Thursday, 16 February 2017

Genesis 1:27 General Synod

Genesis 1:27

What might it mean then to be made in God's image? Look around you and notice that we are all different, young, younger and very young, round, less round and not round. It cannot be about how we look! Sometimes we struggle to remember the beauty and depth of that assertion made at the very beginning of the Bible, at the very beginning of creation that using the King James Version: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him."

In the Hebrew it would  have been clear that "image" meant the whole person, much more than looks it included even then, the powers of thought, communication and feeling. Genesis tells us that we each have God within us. When we look at one another, when I look at my son who has not picked up his clothes from the bathroom, has hoarded the towels crumpled in his bedroom, has used all the hot water, has squashed the soap into a ball, has left the bath unfit for for public viewing .....and that is only a catalogue of one room's irritations, when I look at my son there is God in there. God is in all of us. Now, God made human beings to love that they might love him and love one another.

Last week at General Synod both of these ideas were deployed in vigorous debate - that we are all made in God's image and that we should love one another. From your reading of the news you may have been brought to doubt that these things were present. The Guardian headline was "Turmoil as Synod rejects report on same sex relationships" and similar ones were to be found elsewhere together with excitement that the archbishop of Canterbury had been dealt a blow to his authority.

Let me take you into the chamber with me to tell you what happened. Before the debate began, a debate that had been extended by request of the members, from the original schedule to accommodate the many who wanted to speak we had met in small groups of half a dozen with one of the bishops to work through some examples of pastoral situations together and to talk about our reactions to the report.

The bell rang, the chamber was packed to capacity and the public gallery filled with journalists and cameras. The golden covered chairs are reasonably comfortable but small and close together - you know who your neighbour is. The bishops of Norwich and Willesden presented the report with an explanation of their intent and an apology for any offence and pain that it had caused to sections of the community and the synod. The debate began, more than 160 people had asked to speak, myself among them, and the atmosphere was expectant. I was not fortunate to be called to speak but Synod was fortunate to have very many  high quality thoughtful and passionate contributions. The passion though did not stop everyone being courteous to one another, it did not stop anyone listening - there is no waving of order papers, no noises off as there is in the other place just round the corner. Two hours of creative and persuasive oratory.

The motion in front of the house was "that this synod takes note of this report." I have to tell you what that means: ' Voting to ‘take note’ of a report such as this does not commit Synod members to the acceptance of any matter contained within it' which you may think rather a strange thing to arrive at after two hours of discussion but that is how the standing orders of the synod define a take note debate. The vote was counted using electronic devices, there is a short pause for the computer to work before the result is announced. The result was heard with the proper silence and gravity - no cheering or clapping or groans of disappointment.

The house of bishops unanimously (save one who pressed the wrong button on his voting machine) took note of their own report, the house of laity took note of the report but the house of clergy voted not to. As with everything there were shades of opinion why to vote for or to vote against but in essence the view of many colleagues was that any work proposed would benefit from more thought given to the starting point and from a more kindly worded report. In short for some it went too far and for others it did not go far enough. There was no turmoil.

In responding Justin Welby issued the following statement:

"No person is a problem, or an issue. People are made in the image of God. All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ. There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people.

How we deal with the real and profound disagreement - put so passionately and so clearly by many at the Church of England’s General Synod debate on marriage and same-sex relationships today - is the challenge we face as people who all belong to Christ.

To deal with that disagreement, to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual.

We need to work together - not just the bishops but the whole Church, not excluding anyone - to move forward with confidence.

The vote today is not the end of the story, nor was it intended to be. As bishops we will think again and go on thinking, and we will seek to do better. We could hardly fail to do so in the light of what was said this afternoon.

The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ - all of us, without exception, without exclusion."