Church of England Synod Struggles with Sexuality Document and Reorganization

Episcopal News Service. December 12, 1995 [95-1328]

(ENS) Opening the sixth General Synod of the Church of England on November 28, Queen Elizabeth II called attention to the "painstaking care" with which the synod had tried in the past to "accommodate and hold together people of all opinions." She added that, "since its earliest days, the Christian Church has wrestled with issues where opinions are as deeply held as they are divided." And she expressed her hope that "your faith, friendship and common purpose will, I pray, be strong and durable as you show what St. Paul meant when he urged Christians to speak the truth to one another in love."

The agenda tested those bonds as the synod struggled with the implications of a report that urged tolerance of different lifestyles -- and considered proposals for a drastic reorganization of church structures.

The day the synod prepared to debate the controversial report, "Something to Celebrate," that argued everyone should find a place of welcome in the church, no matter what their sexual lifestyle, it heard a warning from a senior ecumenical leader.

Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, said that many churches were "deeply divided and even threatened in their unity in the face of conflicts about the ethics of life, of procreation and sexuality." He warned that the "unity of the church and the quality of its life as an inclusive community" were at stake.

Church must affirm family life

Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey strongly attacked the study document because it had not focused clearly enough on the traditional family. He said that the report left the impression that "no single form of the family" was a God-given ideal. While the church should "serve people with humility and respect, whatever their circumstances," he added that "this does not diminish the wisdom and truth of the Christian tradition that a married man and woman and their children should be the basic building blocks for family life." Severed from lifelong total commitment, "sexual activity becomes potentially destructive, the source of untold pain, indignity and social breakdowns," Carey contended.

The synod passed an amendment affirming the church's belief in marriage while noting the variety of family relationships.

Bishop Jim Thompson of Bath and Wells, one of the chief authors of the report, reminded synod members that it was intended for study, not as an official teaching, and argued that it reflected the reality of inner city life.

Reorganization plan proceeds

A proposal to drastically streamline the governing mechanisms of the church survived some stiff opposition and will be revised and returned for further debate next February.

The Turnbull Commission, named for its chair, Bishop Michael Turnbull of Durham, proposed a National Council with broad executive powers under the leadership of the archbishops of Canterbury and York. "Leadership, policy direction and strategic and executive responsibility are too fragmented and weak," Turnbull said during the debate. "The church at the national level clearly needs to work better as one body, not as some kind of dismembered jellyfish. Staying as we are and trying to tread water is not an option," he said.

Others challenged the proposals for what they perceived as too much centralization. "Are we moving towards a powerful center that will not need to listen to what the parishes are saying and will not hear the voices of the people in the pews?" asked Canon John Stanley of Liverpool, expressing the fears of a "top-down" church. Attempts to slow the process, however, failed by a vote of 239 to 167 but there was enough opposition to suggest that the final proposals will be modified to insure grassroots support.