“You never listen to me.” “He never listens.” Have you ever used one of these phrases? Has someone ever spoken to you that way? These words slip out when I am angry or frustrated, but do I really mean what I say?
I feel the need to write to you about the recent reports in the news about the Church of England’s debates on “Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations.” Media reports have been unclear and biased, which leaves us all feeling confused. I hope to make things clearer in this letter.
Before we think about what happened, we need to know how the Church of England is governed. The Church of England is governed by synod. Laws and policies are debated and voted on at synod. There are four levels of synod: General Synod, Diocesan Synod, Deanery Synod and Parochial Church Councils (PCC). The debate which was reported in the news took place at General Synod, our highest level of church government.
Over the past 20 years there have been lots of arguments in General Synod about the law of God on marriage between two people of the same sex. Three years ago, the Bishops tried to stop the arguments by starting a process called “shared conversations”. Every Diocesan Bishop selected a group clergy and members of congregations to speak to each other about their feelings, beliefs and experiences of same-sex attraction and practice. The House of Bishops then wrote a report on the outcome of the process and it was this report which was debated in synod.
The report states that the Church of England will not change its beliefs about marriage, which come from the bible, where God reveals to us his model for marriage; which is the faithful, lifelong, loving, sexual union between a man and a woman. The report also states that all people are affected by the Fall and so our sexual relationships and attraction are faulty, resulting in all sorts of behaviour which falls short of God’s purpose for marriage.
The bishops have accepted that we have failed as a church to offer proper pastoral and relational care in areas of sexual brokenness and sin. There has been too much argument about what is right and wrong, and not enough compassion and grace. As a result, we have been too embarrassed or ashamed to open up and take off our masks, not just about same-sex relationships, but lots of other areas too: the pain which marriage can cause; the difficulties of singleness; the emotional problems which arise later in life from sex before marriage; different kinds of sexual addiction; the aftermath of sexual abuse. In effect, we have failed to heal the wounds of sin because we argue too much about the law of God and this needs to change.
The report is good, but not perfect and so people voted for or against the report for a variety of reasons. Some members of General Synod were encouraged but thought the report was unclear whilst others, who want the church to bless gay or lesbian relationships and revise the bible’s teaching on marriage, don’t believe that the bishops listened.
Bishop Julian Henderson spoke about the difference between being heard and agreeing with each other. When I say “You never listen” what I can mean is “why don’t you agree with me?” The report disagrees with the proposal to allow same-sex marriage but this does not mean that the bishops have not listened.
Second, there is more than one voice to listen to. The voice which calls for same-sex marriage is different to God’s voice in his word. There are also the very different voices of same-sex attracted but celibate Christians and the voice of Christians from other cultures around the world. The bishops have listened to many different voices and reported on their conclusions.
Synod then voted according to house. The House of Bishops almost unanimously supported the measure. The House of laity voted to accept it, but the House of Clergy voted against the Bishops’ report. The debate and the vote revealed a deep divide in the Church of England.
Where does this leave us and what is God doing?
First, we need healing and unity. Jesus said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Second, nothing will change. Marriage in the Church of England is going to remain between a man and a woman and we can give thanks for this result. As Christians we are all called to humble and joyful submission to the will of God revealed in his word. We must stop arguing about the law of God on marriage (Titus 3:9).
Third, everything should change. When we stop arguing and stand beneath the healing streams which flow from the cross of Christ, everything will change. As we open ourselves to the grace and forgiveness of Christ, He will create for us a culture of openness, honesty and vulnerability. We will then be truly free to seek healing and cleansing from the sins of our past and the sexual brokenness which affects us all each day.
The Apostle Peter writes, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”
Brothers and sisters, will you pray with me for the unity, purity and sincere brotherly love which flow from the living word and from the cross of Christ, so that we might be an attractive church in a sexually broken world?
With love, Neil