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'No change on same-sex issues but lots of fireworks' - priest's view on next five years at C of E General Synod

by Donna Birrell

The Church of England is unlikely to be able to make significant changes to its stance on sexuality as a result of the latest elections to its General Synod, according to a priest in the Diocese of Canterbury. 

Conservatives on marriage and sexual ethics held their electoral ground, making up around 40 per cent of seats in the House of Clergy and 37 per cent in the House of Laity. 

Reverend Peter Ould, who is also a consultant statistician, told Premier about what this could mean over the next five year term of the Synod:  (the terms Orthodox and Revisionist refer to the member's position on blessing same-sex unions ) 

"What's been really interesting this year is because two main lobby groups representing the Orthodox interpretation on sex, human sexuality, and very Revisionist interpretation, have both put up slates of candidates and lobbied very hard on behalf of them. It's basically as close as we've got to a party system like we know in Westminster, in the Church of England. 

"The Orthodox have done particularly well. They've picked up around 40 per cent of the seats in the House of Clergy, because the Synod is made up of three houses, the bishops, the clergy, and the laity and about 37 per cent of the seats in the House of Laity. That's a lot better than a lot of people expected on both sides of the debate. The primary result of that is that there is a blocking minority in both houses of clergy and laity to stop any major change in doctrine or new liturgy that would essentially formalise any form of same sex blessings. 

"In the Church of England, any doctrinal change, any authorised liturgy has to meet a two thirds majority in each of the houses. And there are enough orthodox traditionalist votes in both the House of Clergy and the House of Laity to stop that happening. And that will fundamentally affect the politics of the next five years in General Synod."

At the end of August, the Church in Wales voted to allow services of blessing for same-sex couples, and it's believed a similar proposal could go before the Synod within the next two years. 
"It's going to be really interesting. We're coming to the end of the 'Living in Love and Faith' process, which is this kind of document that was published by the bishops a year ago. We've got another four to six months or so for dioceses and parishes to do the course and talk about it and feed back up into the system. Then there will have to be some kind of vote.

"But there is now a blocking minority for any formal changes in doctrine. For example, in order to say that same sex marriage was a valid marriage, theologically, we're going to have to change some of the canons of the Church of England and that just can't be done with the Orthodox blocking minority."

Rev Ould says the Bishops might seek to commend liturgy for exploration in this event, although this would be difficult:

"As a briefing document produced by the House of Bishops themselves a few years ago noted, you would need to have pretty much a large part of the church with you for doing that, even if you weren't going to bypass the Synod. With four out of ten of the clergy in Synod being opposed to same sex blessings, it would be a pretty bold move of the House of Bishops to commend something and try to bypass Synod with such a large block opposed to it. 

"It could be that those who are Revisionists might want to push forward with some kind of legislation - some kind of Senate vote- the danger there is that once we have that vote, that's it. So the danger for the Revisionists now is that they put forward some kind of motion which they then lose and then everything that they want to do is dead in the water. It will push the whole human sexuality thing onto one side and we will start to talk about all the other things that are concerning, like climate change, like the financing of the church, all those kinds of things, which are also very important on the agenda. 

"There's some very tricky politics about to come up in the church, some people are going to have to make some real compromises. I think this whole kind of narrative that the liberals are moving forward in the church, that it's only a matter of time… the last week has really changed that. We are in a position where there are a substantial group of Orthodox evangelicals, Anglo Catholics, who are opposed to change, and it can't happen in any substantive matter.

"There has been a small but significant stream of orthodox clergy who have left the Church of England over the past few years, bemoaning the liberal drift, and arguing that innovations like same-sex blessings are a foregone conclusion. The election results prove such a position to be incorrect.

"My suspicion is that we won't see any change. But we might see lots of fireworks. It's going to be really interesting to watch."

The General Synod of the Church of England is made up of three Houses, Clergy, Laity and Bishops and comprises 467 members in total.

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