Earlier this week the General Synod (think church parliament) of the Church of England voted ‘not to take note’ of a report prepared by the College/House of Bishops (think: group of leaders) about human sexuality. It failed on the popular vote, but won due to the technical structure of Synod as they voted in houses. In this way, it is arguably quite similar to Donald Trump’s American Presidential Election victory. Those claiming it as a victory must recognise that ‘they’ ‘won’ on a technicality, rather than in terms of actual numbers. It is fascinating to see how systems produce results, but that isn’t what this blog post is about.
This blog post, in a simple, flawed and fallen way, is hopefully about truth, and how we talk to and around and about each other as human beings.
As I watched the livestream at work (after finishing work, I hasten to add!), I was struck by the uncharacteristic honesty many speakers in the debate before the vote had. I was also struck by the range of ways in which different people completely missed what the other was saying. I reproduce below some tweets, literally posted seconds from each other, which demonstrated the level of dissonance amongst people part of the same governing body:
We hear a lot at the moment about ‘Alternative Facts’, the notion that we live in a ‘post Truth’ society’, and what I would call the death of nuance. These three above, publicly viewable tweets on #Synod, show the depth of disagreement and how people hear very differently what other people say. This, perhaps, explains in some sense how the Church of England has ended up where it is, and why Synod narrowly voted not to ‘take note’ of the report.
I am not, at present, an Anglican in terms of being a communicant member of the Church of England. I am however a Christian and a human and someone who is a part of the church in England. And this matters for all those of us, Anglican or not, who wish to point people toward the kingdom of God as we live and speak for Jesus, in this country and any country.
It matters because the structure is based on a way of understanding people that I would argue fundamentally unbiblical. The division into ‘houses’ had an impact on the result – and yet it came before the same Synod discussed a fascinating, encouraging report about mobilising the laity. As Setting God’s People Free notes; “As a ‘royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9), we are summoned – clergy and laity alike – through our baptism to a common vocation of divine blessing that originates in Jesus Christ“. I think the biblical story moves towards abolishing the divide, and emphasising that, with the radical Reformation principle of the Priesthood of All Believers, that all those in Christ are priests. There is no house divided.
It matters because the conversation around sex in our culture is so broken. And Christians have a Better Story to tell, not just about sex but about reality, about God, and about each other.
It matters because even in broken systems the light of the Gospel, the ‘now’ of the kingdom of God was breaking in to the not yet of our now. Deaf people spoke and were heard – a miracle of technology echoing both the possibility of healing and the gift of technology. People who many in our culture would say cannot exist (people who are thriving without romantic or sexual relationships) spoke and were heard. The gospel was preached and repentance was spoken about. There was a notable tone of honesty – even if many were being honest about the difficult and disagreement the Church of England faces.
I’ve written before about how some people are disingenuous in this debate. I was struck by the way that many on Twitter misquoted a bible verse, wildly out of context.
Last year, in the exhausting US Presidential Elections, former First Lady Michelle Obama challenged folk to go high when opponents/others go low. My friend Ian Paul has written powerfully about how he understands what is going on in Synod, reflecting on Genesis 32. Twitter was filled with people tweeting, often wrongly credited as Genesis 32:6, the bold and brilliant words of Genesis 32:26:
Taking words directed to God and redirecting them to a human is a dangerous game. It is literally the lowering of language, taking something meant vertically and turning it horizontally. Jacob, it turned out, was addressing God. He was going high, to the highest authority.
“[the] process of atomisation, isolation and decontextualisation is writ large all over the argument for change in the Church’s teaching, and it is why the debate is about so much more than just sex and marriage. It is about whether we will allow God to speak to us by his Spirit through the pages of Scripture, and in so speaking will form us in the likeness of Christ.“
I hope readers of this blog will ‘take note’ of the questions raised about truth, disagreement, unity, and becoming more like Jesus. Questions that, in a sexualised culture, every follower of Jesus needs to think about.