I’m in Edinburgh at the moment, at the last day of the General Synod 2013 of the Scottish Episcopal Church. This is the voting body of the Church, represented by the bishops and by elected members of the clergy and the laity, and it is the place where the business of the Church is done.
One of the items of business up for discussion on Friday morning was the question of establishing a design group which will create a process by which the Church will discuss same-sex relationships in a manner and with a timescale that could not be any woolier if it had been presented on the needles of the Synod knitter.
It is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds.
I wanted to try to define exactly what we were talking about.
It’s a wonderful word, “relationship” — covers all kinds of sins and indeed all kinds of sacraments. It is also, when trying to talk about a process such as this one, an unhelpfully vague word. The Bishop of Brechin in his introduction to this item talked about the Church trying to find a way of discussing the undiscussable, and it is, I think, the fact that some people consider it undiscussable that lead to us using woolly terms like “relationship”. So, what are we talking about? Are we talking about equal marriage? Are we talking about pastoral responses to same-sex couples? Are we talking about how the Church respond to people who happen to be LGBT and live within its congregations?
I didn’t really get an answer to that.
And I also wanted to clarify exactly what we aren’t talking about, and specifically I wanted to clarify whether we could take it as read that the Anglican Moratorium on the ordination of individuals living in same-sex relationships as Bishops was no longer the policy of the Scottish Episcopal Church and that therefore that particular question would not need to be part of whatever the design group ends up designing.
A little bit of history — a little bit of history that I got knotted up in when I spoke about this on Friday morning and I do thank those who set me right about this part. The Anglican Moratoria were created by the Primates of the Anglican Communion in February 2009 (in Alexandria, not in Dar es Salaam) as part of a longer document called Deeper Communion: Gracious Restraint and were signed up to by the College of Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church in March 2009. They effectively acted as bans on the Church authorising a formal liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions and electing as Bishop an individual who happened to be in a relationship with someone of the same sex (I note that Bishop David specified when he was responding to me that that moratorium was on a long-term same-sex relationship, and I could make a sarcastic point here about casual sex evidently being just fine). And it’s all Gene Robinson’s fault, is the implication in that moratorium. Then, later in the same year, the Anglican Communion was presented with the Anglican Covenant for its consideration. It has never been entirely clear to me nor I suspect to a lot of people what the relationship was between the Covenant and the Moratoria. But there certainly seems to have been a relationship, and, as General Synod resoundingly voted last year to opt out of the Anglican Covenant, my presumption, which I was prepared to be told was a faulty one, was that this Province had also ceased to observe the Anglican Moratoria.
The answer was a wonderful treatise from the Primus on the nature of the Anglican Communion and a view that we have no idea what the status of the moratoria really are, that the authority for them is slowly ebbing away, that they are not a major factor in the way we live… The point was made that Justin Welby made no reference to the moratoria when he said earlier this year that ordained men in civil partnerships could be consecrated as bishops (just so long as those men don’t actually have sex with their civil partners). And that is all very pleasant and uncontroversial and may well be very true, but it is again woolier than the Synod knitter’s knitting and it doesn’t really answer the question.
An attempt by Kelvin Holdsworth later in the proceedings to clarify that answer resulted in it becoming even less clear.
There comes a point when this begins to look like an obfuscation made in order to avoid saying the difficult thing.
It is interesting to me that in every conversation I’ve had on this subject in the last 24 hours, and I’ve had a lot, the person I have been talking to, whether they have been evangelical or high Anglican, whether they have subscribed to traditional theology or liberation theology, whether they have been clergy or laity, every single one of them has said that they would have welcomed a straight answer. They have said that even if they hadn’t liked the content of the answer, they would have preferred having one to not having one. Because this is something about which it is important that we know where we as a Church stand.
For the avoidance of doubt, the question I was asking was not a hypothetical one about the nature of the Anglican Communion or about the natural evolution of the Anglican Moratoria or about anything like that. The question I was asking was a practical one about Church employment policy. The question I was asking was, if a vacancy arises in the College of Bishops tomorrow, whether through retirement or through someone being hit by a bus, will the Church accept the nomination of an otherwise qualified person who happens to be in a same-sex relationship and will that nomination then proceed on the same footing as those of people who happen to not be?
It is not a hypothetical question. It is not an academic question. It is not a woolly question.
It is a very straightforward question that should have a yes or a no answer, and I don’t think that that answer has been heard yet.