General Synod: humility and boldness needed

By Savi Hensman
July 6, 2013

Like many other church assemblies around this time, the Church of England General Synod in July 2013 faces several controversial and challenging issues. As Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recognised, both openness and boldness are needed.

The agenda includes moving forward on women bishops and responding to worsening poverty and social security cuts. Sexuality, while not yet the focus of debate, is also an important issue for the church, as a Bill to allow same-sex couples to marry passes through parliament.

Th Archbishop told delegates that “we live in a time of revolutions. And the trouble with revolutions is once they start no-one knows where they will go.” This did not apply just to countries like Egypt but also at home.

“The economic context and position of our country has changed, dramatically. With all parties committed to austerity for the foreseeable future, we have to recognise that the profound challenges of social need, food banks, credit injustice, gross differentiation of income – even in many areas of opportunity – pressure on all forms of state provision and spending: all these are here to stay,” he said.

He continued, “In and through the church we have the call and potentially the means to be the answer that God provides. As Pope Francis recalled so memorably, we are to be a poor church for the poor, however and wherever poverty is seen, materially or spiritually. That is a revolution. Being a poor church for the poor means both provision and also prophetic challenge in a country that is still able and has the resources to reduce inequality – especially inequality of opportunity and life expectancy.”

Yet, unless the institutional churches work with those in wider society who are already boldly campaigning for justice and caring for those in need, they are unlikely to be fully effective in championing those facing poverty.

Regarding discrimination on grounds of gender and sexual orientation, there was a welcome admission that the church was lagging behind and this undermined its moral credibility, though perhaps this did not go far enough.

“The cultural and political ground is changing. There is a revolution. Anyone who listened, as I did, to much of the Same Sex Marriage Bill Second Reading Debate in the House of Lords could not fail to be struck by the overwhelming change of cultural hinterland. Predictable attitudes were no longer there. The opposition to the Bill, which included me and many other bishops, was utterly overwhelmed,” Welby admitted.

Listening is vital: “some of what was said by those supporting the bill was uncomfortably close to the bone. Lord Alli said that 97 per cent of gay teenagers in this country report homophobic bullying. In the USA suicide as a result of such bullying is the principle cause of death of gay adolescents. One cannot sit and listen to that sort of reality without being appalled. We may or may not like it, but we must accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality, and we have not fully heard it.”

It was important not only to be appalled at anti-gay persecution in places like Iran but to act closer to home. He announced that church schools would crack down on homophobic stereotyping and bullying, a welcome announcement. Yet church leaders should go further in publicly acknowledging the strong theological case for celebrating committed same-sex partnerships and ending discrimination against those who are partnered.

“If we say we will ordain women as priests and Bishops we must do so in exactly the same way as we ordain men. If we say that all are welcome even when they disagree, they must be welcome in spirit, in deed, as well as in word,” the Archbishop urged.

In reality, if a small minority still regard discriminatory practices as basic to their faith, it is hard to avoid hurt to them if the church is to witness effectively to God’s love for all and gratefully receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Repeated efforts to cater to them at others’ expense have badly damaged the church’s credibility without satisfying their demands.

It is time for the Church of England to deepen its commitment to justice in all areas of life, controversial though this may sometimes be.

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She was written extensively on the theological and religious issues involved in debates about sexuality and marriage equality. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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