by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 38 - Jul 2010

The second half of 2010 is proving a significant time for the Church of England's governing body, General Synod.

The first of three significant events may have already happened by the time you read this. Early in July, Synod votes on women bishops. There is a consensus that we should allow them, but much debate over the small print. Will women bishops have the same rights and responsibilities as their male counterparts, or will they be hedged about with conditions?

The second is the next set of elections to General Synod. Members are elected every five years, and the voting will take place this autumn. As the Church of England, like many churches, polarises between liberals and conservatives the new intake could make a big difference - for better or worse.

Thirdly, the new Synod will be confronted with a major decision at its first meeting in November. One of the items to be debated is the proposed Anglican Covenant, which the MCU has been opposing. This Covenant is an attempt to make international Anglicanism more centralised and hierarchical; opponents of gay and lesbian sexuality want to establish a formal division, so that provinces which refuse to condemn it can be treated as 'second track'.

The MCU doesn't have its own set of beliefs. We have no 'doctrinal statement' of our own. Instead we encourage open and honest searching for truth, and this means allowing people with divergent views to belong, explain their reasoning, and respond to those who disagree. One thing we do believe is that open and honest debate is the best framework for learning. In every field of human interest we learn from each other, and this is as true in matters of religion as in all else. It is right and proper to subject religious beliefs, like all other beliefs, to examination and ask whether they stand up to the evidence.

This does not mean there are no rules, still less that 'anything goes'. Those who believe in open enquiry need to defend it against those who would join in and then subvert it. Those who believe in toleration need to keep a close eye on how much they should tolerate the intolerant.

Much of the recent polarisation between 'conservatives' and 'liberals' boils down to this issue. In any one setting - whether a church or an Alpha course or a pub - do we have 'permission' to question what others believe and come up with new ideas, or are we expected to toe the line, on pain of being made to feel we don't belong? All too often people feel that in order to count as Christians they must believe what they are told - in which case there will be no place for new ideas. In fact, though, Christianity has always been changing and developing.

So we think questions like whether we should have women bishops, or gay bishops, should be judged by open discussion, taking into account whatever arguments and evidence are relevant. They should not be closed down by simple appeals to biblical texts. (Nobody obeys all the commands in the Bible. There are many hundreds, and precious few people know what they all are.) This does not mean we sit on the fence. Most MCU members very much support both women bishops and gay bishops, and we have invested heavily in supporting both.

There is a growing collection of relevant material on our website. A recent piece is my talk to the Annual General Meeting of the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod (GRAS) on 15th May 2010. The main focus was on why we're opposing the Anglican Covenant. In response to a discussion on the matter, there is another, shorter, article detailing the implications for women's ministry.

Also on the website is a reply to the Bishop of Durham's Presidential Addresson 21st May, responding to his arguments in favour of the Covenant.

The proposed Anglican Covenant is designed to distinguish between 'first track' and 'second track' parts of the Anglican Communion. 'Second track' provinces will be the ones which refuse to condemn gay and lesbian sexuality, and the intention is to exclude them from various bodies. On 23rd May the Archbishop of Canterbury's 'Pentecost Letter' indicated his wish to exclude them forthwith, without waiting for the Covenant to be approved. This has already been implemented: the Anglican church of the USA has been expelled from an ecumenical committee. We've written to ask how this can be justified. At the time of writing, we are yet to receive a response.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.