When I attended a selection conference for ordination, it must have been 1988 or 89, two exercises struck me as particularly significant. It is a long time ago so I may have remembered the details slightly inaccurately. One was to write a letter to a grieving parent whose child had died and had been told by a Christian friend that it was the ‘will of God’. In another activity I had to chair a short debate between several of the candidates on the topic ‘Do cats have souls?’.
My own doctrinal position on both of these issues has not altered since then: God never ‘chooses’ the death of a child; cats do not have immortal souls.
However, after some ridiculing by the group of the very idea that cats might have souls I suggested that for someone whose relationship to their cat was the most significant relationship of their life, prayers with them after the death of the cat might well be appropriate. Certainly more so than a lecture on the lack of souls in cats.
Words are powerful. They can transform and convert. Words have the power to repel and attract, to destroy and to build up.
My despair – and it is close to that – with the House of Bishops’ report before the General Synod this week is that they seem to have forgotten the power of words. I do not despair that they cannot suggest any change in the teaching of the church. A desire for Christian unity is deep within my psyche. I do not despair that they cannot even suggest liturgies and prayers for same-sex couples. I do not despair of these because that is not what I expected the outcome to be. However, I did expect the change of tone that they call for, I did expect repentance and I did expect greater generosity and I welcome the call for maximum freedom. However, the first place to demonstrate, to model that change of tone for all of us is in this very report and the bishops fall at the first fence.
The bishops’ report could have been written to say exactly what it does say about same-sex relationships and the place of LGBTI people in the church but with true humility, grief at hurt caused, concern for those hurt and repentance at past failures, rejoicing that LGBTI people seek a place in the church and serve it already faithfully. It fails to do any of these things adequately.
Is it really possible that people ordained to pastoral ministry could not have seen that the report would cause the anguish, the howls of despair that it has? My inbox alone bears testimony to the anguish of many who serve the church faithfully and sacrificially.
There have been a series of statements from a number of bishops this week urging Synod members to ‘take note’ of the report. The best is by the Bishop of Chichester who gets to the heart of the matter. Bishop Martin writes, from a position of total orthodoxy:
“Those who … choose self-description as LGBTI+, must hear us say, “God made you and loves you and so do we”.
It is abundantly clear that LGBTI people do not hear the bishops say this and that the report does not convey this. It is not enough to say that the report is provisional. It is what is being said now, at this moment. It is what just a few weeks ago the bishops saw fit to be their words on the matter.
I will listen carefully to the debate. I am open to be convinced that the Synod should ‘take note’ of it. But at the moment I don’t think it should. I don’t think it should because taking note would send a powerful signal to LGBTI people that the language, the tone of this terrible interim document is acceptable in the church. It is not.
An equally powerful message would be sent by not taking note, that signal would be a real repentance, a real message of ‘we need to do better’ and we can do better, without changing doctrine.
The admission by the Bishop of Norwich that he didn’t know the commonly accepted definition of homophobia is another example of the problem. There is wonderful diversity training available, there is great work done on Restorative Justice. Many people are available who could have helped the bishops draft a better report.
All encounters between people of deeply opposing views are fraught with danger, all place us at our most exposed our most vulnerable, they demand the greatest sensitivity. We can do better than this report. I urge synod to send a message that we will do better, so that that LGBT people can hear those words:
“God made you and loves you and so do we”.
A final note on this from the Bishop of Worcester’s statement today. He is a godly, holy man; this is not in any way a criticism of him personally. His statement is not bad but he uses an unfortunate phrase ‘category error’.
Which person wants to think of the most intimate and precious relationship of their lives as a ‘category error’?
I know exactly what he means in a logical sense, he is simply using a phrase that sums up what he says in other ways in the statement: that same-sex relationships seem to him somehow something other than, different to Christian marriage. This is a perfectly logical position. But it lacks pastoral care. It has already been seized on by many as hurtful and uncaring. Surely the comms staff looked at the statement? Surely someone should have taken that out? Surely he showed some lesbian or gay friend the statement and they said ‘take out that phrase’? Which person wants to think of the most intimate and precious relationship of their lives as a ‘category error’?
To characterise the reaction of many to this report as simply to be about doctrine is a diversionary tactic. It is not what most people expected or hoped for. What is wrong with the bishops’ statement is the language and the tone. To take note of this report would be a true category error because the report does not do what it claims to do, it does not change the tone, it is not more generous.
What would Jesus do? Synod members have a choice. We know that there is no possibility of accepting equal marriage or authorising new liturgies. The choice is simple:
Is the message you send to LGBTI people that the language of the report is appropriate or do you want to refuse to take note of this report and therefore send this simple message to LGBTI people:
“God made you and loves you and so do we”.