by Dr Meg Warner, Theologian, Lecturer and Member of General Synod
In the most moving session of the recent meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England (York, 7-11 July) a survivor of church-related sexual abuse spoke about her experience of reporting the abuse, about the support organisation to which she had turned for care and advice (see details below), and about her more recent work with that same support organisation, helping others who have been sexually abused by clergy. Her presentation was engaging, challenging, and harrowing.
In his introduction to the debate that followed the Bishop of Bath of Wells noted that the final report of IICSA on the handling of sexual abuse claims in a number of institutions including the Church of England was not due to be delivered until 2020. Nevertheless, he said, improving the experience of those survivors of church-related sexual abuse who were brave enough to report their abuse was so urgent that synod ought not to wait, but should begin to take action immediately.
The synod went on to vote overwhelmingly in favour of the motion before it, endorsing priorities for action and calling on the House of Bishops and Archbishops’ Council ‘to ensure that the plan of action is implemented as a matter of priority’.
Here was a good example of synod in action. The bishops and the business committee brought a matter before synod, synod listened and voted.
This debate, however, and particularly the Bishop of Bath Wells’ comments about the 2020 IICSA report, threw into sharp relief the decision of Business Committee (no doubt supported by the House of Bishops) that the topic of human sexuality will not be included in the agenda of synod before the Episcopal Teaching Document (recently titled ‘Living in Love and Faith: Christian Teaching and Learning about Human Identity, Sexuality and Marriage’) is published in – wait for it – 2020.
This decision was made despite the fact that more than one Private Members Motion on the subject has attracted the requisite number of signatures to be presented to the synod for debate. It was made despite the fact that provisional synod dates for November that have been in synod members’ diaries for months have been declared unnecessary. It was made despite the fact that the House of Bishops has decided to take no action on the clear request of synod in July 2017 that they sponsor the development of liturgy for welcoming trans people. It was also made despite the fact that this current synod will be prorogued following the July 2020 synod and a new synod, many members of which will not have participated in this synod’s shared conversations, will be formed in November.
LGBTI+ Christians are hurting, and the response of the church has often, if anything, added to their injury. It is absolutely the case that the need of survivors of clergy sexual abuse is urgent, but the need of LGBTI+ Christians is urgent too. By 2020 many more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and otherwise queer Christians, many of them young, will have left the Church of England. Some of them will have self-harmed or committed suicide because their church tells them that their identity is unacceptable to God.
Nevertheless, the business committee will not bring this matter before synod before 2020. The synod will have no further opportunity to listen, and nor will it be seen to be listening.
The House of Bishops and the business committee have either not learned the lesson of the synod’s snub of the House of Bishops in its rejection of February 2017’s take-note debate, or they have learned it only too well, and reasoned that it is not safe to allow the synod to get its hand on this particular subject.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that synod is being very, very carefully managed, so as not to allow it to get too close to controversial issues. These are being deftly kicked into the long grass or, as one synod member put it during the business agenda debate at the beginning of synod, kicked like a can along a road. Either way, synod is not being let loose on them.
General Synod, at its best, is a dynamic and responsible decision maker. We saw that in this synod with a spirited debate on the relative merits of engagement with and disinvestment from energy companies. The Diocese of Oxford had campaigned widely prior to synod, and won much support for its proposed amendment in favour of disinvestment. Synod, however, heard an extraordinary and compelling account of the success of the NIBs and the Ethical Investment Advisory Group in their engagement strategy, so that even before the conclusion of the unusually strong speeches it became apparent to most that many synod members had changed their minds and that the amendment would fail, as it did decisively.
In the investment debate, and even more so in the safeguarding debate, we saw the power of stories to change hearts and minds, especially where the lives of vulnerable people are at stake. The stories of LGBTI+ people will not be heard again by this synod. More’s the pity.