CofE’s General Synod skips latest vote on same-sex blessings

1 March 2024

Ben John, a lay member of the Church of England’s General Synod, on the latest developments in the church’s plans to bless same-sex relationships

In the latest debate on the plan for blessing same-sex relationships, the Church of England’s General Synod decided to end the debate and instead voted to move to ‘Next Business.’

The vote, supported by both the liberals, who want the church to bless sinful same-sex relationships, and the evangelicals, who want to preserve the church’s biblical teaching, essentially told the bishops to do more work and come back with something better next time.

What are we to make of this?

The motion being debated was:

‘That this Synod welcome the further work carried out on Living in Love and Faith and the focus on reconciliation and bridge building; and ask that the proposal for a set of commitments through which the whole Church can continue to pursue the implementation of the motions previously passed by Synod on Living in Love and Faith, be brought back to Synod as soon as possible.’

The debate began on Monday evening with the Bishop of Leicester, +Martyn Snow, introducing the motion with a greater emphasis on reconciliation. He pushed for a ‘reset’ of the LLF debate, echoing the vision he and the Bishop of Newcastle (who has subsequently resigned because an evangelical was appointed as a Theological Advisor to the House of Bishops) had proposed in the Church Times: “Living in love, faith – and reconciliation.”

‘Love Matters’?

The debate came the day after a debate on the Families Commission report, Love Matters. Much has been written on the very serious flaws in the report; for example, Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation wrote how it was “a capitulation to our times.”

An amendment by Synod lay member Dr Julie Maxwell was moved to emphasise the place of marriage and was rejected. The amendment was:

“reaffirm the value of marriage, especially when loving, as providing the most stable and permanent environment for bringing up children”

This amendment was accepted by the Bishop of Durham, who was bringing the overall motion about the Love Matters report to the Synod.[1] There were only two speeches in the debate on the amendment; the speech against it raised concerns about how the amendment would make those in broken homes and families feel.

The amendment was voted on by hands, with marginally more opposition than support. It was close enough for the chair to say “I think that is lost.” One Synod member therefore asked for a counted vote, which caused some upset and the Bishop of Manchester, who was against the amendment, shouted “if we’re going to play this game let’s have a counted vote by houses.”

A counted vote by houses means that a vote has to pass by the Bishops, Clergy and Laity separately, not collectively, therefore making it harder to be accepted. You can watch the vote here. When the Chair calls for the counted vote, you can hear the Bishop of Manchester.

When the counted vote by houses took place, the amendment was rejected in every house of the Synod. A majority of Clergy and Laity did not want the Synod to “reaffirm the value of marriage, especially when loving, as providing the most stable and permanent environment for bringing up children”, and the Bishops themselves couldn’t even decide, with 8 votes in favour and 8 against.

This was the backdrop going into the following day’s Living in Love and Faith debate.

Evangelical amendments

In the Living in Love and Faith debate there were a number of evangelical amendments that were proposed, two of which passed. The first replaced ‘welcome’ with ‘note’ and the second inserted after “bridge-building” ‘and welcome the greater emphasis on openness and transparency.

Significantly, Ed Shaw’s amendment to insert “and acknowledge that for many in the Church of England, including members of General Synod, some of the issues raised are not matters on which they can simply agree to disagree” was rejected. The Bishop of Leicester acknowledged that the amendment was a statement of fact, but did not want it included as it was would ‘foster a spirit of despair.’

It was put to the vote and it was rejected by Synod, but only by a slim, but only by a slim margin: 47% in favour, 53% against. This exposed the depth of disagreement in the Synod. In a written question ahead of the Synod, the Bishop of Leicester had acknowledged that “There is currently not agreement about what type or level of disagreement we are actually having, which contributes to difficulties in mapping out a way forward.”

Ed Shaw’s amendment sought to help identify the depth of disagreement, but the rejection of the amendment just seemed to prove the point.

Additionally, Rev. Charlie Skrine, Rector at All Souls Langham Place, proposed replacing the proposal that was in the motion with one that asked for “proposals for a set of commitments together with a settlement based on legally secure structural provision.”

This is currently the main strategy of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), which is trying to find a structural settlement to try and safeguard evangelical Anglicanism within the Church of England. Rev. Canon John Dunnett, the National Director of the CEEC, said following the debate that “we continue to call for a legal and structural settlement without theological compromise, which we believe is the only way forward.”

Move to next business

Before the final amendment could be debated, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, a liberal archdeacon, proposed a motion to move to next business. This was overwhelmingly supported when put to the vote as evangelicals supported the motion.

What does this mean?

A move to next business can be interpreted in different ways and it is not entirely clear whether there is an objective way to evaluate it. Unlike, say, a motion that is rejected by a final vote, a move to next business can mean whatever you want it to mean.

Legally, a move to next business means that the question being debated cannot be reconsidered “in the same form or in a form which is, in the opinion of the Business Committee, substantially similar within the remainder of the lifetime of the Synod, except with the permission of the Business Committee and the general consent of the Synod.” [Standing Order 33.4.b]

This means, at a minimum, that the ‘set of commitments’ referred to in the original motion and which are outlined in the paper given to Synod cannot be brought back to Synod until after the next General Synod elections (in 2026).

This does not, however, mean that Living in Love and Faith cannot be brought back to Synod.

The Church Times interpreted the move as “a recognition that that there were many on both sides of the debate who felt that they would be better served by moving on to other discussions, and returning to LLF in July after further work had been done.”

In the CEEC statement, John Dunnett said that:

The decision taken by General Synod to move to next business [before the end of the debate] is demonstrative of widespread dissatisfaction with how the bishops have been progressing the LLF process. The one thing that Synod could largely agree on was that neither side could support the proposals that would emanate from the motion, as tabled at Synod. We believe that GS2346, as presented at Synod, is riddled with confusion and ambiguity, contains proposals we could never support, and outlines inadequate structural provision.

Significantly, the move to next business is also evidence that we cannot ‘square the circle’ in the debate, as currently framed. This issue is not adiaphora – we cannot agree to disagree.

The vote could perhaps be summarised as “we want the Bishop of Leicester to go away and do more work and give us something more substantial [whatever that means] before bringing it to Synod to be voted on.”

You can read a detailed summary of the debate and speeches here.

Where to next?

The Bishop of Leicester has interpreted the debate and the vote to move to next business as meaning that there is a “clear mandate that the direction of travel is right.” He has promised to work on “firm proposals for a settlement to enable the Church of England to move forward together amid deep differences on question of sexuality and marriage … over the next few months.”

Commenting on the debate itself, the bishop said “We’ve had an opportunity for an open, thoughtful – and gracious – debate about how we might move forward together as a church in the next stage of the implementing our decisions on Living in Love and Faith and the work of reconciliation amid our divisions.”

The push now from the CEEC is for a structural settlement, whilst liberals want the introduction of standalone same-sex blessings (which the Synod paper accompanying the debate highlight will be legally difficult to bring in).

Many have lamented that we are stuck in a dead end and that we need something big for liberals and evangelicals to be able to agree on a path forward.

I personally don’t mind a dead end.

If we are in a dead end, that means there won’t be further liberalisation. The issue is whether we have moved far enough from orthodoxy to warrant serious measures (such as the alternative spiritual oversight and reallocation of funds advocated by the CEEC).

Personally, yes. I think we do need to make use of these alternatives, but I am struggling to support a path that allows liberals to do what they want to do. I cannot bring myself to support a structural settlement that gives liberals autonomy to pursue gay marriage and who-knows-what.

We are in a tricky situation, because if we hold out and don’t have structural separation then evangelicals will just wither – who will ordain ordinands if we do not have separate bishops or structures? What happens when evangelicals retire and bishops replace them with liberals?

These are big questions. Perhaps I am naïve in thinking we can hold out. At a minimum, I am happy that we have pushed back any vote or decision to July. That slows down the decline by at least a few months.

[1] When an amendment is accepted, it means that it goes straight to a debate on the amendment. If an amendment is rejected then 25 synod members need to stand in order for there to be a debate on the amendment. Generally, if the proposer of the motion accepts an amendment it is much more likely to pass when it is voted on.

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