, arguing that they will therefore need to be reined back from their current form if they are to pass through Synod in July. He notes two reasons:
i) “to liturgically mark with prayer in the presence of God a form of life which claims to be marriage but is not marriage as God has ordained it to be, is blatantly ‘contrary to, and indicative of a departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England.’”
ii) “what the bishops propose makes no distinction between sexually abstinent and sexually active same-sex relationships. However, if, as the doctrine of the Church of England maintains, sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful, then it cannot be right to pray for God to bless sexually active same-sex relationships since this would mean asking for God to bless sin.”
These points presumably also apply to the parts of the forthcoming Pastoral Guidance that are related to the moral lives of Church of England clergy.
And so this is why Martin Davie calls this amendment clause a ‘great victory’ and calls for the following actions from ‘traditionalist Anglicans’:
“First, they need to realise the extent of the victory that the insertion of clause (g) has given them.
Secondly, they need to be vociferous in pointing out that the motion adopted by Synod did not give the green light to the indiscriminate blessing of same-sex unions, but in fact ruled it out.
Thirdly, they need to be willing to subject the future work of the House of Bishops to detailed scrutiny to make sure it takes clause (g) into proper account and to be willing to challenge its work (legally if necessary) if it fails to do so.”
A Charge Sheet on the Wall?
Perhaps the last way this clause can function is as a visible ‘charge sheet’ pinned to the wall, declaring to the Church of England, General Synod, and (perhaps especially) to the House of Bishops, what they have theoretically affirmed. Time will tell whether this charge sheet testifies that how in this chapter in the Church of England’s history its orthodox members of the House of Bishops held to their convictions, or whether these were empty words to placate old friends.
The accusations of ‘fudge’ were profuse after the original House of Bishops proposals were released. They were widely condemned as saying one thing – ‘marriage is not changing’ – but doing another – offering what amounted to blessings for same-sex marriages. Synod was therefore full of accusations of the proposals being deceptive, non-sensical, and theologically lightweight. So have these accusations actually been heard?
But what has now happened is that we have voted for an amendment that, unless some radical change is actioned, appears to simply double-down on the logic that such blessings can be encouraged whilst also affirming a traditional understanding of marriage. Is this more double-speak, or will we see how these can be held together?
Without some significant change in how these prayers are framed or understood, it’s hard to see why orthodox bishops have gone down this route. Without some significant change, one fears it will look like evangelical clergy and laity are being taken as fools by their own bishops. I worry too that the amendment will be used by bishops to justify kicking ‘visible differentiation’ into the long grass. But undoubtedly this amendment means the charge sheet above their heads has now been written in an even bigger font.
Some are certainly sceptical. Rev Dr. Stephen Noll was involved in defending orthodoxy in the Episcopal Church in America. Are we putting too much trust in this single clause? He fears here that at this point there is no interest in ‘debating further the theology underlying the matter’. For many the ‘dialogue’ is over and this is just about implementation now.
And when it seems that some have intentionally led the House of Bishops away from any sense of Synod-approved due process, it’s understandable to be concerned. If we haven’t been able to trust the process so far, why would we expect it to deliver us anything now? If the LLF concluding video was being filmed before the College of Bishops had even finalised their proposals, then it hardly lets us see clearly what the process is. Will Synod be given opportunity to comment or vote on these prayers – or will this be consigned to dreaded ‘group work’ again, with Synod’s ‘views heard’ – but only by being written on large sheets of paper, never to see the light of day.
And so, again, we are in a place where much of what is before us would seem to land with the House of Bishops. Perhaps those twenty-two bishops who voted for this amendment will be willing to ‘quantify’ their convictions by ensuring the actual form of the prayers and accompanying Pastoral Guidance end up looking radically different? Have they heard clearly enough the accusations of double-speak that echo loudly around their dioceses and 75% of the Anglican Communion?
There will be many who instinctively feel those orthodox bishops who voted for the overall motion were mistaken to do so. There will be many who would have wanted more individual or group statements from bishops expressing dissatisfaction with the overall proposals – perhaps a dissenting ‘minority report’ like Bishop Keith Sinclair’s ‘minority’ report as part of the Pilling report back in 2013.
And yet many of us recognise we do not understand the inner workings of the College of Bishops. We aren’t aware of the political wrangling that we hope is going on. We aren’t privy to the tactical manoeuvring that we’re led to believe all of this involves. There is a sense in which we are powerless.
This brings with it an inherent tension. Some of us want to trust and give benefit of the doubt. Some of us feel let down or hung out to dry. We are where we are. July is not yet upon us. But what will surely make a difference in the meantime is communication. Is there a ‘game plan’? Are allusions to ‘work behind the scenes’ just placating our needs? Why, if there is a plan, did four bishops feel the need to vote against the amended motion? They clearly weren’t convinced by the amendment. Please share with us.
And so we must pray for our bishops, for it would seem that only they can determine how this clause will function. A genuine foot in the door? A glaring charge sheet on the wall? Or merely a purge for episcopal consciences?