Was General Synod a Victory?
Dr Martin Davie, a well respected commentator on all things Anglican. has penned a blog reasoning that:
“Viewed objectively, the motion passed by the General Synod was a victory for traditionalist Anglicans in the Church of England. However, the way that the significance of the vote has been understood, or rather misunderstood (including by traditionalist Anglicans), runs the danger of converting this victory into a defeat.”
This blog suggests there are at least four reasons for examining this narrative of ‘victory'
First, it was just a motion.
General Synod passes motions all the time and they have no legal significance, and frequently very little significance at all. In fact just a few hours after the vote-everyone-is-talking-about General Synod passed a motion calling, “on Her Majesty’s Government to exempt charities, including churches, from liability for Insurance Premium Tax.” There was no need for a counted vote – the support was almost universal. But it’s up to the government whether they listen or not - just as it is up to the bishops whether or not they listen to the thoughts of Synod about “Prayers of Love and Faith”.
A motion, unlike a Measure cannot be treated as “black letter” law but rather as reflective of the mind of a particular Synod, at a particular time, in a particular debate.
As the Archbishop of Canterbury told the Press at the Anglican Consultative Council, “The Church of England passing the resolutions it passed last week doesn’t bind anyone else, not even the Church of England at the moment. Only the Church of England is capable of having a two day debate on a complicated matter and rejecting 31 out of 32 amendments and still not having decided anything.” The “at the moment” is an oddity- the motion will never “bind” anyone individually or any Synod collectively. It can only anticipate a time when the proposed prayers will be “binding”- which means revisions of the Prayer Book.
Second, GS2899 speaks of a “generous interpretation of doctrine.”
Davie bases much of his argument on clause (g), which endorses the decision of the bishops, “not to propose any change to the doctrine of marriage, and their intention 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.”
To evangelical ears this may sound cut and dry but in fact it does not constrain the bishops to hold to any particular interpretation of the doctrine of marriage.
Faithful Anglicans may have been teaching, in line with the House of Bishops' statement in 1999, that “Sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively,” but that is not the only way the doctrine of marriage has been interpreted in recent years.
By 2014, the Bishops’ teaching on marriage had become less explicit – the only mention of ‘abstinence for those who are not called to marriage’ was in a partial quote from Lambeth I.10 – which as we now know from the 2022 Lambeth Conference - the Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledges “exists” but is not binding on any particular province.
In 2023, the Bishops’ proposals acknowledge that “couples inhabit their relationships differently” and that there are different views within the House of Bishops:
“Many would say that when two people aspire to be faithful to one another and fruitful in their service of others and of God, these ‘goods’ of relationships are worth recognising and celebrating. The prayers offered here are an attempt to respond by celebrating what is good and asking God to fill these relationships so they can grow in holiness. Others may question such an approach and would wish to reinforce what they understand to be the Church’s teaching about sexual intimacy and marriage for all cultures and contexts.”
This may be why the House of Bishops were happy to affirm the doctrine of Holy Matrimony, but were not willing to commend Andrew Cornes’ second amendment that linked Holy Matrimony to the sex by asking that the Prayers of Love and Faith should “include instructions making it clear that they should not be used so as to indicate or imply affirmation of sexually active relationships outside Holy Matrimony or to invoke God’s blessing on such relationships.”
As the Bishops say in GS 2289 – “It is important to create a generous space for one another’s consciences.”
Third, the bishops do not need General Synod’s approval for what they have proposed.
Some may want to say, with Davie, that the Bishops are still in some way accountable to Synod as a result of clause (g).
This is, sadly, not the case. The bishops were clear that both the group work and the motion at General Synod were an opportunity for them to hear the views of the clergy and laity before they finalised the Pastoral Guidance and the Prayers of Love and Faith.
The House of Bishops contested and voted against any idea that Synod would vote on the proposals at a future date.
The Bishop of London was clear that there would be no vote in July on the prayers (and it is hard to see how that would be practicable) and that the Pastoral Guidance would only be submitted to further group work. The latter on the basis that it was the best way of ensuring that the most “voices” were “heard”.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, there was no dissenting statement to GS2899
The bishops have unanimously agreed that they, “want to continue walking together, bearing with one another in love. By being honest about our own disagreements and through a gracious interpretation of doctrine, we will honour the reality of our differences within the Church of England, across the Anglican Communion, and among ecumenical partners. We hope to model this by providing prayers that bear a nuanced variety of understandings.”
This is clearly seen in the latest video from the Church of England – Moving Forward.
Without one or more bishops stating the contrary, the effect of this is that every bishop in the Church of England has accepted that blessing couples indulging in sexual immorality – whether heterosexual or homosexual – is adiaphora. Which is to say it is a matter that can legitimately be disagreed upon – not something which, like any other persistent and celebrated sin, can separate us from the love of God.
That is the real issue.
General Synod may have spoken – in a cacophony of conflicting voices. But now it is down to the bishops who are very much in the last chance saloon:
Will they now heed the call of the majority of the Anglican Communion to repent of this false teaching?
Will they, even at this stage, tear up the Prayers of Love and Faith and call all – laity and clergy – to repent of sexual immorality?
Will just one brave diocesan step aside from the crowd and say, "No. I cannot walk together. I cannot allow the use of these prayers in my diocese - they are contrary to the Word of God and the doctrine of the church, and I will discipline those who use them"?
Or will they proceed headlong down the path that prizes institutional unity more than the eternal destiny of each and every person in our society?
Such is the gravity of the situation it is only right to be frank.
If there is no repentance by the bishops– they have shown their hearts – and forfeited their position as shepherds of God’s people. And then it matters not a jot if a Judicial Review or the Ecclesiastical Court reigns them in.
It is hard, very hard but it is critical,
“If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point."
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Table taken from Reform Newsletter November 2014