There is perhaps nothing more challenging in mission than the proclamation of the gospel to those who have never heard it, in a foreign land, in an unfamiliar culture, in a different language; in short, when doing theology in the context of mission. This is true in any socio-cultural milieu, where the predominant challenge is the necessity for ‘unlearning’ Western theologies in order to render the gospel relevant to the receptor culture. In his book ‘A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation‘, Gustavo Gutiérrez highlights the importance of the cultural context for the very definition of the gospel in the developing Two-Thirds World: “What is the meaning of faith in a life committed to the struggle for justice?” he asks. One may similarly ask in the decadent West: ‘What is the meaning of sin in a society where morality is relative?’ Only by asking such questions can the gospel be communicated in the linguistic, social, politico-economic, and religious context of the hearers. For those who do mission and take the task seriously, besides having to adapt a personal lifestyle to the local way of life, there are frequently cultural practices which are at odds with Christian faith and ethics, and fundamental theological differences between Christianity and the indigenous religion (/culture). The challenges are formidable.
This preamble is necessary to understand what is going on in the Church of England, whose General Synod is due to meet for its latest deliberations between 5th-10th February 2018. Private Members’ Motions (PMMs) are circulated to Synod members in the hope of garnering the requisite number of signatures to be chosen for debate:
Any member of the General Synod can write and submit a PMM. In order to decide whether a PMM should be put on the General Synod’s agenda the Business Committee requires a minimum of 100 expressions of interest in support for the motion to be debated in the form of signatures. By putting their name to particular motions, members are signalling that they think they should be debated. Information on how Synod members can sign PMMs can be found on the Members’ Resources page.
When putting together the agenda for the next meeting of the Synod, the Business Committee thinks about the number of signatures each motion has received. Generally there is only space for one or two PMMs to be debated in each meeting of the General Synod (group of sessions). While the motion with the most signatures is often the one selected there can be reasons for selecting another that has also attracted considerable support (it might, for example, be more time-critical).
Once a motion has been open for signature for three groups of sessions, if it has not attracted 100 signatures, it expires.
You will see from the illustration above that only one PMM has reached the requisite number of signatures for the February 2018 session, so the General Synod of the Church of England is likely once again to be debating ‘Same sex relationships after the Shared Conversations’:
Mr Anthony Archer (St Albans) to move:
‘That this Synod:
(i) having participated in the concluding stages of the Shared Conversations on scripture, mission and human sexuality; and
(ii) noting the reaction to the report Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations (GS 2055)
request the House of Bishops to bring for debate by July 2018 a set of forward looking proposals on same-sex relationships (such as proposals to be developed by a broadly-based group representing the diversity of views on Synod and in the wider Church) that will command confidence by:
(a) affirming the positive contribution that LGBTI Christians make in the life of the Church; and
(b) reflecting the differing interpretations of scripture.’
This PMM garnered a whopping 122 signatures: Synod has chosen to do debate this matter above ‘Biblical understanding of marriage and sexual relationships’:
Mr Edward Shaw (Bristol) to move:
‘That this Synod, convinced that all people without exception are loved by God and made in His image and are invited to fullness of life through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, affirm:
(a) its rejection of the fear or dislike of anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation.
(b) the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’s ministry and message to all people: “The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
(c) that marriage, as defined by Jesus, is the lifelong sexual union of a man and a woman.
(d) that both those who marry and those who are single, as Jesus Himself was, can enjoy Christ-like relationships and the fullness of life which He offers all.
(e) that all Christians should repent of any sexual activity outside marriage, in the assurance of God’s loving forgiveness in Christ.
(f) that all God’s holy people are called to live out this calling, for their own good and for the life of the world they are called to serve.’
This PMM garnered a tantalising 97 signatures, just three short of the requisite number. Only 14 Synod members were more exercised by the inclusion of the disabled than yet another interminable debate about same-sex relations; and just eight were bothered about supporting entrepreneurship – you know, innovation, investment and jobs for the good of families and the community. Shockingly, Synod also manifestly supports yet another interminable debate about same-sex relations above ‘Responding well to survivors of sexual abuse’:
The Revd Canon Rosie Harper (Oxford) to move:
‘That this Synod unreservedly condemn the sexual abuse of children, young people and adults and request that an urgent review of the Church’s current safeguarding policies and practices on responding well to survivors of sexual abuse be conducted in order to ascertain whether they provide a sufficient and Christian response that puts the needs of the survivor first.’
This was such an anodyne PMM that it’s difficult to understand why it only attracted 77 signatures. You might argue that it was so apple-pie as to be positively narcotic, but that’s when Synod members may propose amendments to beef it up, and some members may have intended to do so. Or you may be of the view that Canon Rosie Harper comes with certain baggage, and so to support her PMM is to affirm everything she stands for. Perhaps, to adapt the maxim of Marshall McLuhan, the member is the message. But (pace the beliefs of the Bishop of Buckingham) it is entirely possible to (robustly) disagree with someone while respecting their arguments, motives and personal integrity. Yet this laudable PMM also fails to make the February 2018 session. Honestly, how can the General Synod of the Church of England not believe that justice for the sexually abused trumps yet another interminable debate about same-sex relations?
The answer perhaps lies in the PMM ‘Encouraging youth evangelism’:
Canon Mark Russell (Sheffield) to move:
‘That this Synod:
(a) affirm the importance of evangelism to and with younger people, recognising that many parishes and fresh expressions of church are doing excellent work with young people;
(b) commend the work of Diocesan Youth Officers and the staff of the National Church Institutions in inspiring the wider Church in youth evangelism;
(c) support dioceses in investing resources to create more youth ministry posts across the Church; and
(d) encourage dioceses and parishes to consider fresh ways to reach young people with the good news of Jesus Christ and to nurture them as Christian disciples.’
Canon Mark Russell comes with no baggage: he is the universally respected CEO of the Church Army and very highly qualified in this area of mission:
Mark was re-elected to the General Synod in November 2015 and then elected to the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. He is a member of the Archbishops’ College of Evangelists and an Honorary Canon of Worcester Cathedral. He sits on the Council of Reference for Youth for Christ and is a member of the Archbishops’ Task Group on evangelism…
He has a passion for young people, and for making the gospel known to them, and yet his PMM attracted just 79 signatures, and so also fails to make the agenda of the February 2018 session.
Yes, the General Synod of the Church of England opts for yet another interminable debate about same-sex relations over and above reaching young people with the good news of Jesus Christ and nurturing them as Christian disciples.
For some reason, Church House doesn’t put publish PMM signatories (unlike, for example, the House of Commons, where constituents may see which Early Day Motions [EDMs] their MPs have signed). This is odd, not least because the Church of England is the national church and established: every member elected to the General Synod is not there to serve their own ends and agendas, but to serve their dioceses and parishioners, which is all of us. So, for the sake of transparency and in the interests of accountability, here are those 122 Synod members who voted for yet another interminable debate about same-sex relations, ensuring (once again) that the world will perceive a church obsessed by issues of gender, sex and sexuality:
Ah, you may say, PMMs aren’t a manichæan either/or: Synod members may vote both to encourage youth evangelism and same-sex relations. Indeed, Canon Rosie Harper did, and so also did Canon Mark Russell. And so did a whole host of other honourable members – perhaps because i) they believe the success (or otherwise) of the Church of England in youth evangelism is contingent on its positive response to same-sex relations; or ii) they intended to submit an amendment to the same-sex relations PMM to incorporate aspects of Edward Shaw’s ‘Biblical understanding of marriage and sexual relationships’ PMM. And so we return to Gutiérrez and the pervasive cultural context. Just what exactly is the meaning of sin in a society where morality is relative? Alas, Synod will not be debating that contentious point next February: all we are left with is the reality of yet another interminable debate about same-sex relations, while the youth can go to hell.