General Synod Debate on Sexuality

 Dear Friends

The turmoil of the General Synod debate last Wednesday has left many evangelicals asking what we should now do. The purpose of this letter is to answer that question by saying: ‘stand firm and keep steady.’

Where has the debate left us?

As you know I was part of the Reflection Group that produced the House of Bishops’ report. I felt it would have been beneficial for Synod to have taken note of it, simply because of its take home message on marriage and the undesirability of altering any Church of England liturgy. However, the report contained many ambiguities and its approach was not one of looking at Scripture first and only then drawing conclusions. I tried to reflect this in my public statement at the time of its publication. The report’s failure is not a great loss, and the Reflection Group has been disbanded.

Formally, the Church of England is now left exactly where it was before: with a clear doctrine of marriage and the 1987 ‘Higton’ motion emphasizing the need for chastity outside marriage. However, in practice, the synodical debate revealed very clearly how much pressure there is for a change to the Church of England’s position – and therefore the danger we are in. That said, the debate also revealed bravery, courtesy and steadfastness amongst the (mainly) evangelicals keen to remain faithful to Scripture, which is a source of real encouragement. Additionally, the voting demonstrated that Synod is nowhere near being able to change our canons – since that would require a two-thirds majority in each House.

What may happen in the future?

 It now seems likely that as a result of the debate, three things will happen: first, there will be a number of ‘Private Members Motions’ (PPMs) advocating different proposals for change, although the Archbishops have also said there will be a general debate at some stage on marriage and sexuality; secondly, work will take place in the House of Bishops on a new teaching document on the whole area of sexuality; and thirdly a new group, chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle, will advise dioceses on pastoral practice. These developments might fill us with dismay because the trajectory seems to be towards overt affirmation of sexual relations outside marriage, as marriage is defined in the New Testament. In these circumstances, the words of Paul to Timothy are appropriate for us. In facing up to false teaching and practices which ‘have a form of godliness but denying its power’ (2 Tim 3:5), Timothy is told to:

  • stand firm in matters of fellowship (2 Tim 3:5 – this is a communion-breaking issue) and teaching (‘continue in what you have learned’ – 2 Tim 3:14)
  • keep steady in behaviour (in the face of those who will not put up with sound doctrine, Timothy is to ‘keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.’ – 2 Tim 4:3-5)

How do we do this?

Although there may be a sufficient presence in the General Synod to prevent our canons being changed or our liturgy altered, teaching and guidance from the House of Bishops is not subject to Synodical scrutiny. There is, therefore, the real possibility of practices being commended from which we may need to distance ourselves. We all draw lines in different places, but four positive steps are now needed:

  • Renew our commitment to the ReNew agenda of building more gospel proclaiming churches (pioneering, establishing and securing them). At the moment we can do this with integrity in the Church of England – and while that door is open, we should seek to reform the Church by sending more people into ministry, and by growing congregations – primarily for the sake of the gospel, but also so that we can grow our presence on deanery and diocesan synods and thus counter ungodly developments.
  • Support our General Synod members by praying for them as they seek to counter the pressure brought in debates and by avoiding any temptation to criticise, because decisions on voting are often tactical and do not necessarily provide opportunities to express doctrinal convictions.
  • Consider issues of communion seriously. We need to work and pray with other evangelicals about how to express our communion both positively with fellow-believers and negatively with those who do not believe the Bible’s descriptions of sin and salvation. This will require effective leadership and will take time to develop. We must, on the one hand avoid being drawn bit by bit into a syncretistic approach which treats these issues as non-gospel issues, and on the other not be rushed into ill-considered action that diminishes our ability to establish new gospel work.
  • Support GAFCON (UK) since by so doing we endorse the Jerusalem Declaration (which is clear on sexuality) and express fellowship with Anglicans worldwide who seek to stand for biblical faithfulness.

Keep going!

 It follows from what I have said that I do not believe we should lose heart or act in a way that abandons the Church of England. Its doctrine is what we believe. Its governance prevents any one person or group from having too much influence. It is still, as a Times leader recently said, ‘the church of the nation.’ The fact is that this treasure also requires protecting – and contending for the gospel has always been required of godly believers. As Paul said to Timothy in speaking of the gospel: ‘guard the deposit entrusted to you.’ (1 Tim 6:20). However, the gospel is the issue and our ability to hold it out and put it into practice must be the primary consideration in any action we take.

With love in Christ

Rod Thomas
Bishop of Maidstone