Do you feel you’ve been asked to vote a few many time recently? Two general elections and a referendum in the last couple of years have tried the patience of many. But over the last few days at the General Synod of the Church of England I have voted more times than I have the patience to count. There was a period on Saturday evening when I think we voted five times in a half an hour period on just one controversial motion and a variety of complex amendments.
The headlines will have made it all sound very simple: “Synod bans gay conversion therapy” and “Anglicans welcome transgender people.” And so when the voting records are published it will be very easy for many to vilify Synod members like myself who voted against the motions behind both those positive-sounding headlines. How can any Christian vote to continue electronic shock treatment of vulnerable LGBT people or turn young trans teenagers away from our doors?!
Why I voted against
Except that I only voted against the motion to ban conversion therapy because there was no clear definition of what exactly we were banning. Plenty of appalling past practices were movingly shared and if the motion had been specific enough to give me a chance to clearly condemn such damaging behaviour I would have gladly taken it. Instead ambiguity was allowed to develop about what we were trying to get rid of – would responsible prayer ministry and every day pastoral care of LGBT people be affected by the ban? We were told not, but given no guarantees, and without such clarity I couldn’t support a motion that could undermine the church’s future loving care of people like me.
If the motion had been specific enough to give me a chance to clearly condemn such damaging behaviour I would have gladly taken it.
Sitting in the debate (and constantly seeking to speak in it) was obviously especially hard for someone who experiences same-sex attraction myself and so can more easily imagine the acute pain the errors of the past and present have caused many of my sisters and brothers in Christ. I have personally chosen the path of celibacy as the Biblically orthodox response but also acknowledge that the attitudes and treatments most commonly associated with gay conversion therapy are just wrong. The last thing I wanted to do is to be seen to want to preserve them. But I did want to protect the freedom of people like me to access prayer and pastoral care from Christian leaders without them living in fear as to what they can or cannot say or do.
My colleague Sean Doherty tabled an amendment to the main motion that would have ensured this – sadly it was defeated by a Synod that often seems to have more of an eye for the short-lived headline or tweet than the more nuanced approach that will better help us all in the long-term.
This behaviour was sadly repeated on the Sunday when we voted on a motion to both welcome transgender people to our churches and ask our bishops to consider providing new liturgy for them. What’s the problem with that you might ask? Surely Christian churches should be welcoming all? Yes! I’d have voted for a motion that just said that. But the Church of England (for better, for worse) does so much of its theology through its liturgy and it was again left unclear as to what we were asking our bishops to do.
It was again left unclear as to what we were asking our bishops to do.
How could we request them to come up with new services when we (like many in society around us) have yet to get our minds around the incredibly complex experience of the growing number of people experiencing gender dysphoria? Again a more nuanced amendment failed to gather enough support and - threatened with potentially being responsible for the suicide of a young York student - Synod voted for a simplistic alternative.
Why not stand down?
So why do I keep voting? After a weekend of not just being on the losing side but on what will be perceived by many as the morally wrong side why do I keep turning up? Well because I don’t believe that you can rightly criticise a process and people that you haven’t made every effort to engage with. So I’ll be back for more voting. Spare a prayer for a bit more patience.
Ed Shaw is a lay member of the General Synod of the Church of England representing the Diocese of Bristol and is a co-founder of www.livingout.org