Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Synodical Transitions

‘This Synod was the most dispiriting I’ve ever been to,’ an old clerical hand told me the other day. ‘I’ve never felt so marginalised and demoralised. Everybody now speaks a language I don’t, and can’t, and yet it’s a language you have to speak if you want to be heard’ – the language of managerial control, targets and achievement. When I mentioned to S.D. my issues with some of the statements of our diocesan bishop, his answer was, ‘Oh, all the bishops are saying things like that. They’ve been on a course.’

In other news, General Synod was keen to edge the Church closer to where it thinks the ‘modern world’ is. The move to allow ‘full funeral services’ to be offered for those who have taken their own lives was, like ‘allowing’ clergy to lead worship in everyday clothes, another bit of shadowboxing, because nobody has been denying them for quite some time. It’s true that the funeral service of the Book of Common Prayer was ‘not to be used for them that have laid violent hands upon themselves’, but in my twelve years of ministry I have never once used the Prayer Book funeral service and don’t know anyone who has.

The much-heralded call for ‘sexual orientation conversion therapy’ to be banned is, again, less radical than it looks as such programmes weren’t exactly prominent in the Church of England anyway, although they do tend to be associated with conservative Christian circles. It’s more like a statement of a desire to be nice to homosexual people, a statement to which said conservative Christians reacted predictably. Equally, the reports that the Church was about to ‘offer special services for transgender people’ were over the top: all that the Synod did was to pass a motion which called on the bishops, a background paper put it, to ‘consider providing liturgical materials … to provide a pastoral response to the need of transgender people to be affirmed’.

Synod is always an opportunity for conservative evangelicals to showcase their ideological purity. They’d started even before it began, by threatening to walk out over the presence of the Bishop of Edinburgh (the Scottish Episcopal Church is about to begin marrying same-sex couples), and carried on complaining, tabling a whole raft of motions which they knew weren’t going to be passed thus enabling them to write angry blog posts about how their opinions were being rejected. It’s all par for the course now, a bit like the Orangemen who stand around the lock-up in the middle of Walsingham and denounce the Virgin Mary as the statue gets carried past on the National Pilgrimage day. People would be more shocked if it didn’t happen.

However I found myself rather agreeing with this commentator who admitted himself bewildered, from a liberal point of view, at the sheer lack of theological thought in Synod. Perhaps the Church of England’s debating chamber has never really been a place for deft and fearless analysis of the issues of the day in the light of Scripture, reason, and prayer, rather than for throwing around slogans, political manoeuvring and avoiding real questions. I don’t know enough about it. But as I heard about each of the issues above, I wondered what actual thought lay behind them.

I’ve carried out one funeral for someone who killed themselves. I have had friends who have taken their own lives, and more who have attempted to do so, and have experienced what the psychologists call ‘suicidal ideation’ myself. Understanding as I am, though, it isn’t an unproblematic manner. Often, those who are left behind experience grief with a particular hue of anger and conflict, and the old liturgical restrictions seemed to recognise that. It seems to me that this sense of the uniquely problematic nature of suicide, somehow, needs to be recognised within the liturgy of a funeral service in the same way that it’s appropriate to recognise that a second marriage inevitably involves breakage and damage.

I also have transgender friends. Some have engaged in transition treatment, some are happy to remain biologically one sex while identifying with the other. What does it mean to ‘affirm’ them and their experience in church? Why should this be anything to do with the Church, anyway? What aspect of the Gospel does it illustrate? Are we suggesting some sort of rite-of-passage liturgy on the analogy of other ceremonies such as marriage and baptism, and thus misunderstanding the role of the Church as one of just hallowing whatever human beings do, smoothing the rough points of our lives with a bit of ritual? How does it fit in with a Christian understanding of human identity as something given to us by God, rather than something we choose?

Wanting to be nice to people is not a bad thing. It's a place to start. But we need to rely on something more than just our finer feelings, if only because feelings are so susceptible to change. For all their incorrectness, the conservatives are right to ask for something less thin and jejune.

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