LLF at General Synod: Pyrrhic victory lessons from women bishops

Mon, 13/11/2023 - 11:41 -- James Oakley
General Synod of the Church of England

The General Synod of the Church of England meets from today (13th November 2023) until Wednesday 15th. The November session doesn't happen every year (often General Synod only meets in February and July), and has partly been scheduled this year to give space to debate the next stages of Living in Love and Faith, and Prayers in Love and Faith.

I won't recap the full background to where we are; some of it may be found in my previous post on this topic, entitled Prayers of Love and Faith: Bishops agree next steps to bring to Synod.

Today, I want to look back to the process by which women were admitted to the episcopate (so we have women as bishops), and to pick up one lesson from that process.

How women came to become bishops

Various discussion papers were published laying out the different theological views on women becoming bishops. The issue was then debated at every deanery and diocesan synod in the country, with the contours of discussion and the votes being fed back to the committees planning General Synod.

It became clear that a sticking point was how to admit women as bishops, whilst allowing those who believe this is not possible or permissable to be no less fully a part of the church, yet also whilst not suggesting women were somehow "less fully bishops" than their male counterparts.

The path was complex. An initial idea of "transferred episcopal oversight" morphed into "delegated episcopal oversight" to try and solve the impasse. The very fact the difference is not immediately clear shows how complex this had become.

So it came to a vote at General Synod, 21st November 2012. It required a vote "by houses" (where laity, clergy and bishops vote separately, and a two thirds majority is needed in each). The bishops voted 44 to 3 with 2 abstentions, 90% in favour. The clergy voted 148 to 45, 77% in favour. The laity voted 132 to 74, 64% in favour.

So it failed to pass, by a few votes in the house of laity. The question is why, and this was analysed deeply at the time.

I spoke to one member of the house of clergy, himself in favour of women bishops, who voted against. Remember it wasn't the house of clergy that sank the overall vote, and his view may not be representative of many in the chamber. He voted against because he felt the provisions for those who could not approve women bishops were not robust enough. He wanted to vote for women bishops, but only when he was persuaded those who did not agree would be properly cared for.

This brave man was an archdeacon at the time, and those in his diocese who campaigned for women bishops heaped the unkindest of abuse in his direction for months to come. He later was not re-elected to General Synod, I believe in part because of this history.

The provisions were adjusted. Something called the "5 Guiding Principles" were drawn up. And, on 14th July 2014, a revised vote passed, and women bishops became law.

Here's the irony: I actually believe the provisions for those who believe only men can or should be bishops are weaker than they would have been in the 2012 proposals.

Lessons for Living in Love and Faith

All of that is water under the bridge. We've had women bishops in the Church of England for nearly a decade now. But there is an important lesson to be learnt as General Synod gathers to vote on the latest proposals.

The current LLF proposals, as they stand, anger everyone. Those who believe marriage should be between one man and one woman feel they introduce prayers to bless something God does not bless, confusingly introduce same-sex marriage in all but name, and assert that none of this changes the Church of England's doctrine of marriage (when it clearly does). Those who believe marriage should be opened to any two people feel that this kicks the can down the road, and unreasonably delays introducing stand-alone services that call themselves marriage services for same-sex couples.

There is a reasonable chance that some votes to introduce change could fail at this week's General Synod session. But we need to look at why that might happen.

One diocesan bishop has written to his diocese thus:

"It seems to me essential that I should make clear my fundamental disagreement with what is to be proposed, as I do not believe it adequately honours and upholds the place of those who hold to the Church’s traditional teaching on issues of sexuality, as the Church of England has received and affirmed that hitherto."

I happen to believe this particular bishop believes marriage is for one man and one woman. He is not himself agitating for change. Given that, note why he does not agree: What is proposed does not honour and uphold the place of those who hold to the Church's traditional teaching. The parallel with the debates on women bishops becomes clear: His opposition is because those who don't agree with the innovation will not be protected, not because the change is wrong in and of itself.

This becomes clear as he also writes:

"I deeply regret the hurt and disappointment my decision will cause among members of the LGBTQ+ communities and their supporters in our Diocese. I want to assure you that I remain as committed as ever to finding a way forward that honours and affirms you and your place within the family of the Church."

He's feeling the pressure to be a politician: He anticipates those who will feel hurt by his stance, and wants to try to reassure them he's on their side too. But note how he does so. He's not committing to ensuring they will be cared for. It's bigger than that: Let's find "a way forward".

Opposing what's on the table in this way sows problems for later. If the grounds of your opposition are that the proposals are incoherent, clumsy or rushed, you have no reason to vote against a future proposal that is argued more carefully, is more polished, and has been developed over time. The problem is not the introduction of services of blessing for same-sex "married" couples, but the way it is done.

If there are enough people who feel this way, some of the proposals for change could fall at the November 2023 ballot. But what will happen if they do? Two things:

First, they'll come back at a later point, fine-tuned. As I've just explained, the rationale to vote against has vanished.

Second, those who wanted to see change will be angry that the vote failed. They'll be very angry. I noted above that those wanting change are already unhappy things aren't progressing faster. A delay at this Synod will turn that unhappiness into militant anger. That will see the next proposals come back with less sympathy for those who don't agree, less "niceness", more brashness, more impatience. And as a result, we may get proposals that are even worse than the ones we have now.

With women bishops, the 2012 vote against turned out to be a pyrrhic victory. That vote introduced sheer nastiness and spite into the debate, a determination to get change through no matter what the cost. If November 2023 sees votes fail, I believe the same thing will happen. What comes back will be even worse, will be fought for with the gloves off.

The answer, of course, is not to vote for the proposals on the table, as though these are the best we can hope for. The answer is to vote against them, but not for the reason that people will be upset. Vote against them, and speak against them, because they are wrong in and of themselves. They may still come back in a different guise. But you've set up your own position to ground continued opposition at that point. The more vicious, the more unaccommodating later proposals are for opponents of same-sex marriage, the more reason you have to continue to vote against those proposals. Rather than having fewer reasons to vote against them, because the reasons you gave have been changed, and because you received so much hate-mail after the last time.

Lastly, of course, we must pray. Our battle is not against flesh and blood. Those on General Synod must pray. And so must the rest of us, their friends, brothers and sisters, who are grateful they're serving in this costly and difficult way for the benefit of the whole church.

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